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Bush's Bubble Breached

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 10, 2007; 4:30 PM

The significant breach in the Bush Bubble being widely reported today may be a sign that the president can no longer count on members of his own party to shield him from the ugly realities he has created.

The war in Iraq, and to a lesser extent the U.S. attorney firings, appear to be driving some previously protective Republicans to call it like they see it -- and where Bush can hear it.

Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "House Republican moderates, in a remarkably blunt White House meeting, warned President Bush this week that his pursuit of the war in Iraq is risking the future of the Republican Party and that he cannot count on GOP support for many more months.

"The meeting, which ran for an hour and a half Tuesday afternoon, was disclosed by participants yesterday. . . .

"'It was a very remarkable, candid conversation,' [Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.)] said. 'People are always saying President Bush is in a bubble. Well, this was our chance, and we took it.' . . .

"Participants in Tuesday's White House meeting said frustration about the Iraqi government's efforts dominated the conversation. . . . The House members pressed Bush and Gates hard for a 'Plan B' if the current troop increase fails to quell the violence and push along political reconciliation. Davis said that administration officials convinced him there are contingency plans, but that the president declined to offer details, saying that if he announced his backup plan, the world would shift its focus to that contingency, leaving the current strategy no time to succeed. . . .

"[Presidential press secretary Tony] Snow, who sat in on the meeting in the president's private quarters, said it should not be overdramatized or seen as another 'marching up to Nixon,' a reference to the critical moment during Watergate in 1974 when key congressional Republicans went to the White House to tell President Richard M. Nixon that it was time to resign.

"'This is not one of those great cresting moments when party discontents are coming in to read the president the riot act,' he said. But Snow acknowledged that the meeting included some blunt, if respectful, discussion."

Here is video of Tim Russert describing the meeting to Brian Williams on NBC: "'Brian, all eyes on the Republican Party. How long will they support the president's position on the Iraq war?

"Yesterday may have been the defining, pivotal moment. At 2:30 in the afternoon, in the private quarters of the White House, the solarium room, 11 Republican congressmen had a private meeting with the president, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the chief political advisor, Karl Rove, and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and others. This delegation was headed by Mark Kirk of Illinois and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania.

"It was, in the words of one of the participants, the most unvarnished conversation they've ever had with the president. Another member said he has met with three presidents and never been so candid. They told the president, and one said, quote, 'My district is prepared for defeat. We need candor. We need honesty, Mr. President.' The president responded, 'I don't want to pass this off to another president. I don't want to pass this off, particularly, to a Democratic president' -- underscoring he understood how serious the situation was.

"Brian, the Republican congressman went on to say, 'The word about the war and its progress cannot come from the White House or even you, Mr. President. There's no longer any credibility. It has to come from Gen. Petraeus.'"

Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times: "The White House session demonstrated the grave unease many Republicans are feeling about the war, even as they continue to stand with the president against Democratic efforts to force a withdrawal of forces through a spending measure that has been a flash point for weeks."

Jim Tankersley and Mark Silva quote another attendee, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), in the Chicago Tribune: "I've been to a lot of meetings at the White House. I've been to a lot of meetings with the president about the war. This was one of the toughest, frankest, no-holds-barred meetings in terms of the members who were there giving their assessment of where they think things are in their district and the country."

Tankersley and Silva continue: "The Republicans told Bush they had little faith in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki 'to get his act together' and expected a 'very candid report' from Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, on the progress of Iraq's government this fall, LaHood said.

"'We want a very candid report in September,' LaHood said. 'We don't want politics mixed into it. And the way forward after September, if the report is not good, is going to be very, very difficult.'"

On CNN this morning, LaHood told John Roberts: "There were 11 members there and I think each member expressed in a little different way, but the theme was the same -- the American people are war fatigued. The American people want to know that there's a way out. The American people want to know that we're having success, either the government or our men and women who are doing the hard work. It's not reflected on the television screens and it's not reflected in the numbers, particularly as the surge begins. People are very war weary and that's going to be reflected in peoples' opinions, much stronger in the fall, I believe.

