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Bush's Ambiguous Compromise

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 11, 2007; 2:34 PM

Is President Bush finally willing to compromise on an Iraq war-funding bill, under growing pressure even from within his own party? Or is he hoodwinking everyone with a meaningless concession while privately raging at those Republicans who went public about their confrontational meeting with him earlier this week?

CBS News was among those building a dramatic narrative of presidential reversal based on one ambiguous paragraph from Bush's remarks at the Pentagon yesterday. "In the standoff between Congress and the president over paying for the war in Iraq, the president blinked today, and it was members of his own party who forced him to do it," Katie Couric said at the top of the evening news last night. "The president would still veto a funding bill that included a deadline for troop withdrawal, but he now says he's willing to accept a bill that sets benchmarks for the Iraqis."

But here, from Bush's comments at the Pentagon, is all he said about compromise yesterday: "One message I have heard from people from both parties is that the idea of benchmarks makes sense. And I agree. It makes sense to have benchmarks as a part of our discussion on how to go forward. And so I've empowered [White House Chief of Staff] Josh Bolten to find common ground on benchmarks, and he will continue to have dialogue with both Republicans and Democrats."

What's new about that isn't clear. Maybe nothing. Bush has been talking about benchmarks ever since he first announced, in a prime-time address in January, his controversial plans for a troop surge in Baghdad: "America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced," Bush said, and described those benchmarks in some detail.

Democrats insist that the Iraqis face consequences if those benchmarks are not met, while Bush has been opposed to anything that smacks of timetables. Yet White House officials, offered the chance yesterday to expand on Bush's comments, notably declined.

Vice President Cheney, in a Fox News interview, was skeptical of the whole notion of "consequences."

"Well, we're interested in having benchmarks that we want to see the Iraqis meet," he said. "The president has talked about this previously. That's not a new concept or anything that one of the Democrats came up with. It's also not - I'm always a little puzzled when we talk about consequences. . . .

Iraqis, he said, "have put up with a lot. . . . So when we talk to them about consequences in some kind of bureaucratic sense or threatening them with a cutoff of funds, for example, if they don't do A, B and C, it strikes me as, you know, that's Washington talk but it may not have all that relevance on the ground out there."

Bubble Repair

As for that contentious meeting with moderate House Republicans so widely reported yesterday (see yesterday's column, Bush's Bubble Breached), signs are that Bush and his aides were furious, rather than chastened, by the brutal reality check -- and by the fact that it was made public.

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "White House political adviser Karl Rove, furious that Republican moderates had divulged a confrontational meeting they had on Tuesday with Bush on the war, started yesterday with an angry conversation with the meeting's organizer, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), according to several GOP lawmakers. Dan Meyer, the White House's chief lobbyist, called the other participants to express the administration's unhappiness."

Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois was one of the most widely quoted participants, telling CNN, for example, "I don't know if he's gotten that kind of opinion before in such a frank and no holds barred way."

Jonathan E. Kaplan writes in The Hill: "LaHood and Meyer got into a shouting match as emotions ran high and voices were raised yesterday morning in the White House while lawmakers were waiting to meet with first lady Laura Bush, according to two legislators who witnessed the exchange. LaHood and five other GOP lawmakers met with Mrs. Bush in the Yellow Oval in the White House residence to chat about the No Child Left Behind law.

"'The White House is not happy,' said a Republican lawmaker."

At the Pentagon, Bush dismissively brushed off questions about the confrontation: "We had a good exchange," he said. "It gave me a chance to share with them my feelings about the Iraqi issue. I spent time talking to them about what it meant to fail, and what it means when we succeed. They expressed their opinions. They're obviously concerned about the Iraq war. But so are a lot of other people."

In his Fox News interview, Cheney was even more dismissive of the moderates and their plea for an exit strategy: "We didn't get elected to be popular," he said. "We didn't get elected to worry just about the fate of the Republican Party. Our mission is to do everything we can to prevail on what is now, we believe, a global conflict, a fundamental test of the character of the American people, whether or not we're going to be able to prevail against one of the most evil opponents we've ever faced."

