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Bush: 'I Am Relevant'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 17, 2007; 1:10 PM

A defensive President Bush insisted that he was still relevant this morning in a news conference dominated by his bitter complaints about the Democratic Congress.

Asked how he found himself vetoing a children's health insurance bill that had passed Congress with bipartisan support, Bush insisted that using a veto is "one way to ensure I am relevant."

When a reporter followed up and asked Bush if he felt he was losing leverage and relevance, Bush replied: "I've never felt more engaged and more capable of getting the American people to realize there's a lot of unfinished business."

Which, let's be blunt, is hard to believe.

Everything you need to know about today's hastily scheduled press conference was telegraphed by John Whitesides of Reuters: "Deepening unhappiness with President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress soured the mood of Americans and sent Bush's approval rating to another record low this month, according to a Reuters/Zogby poll released on Wednesday. . . .

"Bush's job approval rating fell to 24 percent from last month's record low for a Zogby poll of 29 percent. A paltry 11 percent gave Congress a positive grade, tying last month's record low."

"There is a real question among Americans now about how relevant this government is to them," pollster John Zogby told Whitesides. "They tell us they want action on health care, education, the war and immigration, but they don't believe they are going to get it."

Bush has now tied President Nixon's all-time low approval rating as measured by the Gallup Poll. But Congress is doing even worse.

"Congress has little to show for all the time that has gone by" since Democrats gained control in January of both the House and the Senate, Bush said.

At the end of the press conference, Bush celebrated what he called his "bully pulpit," telling reporters "I was trying to get your attention focused on the fact that major pieces of legislation aren't moving, and those that are, are at a snail's pace. And I hope I did that. I hope I was able to accomplish that."

'Common Ground'

Bush said that "now it's time to put politics aside and seek common ground." But New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg asked: "This morning, you gave us a pretty scathing report card on Democrats. . . . I'm wondering, how would you assess yourself in dealing with Democrats this past year? How effective have you been in dealing with them on various issues? And do you think you've done a good job in finding common ground?"

In his response, Bush demonstrated that his idea of common ground involves Democrats caving in and giving him whatever he asks for.

"We're finding common ground on Iraq," he told Stolberg. "We're -- I recognize there are people in Congress who said we shouldn't have been there in the first place. But it sounds to me as if the debate has shifted, that David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker's testimony made a difference to a lot of members. . . .

"We found common ground on FISA," Bush said, referring to the gutting of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that Congress temporarily approved in August but is now reconsidering.

Torture Watch

Newsweek's Richard Wolffe asked Bush exactly the question I would have asked:

"QUESTION: Thank you, sir. A simple question.

"BUSH: Yes?

"QUESTION: What's your definition of --

"BUSH: It may require a simple answer.


"QUESTION: What's your definition of the word torture?

"BUSH: Of what?

"QUESTION: The word torture, what's your definition?

"BUSH: That's defined in U.S. law, and we don't torture.

"QUESTION: Can you give me your version of it, sir?

"BUSH: No. Whatever the law says."

Bush has consistently refused to say what he means when he says "we don't torture," rendering the phrase essentially meaningless. Saying "whatever the law says" doesn't clear things up at all. It just means that if we do it, his lawyers have found a way not to call it torture.

World War III Watch

For the first time in public, Bush warned of the risk of "World War III" if Iran gets nuclear weapons.

"I believe that the Iranian -- if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace. It would -- this is -- we got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. And I take this very -- I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously."

On Putin

Washington Post reporter Peter Baker noted that there are signs Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to continue ruling Russia after his term expires next spring, possibly by becoming prime minister.

Baker asked if Bush should get tougher with Putin -- and "what it would mean for Russian democracy if, when you leave power -- assuming you do in January 2009 -- (laughter) -- that Vladimir Putin is still in power?"

Bush responded vaguely: "My leadership style has been to try to be in a position where I actually can influence people. And one way to do that is to have personal relationships that enable me to sit down and tell people what's on my mind, without fear of rupturing relations."

Bush added that Putin doesn't like it. "You know, nobody likes to be talked to in a way that may point up different flaws in their strategy."

Questions for Mukasey

How deferential will attorney-general designate Michael Mukasey be to his White House bosses -- Vice President Cheney in particular? That's the underlying question today as Mukasey faces a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Nobody will roll over as fast as the last guy did. But that's not saying much.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes that there are two fundamental questions: "Will Mukasey resist the intrusion of partisan politics into the administration of justice? And does he share the administration's troubling view that the war on terror has rendered traditional restraints on presidential power obsolete?"