"ROBERTS: Congressman LaHood, what was the president's reaction to what you told him?

"LAHOOD: He listened very carefully. I think he was a little -- I don't know if surprised is the right word, probably maybe sobered. The fact is that, I don't know if he's gotten that kind of opinion before in such a frank and no holds barred way but he was very sober about it and he listened very intently. Frankly, he wasn't defensive. I think he appreciated the fact that people were willing to really open up and give it to him."

And what was the takeaway from this pivotal meeting? Brian Williams asked Russert: "How then did this affect the instructions for Vice President Cheney, heading off to Iraq?"

Russert replied: "One congressman said, 'How can our daughters and sons spill their blood while the Iraqi parliament goes on vacation?' The president responded, 'The vice president is over there to tell them: "Do not go on vacation."'"

White House Watch reader Mark Fox e-mails me to say he doesn't think it's a coincidence that this breach of the bubble took place while Vice President Cheney was out of town: "My feeling is the 'Tuesday Group' choose a day when the VP was unavailable so that they could get their unvarnished message into and thru the 'Bush Bubble.' With Cheney gone, they wouldn't be bullied, and they could speak their mind.

"Maybe the GOP isn't afraid of President Bush; it could be they are only afraid of crossing the VP."

The Case of the U.S. Attorneys

And consider how far these two Republicans have come from being deferential to the Bush White House.

David Bowermaster writes in the Seattle Times: "Two former U.S. attorneys said today they believe ongoing investigations into the dismissals last year of eight federal prosecutors could result in criminal charges against senior Justice Department officials.

"John McKay, the former U.S. attorney for Western Washington, and David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney for New Mexico, also said they believe White House political operative Karl Rove and his aides instigated the dismissals and ultimately decided who among the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys should be fired. . . .

"'It seems that given that no one takes credit at the Justice Department, that it can only be coming from one place, and that very strongly means the White House,' McKay said. . . .

"'The people that would have a voice in this would be Karl Rove, [Rove aide] Scott Jennings, [former White House counsel] Harriet Miers, probably, yes,' [Iglesias] said. 'But it's hard for me to say "yes," [without] looking at those e-mails and memos that are probably out there and missing that this is what they said on this date about John and me and my colleagues.

"'But that would explain why the wagons are so tightly circled,' Iglesias added. . . .

"McKay said he began to have concerns about politics entering the Justice Department in early 2005, when Gonzales addressed all of the country's U.S. attorneys in Scottsdale, Ariz., shortly after he took over as attorney general.

"'His first speech to us was a "you work for the White House" speech,' McKay recalled. . . .

"McKay said he thought at the time, 'He couldn't have meant that speech,' given the traditional independence of U.S. Attorneys. 'It turns out he did.'"

Gonzales Day on the Hill

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is testifying before the House Judiciary Committee today.

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Democrats are shifting their attention on the botched firings of eight federal prosecutors from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' fitness to head the Justice Department to the White House role in the dismissals. . . .

"House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers . . . . said the bigger question is who put together and approved the list that caused the eight U.S. attorneys to lose their jobs."

Mark Benjamin and Walter Shapiro write in Salon: "Conyers declared in a statement to Salon, 'We've reviewed thousands of pages of documents and heard from the attorney general and seven Justice Department officials. But a very basic question remains unanswered: Who created the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired and why were they chosen? And it seems -- since no one in the Justice Department claims to have made these decisions -- that all roads lead to the White House.'"

Meanwhile, David Johnston and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales appears increasingly confident that he will survive the crisis over the dismissal of federal prosecutors, as White House aides who view him as a liability see little point in trying to persuade President Bush to push him out, administration officials and Republican allies said.

"Though Mr. Gonzales is considered in Congress and in legal circles as an isolated and diminished figure, he has told aides he believes he has weathered the storm. He is expected to testify on Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee about his department's dismissals last year of several United States attorneys.

"Republicans close to the White House say that top aides to the president -- including Karl Rove, the chief political strategist, and Fred F. Fielding, the White House counsel -- have privately expressed misgivings about Mr. Gonzales but now appear to have lined up behind Mr. Bush. . . .