Compromise Coverage

Carl Hulse and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "President Bush offered his first public concession to try to resolve the impasse on war spending, acknowledging rising pressure from his own party and the public.

"After a briefing at the Pentagon, Mr. Bush said he had instructed Joshua B. Bolten, the White House chief of staff, to reach 'common ground' with lawmakers of both parties over setting firm goals, or benchmarks, to measure progress in Iraq. Mr. Bush had previously insisted that he wanted about $95 billion for the military with no strings attached.. . . .

"On Thursday, Democrats welcomed the president's new willingness to authorize negotiations on benchmarks but said any failure by Iraq to meet specified goals must result in penalties or they would be meaningless."

Jill Zuckman and Mark Silva write in the Chicago Tribune: "Facing a potential revolt from members of his own party, President Bush on Thursday appeared to give ground in discussions with Congress on funding the Iraq war, agreeing to the need for 'benchmarks' to gauge the Iraqi government's progress toward ending violence and establishing independence. . . .

"The president's comments Thursday initially were greeted with enthusiasm by Democratic leaders who viewed them as a concession on the road to compromise. 'Now that's a step forward,' Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after receiving a note from his staff during a meeting with reporters.

"The idea behind the benchmarks is to measure Iraq's progress toward being sufficiently self-governing that U.S. troops could begin to leave. Still unanswered, however, is the question of what consequences the Iraqis would face for failing to meet those goals -- something that is certain to be the subject of negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders in coming days. . . .

"Reid said he has detected a slight shift in the way the White House is dealing with the Iraq issue and Democrats.

"'It's very clear that the people around the president recognize there are some problems,' Reid said. 'And I think I have felt with my conversations with administration officials that there is a right admission that things are not going very well.'"

Democrats want the consequences of Iraqi failure to meet benchmarks to include the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Those Republicans who favor consequences -- and there are some -- favor financial rather than military consequences. So it's possible that financial consequences are what Bush was hinting at yesterday, although that wouldn't be a hugely significant development. As Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman wrote last week in The Washington Post: "White House negotiators tasked with hashing out a compromise spending bill are considering a plan that would tie U.S. financial aid to the Baghdad government's progress in meeting certain political goals."

What the People Want

Meanwhile, as Joshua Partlow writes in The Washington Post, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is facing a problem similar to Bush's: "A majority of members of Iraq's parliament have signed a draft bill that would require a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Iraq and freeze current troop levels. The development was a sign of a growing division between Iraq's legislators and prime minister that mirrors the widening gulf between the Bush administration and its critics in Congress.

"The draft bill proposes a timeline for a gradual departure, much like what some U.S. Democratic lawmakers have demanded, and would require the Iraqi government to secure parliament's approval before any further extensions of the U.N. mandate for foreign troops in Iraq, which expires at the end of 2007."

Scott Canon, Hussein Kadhim and Laith Hammoudi write for McClatchy Newspapers that "the announcement, on the anniversary of the parliament's swearing-in last year, underscores the difficulty of the American position in Iraq.

"Parliament has been unable to reach a consensus on key issues that U.S. officials say are crucial to resolving Iraq's sectarian violence, including measures dividing oil revenue and permitting some former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to hold government jobs. . . .

"In Washington, White House officials reacted skeptically. 'The prime minister, the president and the vice presidents of Iraq have made it clear that they think U.S. troops are needed in Iraq,' said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council."

Plan B

Karen Tumulty blogs for Time about "an interesting nugget buried in" yesterday's Washington Post account of the angry White House meeting.

Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman wrote in that story: "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."

Tumulty writes: "I don't recall seeing any such acknowledgment of a 'Plan B' before, but now that they have made it clear that there is one, I expect Republicans and Democrats alike are soon going to demand to know: What is it?"