The Washington Post editorial board asks: "Does Mr. Mukasey believe that Rasul v. Bush, in which the Supreme Court found that detainees held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base had the right to challenge their detentions, was decided correctly? Would Mr. Mukasey support legislation, pending in Congress, to restore the habeas rights of those detainees? If not, why not?

"As attorney general, Mr. Mukasey would be responsible for authorizing surveillance of U.S. citizens who were overseas and believed to be involved in foreign espionage or terrorism. What legal standards and laws would Mr. Mukasey rely on to determine whether such a surveillance request was appropriate?

"Would he strictly apply U.S. laws and Supreme Court rulings to determine whether CIA interrogation techniques were appropriate? Would he share that guidance with Congress? Does he believe such methods as 'waterboarding' and sleep deprivation are lawful? Should they be?"

The New York Times editorial board asks: "Will he lead an investigation of the still-festering United States attorneys scandal? Will he cooperate with Congressional investigators, make documents available and seek to obtain testimony from Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, who have made baseless claims of executive privilege?

"How will he ensure that his staff's loyalty is to justice, not to the president's political team -- especially since many of the top lawyers are 'loyal Bushies' hired by the old regime? . . .

"What will he do to ensure that the right of minorities to vote is protected and that the department is not used, as it has been recently, to pursue false charges of voter fraud?"

The New York Times op-ed page solicits questions from several experts.

Jack L. Goldsmith, Harvard law professor and former Justice official asks: "In 2002 the Department of Justice opined, 'Any effort by Congress to regulate the interrogations of battlefield combatants would violate the Constitution's sole vesting of the commander-in-chief authority in the president.' Do you agree with this statement? How do you define the scope of the president's exclusive military powers?"

Jenny S. Martinez, a Stanford law professor who represented Jose Padilla before the Supreme Court in 2004, asks: "Do you believe the president is legally obliged to comply with federal statutes if he thinks compliance in a particular instance would harm national security? What about the Geneva Conventions and other treaties ratified by the Senate?"

Yale law professor and blogger Jack M. Balkin asks: "Secret laws are inconsistent with democratic self-government. What steps will you take to ensure that members of Congress and the public can obtain secret opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel that explain the executive branch's views about the legal limits of interrogation practices and surveillance programs? Will you ensure that members of Congress have at least as much knowledge about our surveillance practices as employees of privately owned telecommunications companies?"

Legal blogger Marty Lederman asks: "If an enemy of the United States captured non-uniformed U.S. personnel, such as intelligence officers, and interrogated them using some combination of severe stress positions, hypothermia, threats, and prolonged sleep and sensory deprivation, would you conclude that the U.S. persons had been subjected to torture or to 'cruel treatment' prohibited by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, or would you say that the enemy had acted lawfully?"

Justice Watch

Dan Eggen and John Solomon write in The Washington Post: "The Justice Department under the Bush administration has retreated from prosecutions of mobsters, white-collar criminals, environmental crimes and traditional civil rights infractions, new department data show.

"As part of a series of policy shifts that have greatly transformed the administration of federal justice, the department has strongly emphasized immigration and terrorism-related investigations. It has also devoted new attention to areas important to conservative activists, such as sex trafficking and obscenity, according to the department's own performance and budget numbers."

And what have all those terrorism investigations achieved? CNN reports: "Six years of investigations and prosecutions have turned up little evidence of Islamic jihadists at work in the United States, according to a study released Monday.

"The study, conducted by New York University's Center on Law and Security, tracked 510 cases billed as terrorism-related when arrests were made.

"But it found only 158 of those people arrested since al Qaeda's September 11, 2001, attacks were prosecuted for terrorism. . . .

"The study found only four people -- including confessed al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui and 'shoe bomber' Richard Reid -- were convicted of planning attacks within the United States.

"'The vast majority of cases turn out to include no link to terrorism once they go to court,' the report found."

Surveillance Watch

Ellen Nakashima and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "The White House agreed yesterday to give Senate intelligence committee members and staff access to internal documents related to its domestic surveillance program in a bid to win Democratic lawmakers' support for the administration's version of an intelligence measure.

"The move was meant in part to defuse a months-long clash between Congress and the Bush administration over access to legal memoranda and presidential decisions underpinning the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which allowed the government to eavesdrop without court warrants on communications between people in the United States and abroad when one of the parties is a terrorism-related suspect. . . .

"Besides trying to quiet congressional accusations of a coverup, the administration wants in particular to win support for a legal provision providing immunity for telecommunications companies that have been sued for violating privacy rights when they assisted the government's domestic surveillance effort."