"A Republican strategist familiar with Mr. Rove's thinking said that Mr. Rove, the president's chief political adviser, 'believes it's in the best interest of the president for Gonzales on his own to resign.' But, this person said, Mr. Rove and other like-minded aides have concluded that 'there's nothing they can do -- it's about the relationship between Gonzales and the president.'"

Robert Schmidt writes for Bloomberg: "There are greater risks for President George W. Bush in cutting Gonzales loose than keeping him, say some Washington insiders and political strategists. . . .

"In a confirmation battle over Gonzales's successor, the Democratic-controlled Senate would gain new leverage to obtain confidential memos from the Republican administration. That could mean more embarrassment for Bush and possibly more serious jeopardy for such aides as Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser.

"A further risk for Bush would be finding an acting attorney general with unquestioned loyalty and not someone who might cooperate in congressional investigations."

Attorneys Nine and Ten

Amy Goldstein and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "The former U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., Todd P. Graves, said yesterday that he was asked to step down from his job by a senior Justice Department official in January 2006, months before eight other federal prosecutors would be fired by the Bush administration."

Eric Lipton writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Graves said he had taken at least three stands on cases that may have alienated officials in Washington, adding, 'I guess to them I wasn't a team player or something.'

"Two of those cases involved the civil rights division, which has been a focus of Congressional investigators because of accusations that it has become more partisan in the Bush administration, pushing Republican causes. In one case, Mr. Graves said, the civil rights division had wanted him to sue the State of Missouri for what federal officials thought was its failure to purge voter registration roles of people who had died, changed addresses or left the state.

"Mr. Graves said he believed the suit would not succeed because local governments are responsible for registration records. After his refusal to sign off, the lawsuit was authorized by Bradley J. Schlozman, then the acting chief in the civil rights division in Washington. The department named Mr. Schlozman as Mr. Graves's interim successor.

"The administration saw such lawsuits as a way to combat voter fraud. But Democrats have said the lawsuits were politically motivated because poor and elderly voters were more likely to be taken off registration rolls.

"The lawsuit was dismissed when a federal judge concluded that the state could not enforce the purging of local voter registration rolls. . . .

"Mr. Graves said that in retrospect, he might have been seen as too independent and unwilling to push causes important to the Republican Party unless he felt action was merited by his reading of the law.

"'As a prosecutor, I was always fiercely independent,' he said. 'I just called balls and strikes.'"

Richard B. Schmitt and Tom Hamburger write in the Los Angeles Times: "Among other topics, members of the House Judiciary Committee are expected to ask Gonzales about turmoil in the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota, where a young lawyer, Rachel Paulose, has generated controversy since she was named in 2006 to replace a department veteran, Tom Heffelfinger, who had served under both President Bush and his father."

Cheney in Iraq

Joshua Partlow writes in The Washington Post about Cheney's stop in Iraq at the start of a weeklong Middle East trip. (See yesterday's column.)

"At a news conference. . . . Cheney said his discussions with U.S. military and Iraqi officials suggested that sectarian violence was declining in Iraq but that the situation remained precarious. . . .

"Cheney pressed for movement on key political issues such as revising the constitution, passing legislation to manage oil revenue and fostering cooperation between Sunnis and Shiites, according to Iraqi officials. . . .

"During his day in Baghdad, Cheney also met with Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni who is one of Iraq's two vice presidents. At the meeting, Hashimi asked for the release of detainees who are languishing in custody without being charged and called for greater Sunni participation in the Shiite-led government, according to Ayad al-Samarrae, a parliament member from Hashimi's political party. Sunni leaders recently threatened to step down from the government if they do not see more cooperation.

"'We don't want to destroy the political process, we don't want to blackmail the others, but at the same time we can't be responsible for great mistakes in the process,' Samarrae said. 'We feel we are slipping toward a dictatorship once again.'"