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The difference between mainstream hawks and mainstream doves on Iraq seems to have boiled down to two months, with House Democrats now demanding visible progress by July while moderate Republicans are willing to give White House policies until September, but no longer, to show results.

"Then there is President Bush, who has yet to acknowledge the reality that Congressional Republicans and even administration officials like Defense Secretary Robert Gates now seem to tacitly accept. Three months into Mr. Bush's troop escalation, there is no real security in Baghdad and no measurable progress toward reconciliation, while American public support for this folly has all but run out.

"The really important question now facing Washington is the one Mr. Bush still refuses to address: how, while there is still some time left, to design an exit strategy that contains the chaos in Iraq and minimizes the damage to United States interests when American troops inevitably leave."

David Peck, identified as "president of a coaching and consulting firm," writes in a Christian Science Monitor opinion column: "President Bush has a (changing) standard for success in Iraq. But does he have a standard for failure? It's the kind of question I've faced with my clients in my work as an executive coach, helping leaders become more effective. . . .

"Great leaders set and stick with clear standards for failure as well as success. Others act like gambling addicts, greedily seeing only success, depleting their cash without any off switch. . . .

"[T]here has never been agreement on the status of the war in Iraq because there are no agreed-upon measurements. Until such a yardstick exists, we can't agree about whether the U.S. is winning or losing."

Gonzales Watch

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "House Democrats pressed Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at a hearing on Thursday to provide specifics about why federal prosecutors had been dismissed, but he stuck to his past assertions that, although ineptly handled, the dismissals were justified and appropriate.

"Democrats at the hearing of the House Judiciary Committee tried but failed to elicit greater clarity about the specific reasons for removing each prosecutor. Mr. Gonzales offered little new information, repeating that his role in the dismissals had been limited."

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "House Republicans rallied around embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday during intense questioning by Democrats, even as revelations emerged about attempts to fire U.S. attorneys singled out for criticism by White House political adviser Karl Rove.

"Appearing more confident as he has kept his job and the support of President Bush, Gonzales rebuffed questions by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and repeated his defense of the dismissals as warranted, if poorly handled."

Here's a memorable excerpt from the transcript of yesterday's testimony.

Darrell Issa (R-Calif.): "[I]f you continue to serve for 20 more months at the pleasure of the president, which I believe you will, will you, in fact, not be gun shy as a result of what happens here today?"

Gonzales: "Contrary to being gun shy, this process is somewhat liberating in terms of going forward."

In some ways I can see it. Gonzales's big secret -- that he really has no idea what's going on around him -- is now out in the open, and he's still the attorney general!

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "However befuddled the witness became, he was clearly confident that Bush would let him keep his job. In contrast to the man who took a beating before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month -- when even Republican senators disparaged him -- Gonzales literally laughed at his questioners yesterday."

Dahlia Lithwick writes in Slate: "Alberto Gonzales is in his happy place. He enters the hearing room in the Rayburn Building for his testimony before the House judiciary committee smiling the smile of a man who sleeps well each night, in the warm glow of the president's love. Gone is the testy, defensive Gonzales who testified last month before the Senate. Today's attorney general breezes into the chamber with the certain knowledge that having bottomed out in April, he has nothing left to prove. His only role in this scandal is as decoy: He's the guy who runs out in front of the hunters and draws their fire so nobody pays any attention to what's happening at the White House.

"Gonzales seems to have made his peace with this. No more angry outbursts, no bitter attempts at self-justification. Instead, the AG answers some questions with a giggle and most others with the same old catchphrases we've heard so often. . . .

"The House Democrats are furious. To them, there is only one plausible explanation for what happened to the eight (now nine?) fired U.S. attorneys. There is only one narrative that works with the facts. The White House wanted party loyalists placed in either key battleground states, or in states where Republicans were being investigated or they thought Democrats should have been. Gonzales rolled out the welcome mat at the Justice Department and told them to install whomever they wanted while he played hearts on his computer. If Gonzales truly wants to rebut that narrative, he needs only to offer some plausible alternative. Anything at all. But he doesn't. He offers only distractions."