Dalai Lama Watch

For Bush, meeting with the Dalai Lama holds little political peril. In fact, the Dalai Lama is such a beloved and inspirational figure that Bush should consider himself lucky that the Dalai Lama will meet with him.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush met privately with the Dalai Lama at the White House on Tuesday, as tensions escalated between the United States and China over Congress's awarding its highest civilian honor to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

"The 30-minute meeting, which the Dalai Lama said included a discussion of the situations in Tibet and Myanmar, formerly Burma, was fraught with symbolism and cloaked in secrecy -- an effort by the White House to avoid further angering the Chinese.

"The session was held upstairs in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House residence, not the Oval Office, to send a message that Mr. Bush was receiving a spiritual leader, not a political one.

"The Dalai Lama's envoy, Lodi Gyari, who attended the meeting, said Mr. Bush described his efforts with China's president, Hu Jintao, on the Dalai Lama's behalf: 'The president said he has been telling the Chinese president that you need to meet with this man, you should trust the Dalai Lama, I know this man and I trust him and you must not hesitate to meet with his holiness.'"

Foster Klug writes for the Associated Press: "The Dalai Lama, after meeting privately Tuesday with President Bush, brushed off China's furious reaction to U.S. celebrations this week in his honor. 'That always happens,' the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists said with a laugh, speaking to reporters gathered outside his downtown Washington hotel. . . .

"He said that during their meeting, he explained to Bush what was happening in Tibet and said he thanked the president for 'showing his concern about Tibet.'

"'We know each other, and we have developed, I think, a very close friendship -- something like a reunion of one family,' the Dalai Lama said, speaking of Bush."

Yet the White House refused to release a photo of the meeting -- something it has routinely done in the past. From yesterday's briefing by White House Press Secretary Dana Perino:

"Q Is it a gesture to the Chinese to not release a photo, to limit the exposure --

"MS. PERINO: I don't know if they would take it that way. It was a decision we made on our own. They did not ask us not to release a photo.

"Q And what is the basis of that decision, then? It's certainly a story today.

"MS. PERINO: The United States -- we in no way want to stir the pot and make China feel that we are poking a stick in their eye, to a country that we have a lot of relationships with on a variety of -- I mean, a good relationship with on a variety of issues. And if this is -- this might be one thing that we can do. But I don't have -- I don't believe that that's going to assuage the concerns of the Chinese."

Shield Law Veto Threat

Elizabeth Williamson writes in The Washington Post: "The House yesterday overwhelmingly passed first-ever federal protections for journalists pressured to reveal confidential sources, as lawmakers from both parties backed legislation that advocates for the news media have sought for a generation.

"The bill, whose sponsors include conservative Republican Mike Pence (Ind.), House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), was the first reporter shield law to make it to a House vote in 30 years and more than 100 attempts. President Bush threatened to veto the bill, saying the protections it would afford 'could severely frustrate -- and in some cases completely eviscerate -- the federal government's ability to investigate acts of terrorism and other threats to national security.' . . .

"The measure passed with a veto-proof vote of 398 to 21. The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 4 but has not been scheduled for a vote in the full Senate.

"'What's a conservative like me doing passing legislation that would help reporters?' Pence, a former talk-radio host, asked in remarks on the floor. 'As a conservative who believes in limited government, I believe the only check on government in real time is the freedom of the press."


Bush once again defended his veto of the SCHIP program this morning. His top economic policy adviser, Al Hubbard, also trotted out the familiar White House talking points in a USA Today op-ed: "When it comes to the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), the president's priority is to ensure the program covers poor children first. Only in Washington is such a simple concept controversial. . . .

"New York wants to use your tax dollars to subsidize health insurance for kids in families that make as much as $83,000 per year."

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "It is the $83,000 question: Could children with that amount of family income qualify for subsidized health insurance under the bipartisan bill passed by Congress and vetoed by President Bush?

"When the House votes Thursday on whether to override the veto, Republicans will insist that the answer is yes. They will express outrage that rich children could get coverage from the government while hundreds of thousands of poor children still go uninsured.

"Democrats say it is a total distortion for Mr. Bush and his Republican allies to say that the bill allows coverage with family incomes up to $83,000 a year.

"Who is right? Each side appears to overstate its case. The bill does not encourage or prohibit coverage of children with family incomes at that level."

That said, several members of Bush's own party are outraged. "Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and an architect of the bill, said Tuesday that the president's argument was specious. 'About 92 percent of the kids will be under 200 percent of the poverty level,' Mr. Hatch said at a news conference with supporters of the bill, including the singer Paul Simon.