John F. Burns writes in the New York Times: "In remarks to reporters after his meeting with Mr. Cheney, Prime Minister Maliki appeared reluctant to offer any public assurance that the Iraqi political process would be accelerated. Always enigmatic, Mr. Maliki has pledged before to speed up the reconciliation process, only to back away almost immediately, leaving American officials unsure whether he has been deterred by fear of criticism from hard-line Shiites or by more Machiavellian motives."

In a pool report this morning, Todd J. Gillman of the Dallas Morning News writes: "The vice president spent the night in Iraq -- the first time he has done so, making him the top ranking administration official to spend the night in Iraq. He slept in 'distinguished visitors quarters' at Camp Speicher, a sprawling desert post seven miles from Tikrit.

"A security blackout has been in effect since we left Baghdad Wednesday night, precluding any pool report until now."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press this morning: "Cheney spoke to several thousand mostly Army forces in a huge tent that is scheduled to be a gymnasium. He was enthusiastically cheered and greeted when he stepped up on stage, but only politely applauded when he talked about deployment extensions."

Where Was Cheney?

Gillman writes to his colleagues: "One notable aspect of the presser was that after arriving Wednesday morning at the embassy, and having been told we could report upon arrival that the VP was there, we were later asked to refrain from reporting where he was spending the day until he'd left Baghdad. Cheney, at the presser, made this issue moot when he stated unabashedly that 'I've spent today here basically in our embassy and the military headquarters in the green zone . . . ' And it wasn't much of a secret, given that the seal behind him read, 'Embassy of the United States of America -- Baghdad, Iraq.' We were told that some Arab-language channels, among others, carried the event live."

Iraqi Pushback

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "In a sign of growing tensions between Washington and Baghdad, Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said yesterday that the United States needs to give Iraq more 'time and space' to take pivotal military and political steps and to stop making plans based on 'the Washington clock.'

"Although U.S. troops could eventually redeploy to forward bases in Iraq and the region, he said, a U.S. presence will be needed until Iraq builds not just an army, but also an air force and a navy, which could take decades."

Wright illustrates a couple of significant ways in which Rubaie is apparently lacking in reality-checking skills, however.

"Rubaie insisted that he had convinced key members of Congress that U.S. troops should be kept in Iraq until 'conditions allow,' while Democratic lawmakers said they emphasized to Rubaie the urgent need for Iraq to do more politically to reconcile the Sunni and Shiite factions and to get ready for U.S. troop withdrawals."

And, similarly: "Rubaie said Iraq has only one enemy -- al-Qaeda and its affiliates. 'Portraying the scene there as Shiite killing Sunni and Sunnis killing Shiites is totally untrue,' he added."

Off Message

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that if the current U.S. military strategy showed signs of success by autumn, the Pentagon may be able to reduce the number of U.S. forces in Iraq.

"In Senate testimony, Gates acknowledged that his position apparently contradicted comments by the No. 2 military commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who has recommended that the troop buildup continue into 2008."

Gates was also a bit off message in response to a question from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) about the October 2002 resolution authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq.

William H. McMichael describes the scene in the Army Times: "'Since the government of Iraq that is referred to in the resolution no longer exists, having been replaced by a democratically elected one, do you agree that this authorization no longer applies to the ongoing conflict in Iraq?' Byrd asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who appeared before the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee to request funds for fiscal 2008.

"Gates didn't take the bait. 'I think the honest answer, Senator Byrd, is that I don't know the answer to that question.'

"'That's really honest,' replied Byrd, who along with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is leading a move to force a vote on rescinding the 2002 resolution. 'Therefore, if you don't know the answer, how does it apply if you don't know the answer?'

"Said Gates, 'Well, sir, my impression is that it's the view of the president that it still continues to authorize the actions that we are taking in Iraq.'"

Toodle to the Poodle

Kevin Sullivan writes for The Washington Post: "Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of Britain's most influential and long-serving leaders in a century, announced Thursday that he will step down on June 27, leaving behind a legacy of economic and political achievement mixed with deep public anger over his partnership with President Bush in the Iraq War. . . .