Kevin Drum blogs for the Washington Monthly: "Normally, cabinet officers who have been caught in multiple obvious lies have to either resign or else seriously try to defend themselves. But Gonzales realizes this is just tradition. Unless House Democrats have the votes to impeach him, he doesn't have to do anything. He can just mock them to their face and there's nothing much they can do about it."

Rove Watch, Part One

Eggen and Kane write in The Post about new revelations regarding attempts to fire U.S. attorneys singled out for criticism by White House political adviser Karl Rove.

"New details emerged yesterday about the extent of Rove's involvement in pressing complaints about the U.S. attorney in Milwaukee, Steven Biskupic, and in urging the Justice Department to launch an investigation there before last November's elections.

"Gonzales's senior aides came closer than previously known to firing Biskupic, who had been identified by Rove as weak on prosecuting voter fraud, according to interviews conducted by congressional staff and disclosed yesterday. . . .

"[An] interview with Justice aide Matthew Friedrich showed that Rove's office sent a packet of voter-fraud allegations about Milwaukee compiled by Republican activists to Gonzales's office last October, three weeks before the elections, with a request to investigate.

"The packet from Rove came to Friedrich around the same time the senior Bush adviser also complained to Gonzales about the lack of voter-fraud cases against liberal get-out-the-vote groups in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and New Mexico.

"Friedrich, Gonzales's senior counselor, told congressional investigators last week that the packet immediately set off alarm bells because forwarding it to criminal investigators would violate strict Justice rules that limit the pursuit of voter-related investigations close to an election. Friedrich said he did nothing with the material. . . .

"White House spokesman Tony Fratto said in a statement that 'it's no secret that we and others had long-standing concerns about voter fraud in a number of places,' including Milwaukee. Fratto said Democrats' 'breathless reaction to any mention of Karl Rove is more than a little bit weird.'"

Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor have more for McClatchy Newspapers.

Rove Watch, Part Two

Murray Waas writes for the National Journal: "The Bush administration has withheld a series of e-mails from Congress showing that senior White House and Justice Department officials worked together to conceal the role of Karl Rove in installing Timothy Griffin, a prot?g? of Rove's, as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

"The withheld records show that D. Kyle Sampson, who was then-chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, consulted with White House officials in drafting two letters to Congress that appear to have misrepresented the circumstances of Griffin's appointment as U.S. attorney and of Rove's role in supporting Griffin. . . .

"The withheld e-mails show that Sampson's draft was forwarded for review to Chris Oprison, an associate White House counsel, who approved the language saying that Justice was not aware of Rove having played any role in supporting Griffin. But an earlier e-mail from Sampson to Oprison that has already been made public indicates that the two men discussed Rove and then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers as being at the forefront of Griffin's nomination."

So, if I have this straight: Sampson drafted a letter that was misleading (at best) about Rove's role; the White House nevertheless approved the letter; and then someone, somewhere, decided for some reason that Congressional investigators didn't need to know about that second part.

Cheney and Tenet

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney yesterday rejected former CIA director George J. Tenet's assertion that the Bush administration did not engage in serious debate before invading Iraq in 2003, escalating a public conflict over what happened during the run-up to the war."

Cheney and the troops

Also from that Fox News interview:

"QUESTION: You are portrayed by your opponents and some in the media as this sinister figure, as this cold-blooded warmonger who doesn't care about the number of body bags going back. I know you read the casualty reports every day. I know you and Mrs. Cheney visit wounded troops privately. And I saw you in Iraq with troops in Iraq. But how do you feel about the cost of this war in blood and treasure four years later? And I guess the question most Americans have is how much is enough.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, obviously, any casualty is to be regretted. Nobody likes to be in the position where they have to make those kinds of decisions. Obviously, the president bears the major part of the burden. He's the man with the authority to commit the force."