"Another Republican author of the bill, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said the White House claims were 'flatly incorrect.'"

And the USA Today editorial board says it's not a close call: "[I]t's worth pointing out that Bush's claim is misleading at best, simply wrong at worst.

"For one thing, New York is the only state that has asked for federal permission to grant SCHIP coverage to some families that make up to four times the national poverty level ($20,650 for a family of four). No other state has SCHIP coverage that high, and nothing in the bill mandates it. So the $83,000 question isn't even relevant for now in the other 49 states. . . .

"The president's charge is a misleading way to demonize a bill that, while not perfect, would increase health coverage for kids who need it, and pay for it with a cigarette-tax increase. The House would do well to look past the president's deceptive rhetoric and override his veto."

Treating the Wounded

Ginger Thompson writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Tuesday proposed a series of changes intended to streamline a military disability system that he said had fallen behind the times and had left too many disabled soldiers falling through the cracks.

"The proposals, outlined in a document that Mr. Bush sent to Congress, would pull apart a convoluted system that gave both the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs authority over determining the level of benefits and care provided to injured soldiers, often pitting the two bureaucracies against each other and holding up services."

Here's Bush discussing the new plan in the Rose Garden yesterday; and a briefing by Karl Zinsmeister, Bush's chief domestic policy adviser.

Federal Government Incompetence Watch

More examples in my continuing chronicle of how Bush's super-politicization of the federal government has eroded its ability to function the way it's supposed to:

Spencer S. Hsu writes in The Washington Post: "Across several of DHS's most troubled projects, including delayed programs to replace the Coast Guard's fleet and to issue secure credentials to port workers, contractors are so enmeshed in DHS's work that they oversee other contractors. Some are assigned work that involves awarding future business, setting policy or drawing up plans and reorganizations, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm. . . .

"Independent analysts have increasingly warned in recent years that the government's growing reliance on private firms threatens to undermine agencies' decision-making, a risk the audit found was heightened in DHS's case by its complex 2003 start-up and the rapid expansion of its workload."

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration again has appointed a chief of family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services who has been critical of contraception."

Genocide Watch

Elizabeth Williamson writes in The Washington Post: "Chances for a U.S. resolution calling the mass killings of Armenians that began in 1915 genocide eroded dramatically last night, as sponsors dropped off in droves and senior Democrats urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to abandon her support. . . .

"The White House strongly opposes the resolution, saying it will damage U.S. relations with Turkey. Legislators cited those objections, along with warnings from the Turkish government and from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Baghdad, that the resolution would cause Turkey to scale back its assistance in the Iraq war, as reasons for rejecting it."

Cheney Redux

"Cheney's Law," the PBS Frontline documentary I wrote about in yesterday's column, is now online.

'It Never Goes Away'

David Wise writes for WisPolitics.com about a recent talk by author Stephen Hayes, in which he "shared a personal and sometimes humorous account of Vice President Dick Cheney's life. . . .

"[W]hile Hayes said most of the criticism Cheney faces 'washes off of him,' he is bothered by the criticism over a hunting accident in which he shot and injured a fellow hunter.

"'He does not like people to think of him as not a good outdoorsman,' Hayes said.

"Hayes noted that in an interview a year after the accident, Cheney pointed to jokes on late-night television and accounts in the press about the issue.

"Hayes quoted Cheney: 'It never goes away.'"

Cheney's Cousin

Anne E. Kornblut writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney is related to Sen. Barack Obama.

"At least that was the stunning announcement made yesterday by Lynne Cheney, who said that the very white vice president from Wyoming is in fact the eighth cousin of Obama, the Senate's only African American member. She said she discovered the link, traced back to a Huguenot who figured prominently in Maryland history, while researching her latest book. . . .

"Obama, whose mother was white, did not immediately comment on the revelation. But his campaign made light of the tie, without confirming it. 'Obviously, Dick Cheney is the black sheep of the family,' Obama spokesman Bill Burton said."

Actually, Scott Fornek reported in the Chicago Sun-Times last month that Obama is related to both Cheney and Bush

According to the Sun-Times' Obama Family Tree, Obama and Bush are 11th cousins; Obama and Cheney are ninth cousins once removed.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush and the 2008 campaign; Ann Telnaes on the first lady effect; Rex Babin on Bush and Verizon.

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation.

Froomkin Watch

I'm off to Toronto for the annual Online News Association conference, where I'll be leading a panel discussion on the value of 'voice' online.

The column will resume on Monday.

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