"Despite leading Labor to three national election victories, presiding over a decade of unbroken economic growth and exerting strong global leadership on issues such as climate change and poverty, Blair has not been able to escape widespread and caustic criticism in Britain that he is 'Bush's poodle.'"

Al Jazeera Watch

Kevin Sullivan also writes in The Washington Post: "Two former British government employees were convicted Wednesday of violating Britain's Official Secrets Act for leaking a transcript of a White House conversation between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush, a disclosure that prosecutors said could have jeopardized the lives of British soldiers. . . .

"In that conversation, the news agencies reported, Bush referred to bombing the headquarters of the al-Jazeera television network. U.S. officials called the report 'outlandish and inconceivable.'"

But how inconceivable is it really? The White House has never issued anything more than a non-denial denial. (See my December 2, 2005, column.)

And the National Security Archives at George Washington University on Tuesday reported: "In January 2003 Defense Department planners recommended the creation of a 'Rapid Reaction Media Team' to serve as a bridge between Iraq's formerly state-controlled news outlets and an 'Iraqi Free Media' network, according to a White Paper and PowerPoint slides that were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and are posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive. . . .

"According to the media White Paper, 'civil-military transition of the new Iraq to a broad representative government' would take '1-2 years,' and the U.S. government would establish - in 12 months - an information system that would serve 'as a model for free media in the Arab world.' To ensure that the message would be controlled, Iraq was to be provided with a 'Temporary Media Commissioner' to regulate against 'hate media.' He or she would operate in a receptive environment: the team would 'identify the media infrastructure that we need left intact, and work with CENTCOM targeteers to find alternative ways of disabling key sites.'"

On April 8, 2003, a U.S. missile hit al-Jazeera's Baghdad bureau and killed reporter Tariq Ayoub. And as Dan Schulman wrote last year for CJR Daily: "In November, 2001, at the outset of its military campaign to oust the Taliban and hunt down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, a U.S. missile leveled the Kabul bureau of the al-Jazeera television network. In his new book, The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind alleges that al-Jazeera was intentionally targeted.

"So why isn't the press paying attention?"

Bush Visits Disaster Scene

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Bush spent a little more than three hours in Greensburg, about 110 miles west of Wichita, bringing what he termed the 'prayers and concerns of the people of this country' five days after one of the most vicious tornadoes in recent memory had struck. At least 11 people were killed, and much of this farm town of about 1,500 residents was destroyed. . . .

"The visit was aimed at showing the president and the federal government leading an effective response to a terrible natural disaster, in contrast to the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But while the president and his aides said the trip was intended to show compassion, the administration could not escape the shadow of Iraq. Questions were raised this week by Kansas's Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, about the readiness of the National Guard to assist here given its extensive deployments to the war zone. . . .

"Bush took no questions as he toured Greensburg, ignoring a shouted query about Guard readiness. He said his mission was 'to lift people's spirits as best as I possibly can and to hopefully touch somebody's soul by representing our country.'"

Almacy Exits

David Almacy, the energetic White House Internet and e-communications director, is moving on. Almacy took the helm of the White House Web site and assumed responsibility for new media relations in March 2005.

He recently oversaw the redesign of the Web site, cleaning up the look and feel and adding podcasts and RSS feeds. He was also responsible for the last several Barney videos.

During Almacy's tenure, the White House press office began making occasional "blogger calls," to give friendly bloggers the heads-up on major policy moves. And just last weekend, in fact, Bush delivered a recorded statement to the 2007 MilBlog Conference. Here's the video.

Almacy said he loved his job. "It's the greatest job I ever had," he said, adding: "It's an opportunity to serve the president of the United States, a person who I believe in, a person who I respect."

But since starting at the White House, Almacy said, he and his wife have had a second daughter -- making the allure of the private sector too great to resist. Almacy's new job will be at Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft's long-time public-relations firm, where he will be vice president for digital strategies for North America.

No word yet from the White House on his successor.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "Vice President Cheney made a surprise visit to Iraq today. Great, the one place we need him firing off his gun, he doesn't bring it."

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