Cheney and the Saudis

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney faces a diplomatic rescue mission tomorrow in Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah has told top State Department and Pentagon officials over the past six weeks that the kingdom no longer supports Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and does not believe the new U.S. military strategy to secure Baghdad will work, U.S. officials and Arab diplomats said."

Cheney and Iran

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney issued a warning to Iran while aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf on Friday, saying the United States would join allies to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons 'and dominating the region.'

"With two U.S. carrier groups now in the region, the vice president declared, 'We're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike. We'll keep the sea lanes open.'"

Impeachment Watch

Here's Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell, on CNN yesterday afternoon: "There is a building body of evidence that this leadership team -- principally Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, but the president, who ultimately bears responsibility, too -- have done things that would make a reasonable separate and equal body of government consider impeachment. . . .

"I would start my investigation into the detainee abuse issue, which constitutes, I think, a defilement of everything America stands for, and has done irreparable damage to our reputation, and thus to our power around the world. If that doesn't rate a 'high crime' definition, I don't know what does."

Wilkerson wrote for Niemanwatchdog.org (where I am deputy editor) last year: "Documents and memos that have already made their way into the public domain make it clear that the Office of the Vice President bears responsibility for creating an environment conducive to the acts of torture and murder committed by U.S. forces in the war on terror."

No Rolling Over

U.S. News reports: "Despite all the talk of President Bush 'blinking' on the issue of Iraq 'benchmarks' yesterday, the US News Political Bulletin has learned the President is telling his advisors he isn't ready to roll over for the Democrats in his final 19 months in office. Quite the opposite. Republican strategists close to the White House say Bush and his aides are eager to draw what one West Wing insider calls 'sharp divisions' with congressional Democrats on a variety of issues, in an effort to recapture the House and Senate -- and keep the presidency -- in 2008.

"Among the likely options, which often resurrect methods the White House has used in the past: Ratchet up the attacks on Democrats for being 'defeatist' in the war in Iraq, in contrast to Bush's insistence on victory. Brand the Democrats as untrustworthy in the overall war on terrorism as they try to limit domestic surveillance and other anti-terrorist methods, while Bush is portrayed as keeping the country safe. Blast the Democrats as eager to raise taxes and increase spending, while Bush brandishes his veto pen to block them. 'There's a lot more we can do,' a senior Bush adviser tells the Political Bulletin."


The White House is looking to fill quite a number of senior-level jobs, including "war czar," of course. CBS's Katie Couric has some revolutionary ideas about how Bush should do that.

"Often in this administration, loyalty has trumped competency and experience," Couric says. "So in filling these vacancies, perhaps the president should consider Sen. John McCain's idea: 'When it comes to political appointees,' McCain said, 'My first priority would be their talent, and what they could contribute, rather than their party.'"

One Last Canoodle With the Poodle

The White House announced today: "President Bush will host British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the White House on May 16-17, 2007."

Bush's Gala

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune about last night's Republican National Committee gala, which raised $10.5 million, "a $1,500-per-person evening . . . with a shimmering neon lava-lamp d?cor in the airplane hangar-like hall of the DC Armory."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that it was "the smallest take in years for the event that came only months after the GOP lost control of both houses of Congress."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks: "The enemy we face is fearless. They're mean. They know new -- they know new -- they know no boundaries of civilization as we know it, see," he said.

And here is how he wrapped things up: "You know, people ask me all the time, do you enjoy being the president? And my answer is, absolutely. I love being your president. (Applause.) I like being the commander-in-chief; I enjoy being the educator-in-chief. I like talking about what we believe in, because I firmly believe the philosophy we believe in is best for America. I believe it is the type of philosophy that inspires people. I believe it's a philosophy that inherits the greatness of our economy. I believe that we are the party of the entrepreneur. I believe we're the party of the doer, the dreamer, the people that work."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Cheney as advice-giver.

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