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Is Bush Ready to Talk Pullout?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, November 30, 2007; 1:44 PM

President Bush spent yesterday afternoon making empty threats about the Pentagon layoffs and operations cutbacks he says he'll have to make unless Congress passes a no-strings-attached defense appropriation.

The Pentagon has plenty of money for the time being. The real ongoing battle between Bush and Congress is about whether Bush will agree to an Iraq pullout date. Bush's Senate allies blocked a House bill that would have forked over another $50 billion for defense spending on condition that the president agree to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by December 2008.

But even as Bush was ratcheting up the partisan rhetoric, White House "war czar" Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute -- at least according to House Defense Appropriations Chairman John Murtha -- was suggesting that the president might be willing to agree to a pullout date that falls after December 2008.

In other words, after he leaves office.

Approving any kind of pullout language would be a major reversal for the White House. But agreeing to something that wouldn't happen until after January 2009 would fit right in with a strategy to kick the can down the road and leave the tough decisions and bitter consequences of withdrawal to Bush's successor.

Bush's Offensive

Here's the text of Bush's remarks yesterday: "The missions of this department are essential to saving American lives. And they are too important to be disrupted, or delayed, or put at risk," he said. "Pentagon officials have warned Congress that the continued delay in funding our troops will soon begin to have a damaging impact on the operations of this department."

David Stout writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Thursday began a new offensive against Congressional Democrats over money for the Iraq war, calling on the lawmakers to give American troops 'what they need to succeed in their missions' and pass a bill without strings attached. . . .

"'We have nearly 200,000 troops in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are relying on this Congress to send them the funding they need to complete their mission,' the White House said Thursday. 'We also have about 100,000 civilian workers at bases across the country who will be receiving furlough notices if Congress continues to delay action.'"

Stout writes: "The Pentagon has enough money to continue operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the time being. It can shift money between accounts, although that can be complicated. And notices of layoffs do not necessarily mean they will actually happen.

"But the president said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had put things in perspective when he said recently: 'The Defense Department is like the world's biggest supertanker. It cannot turn on a dime, and I cannot steer it like a skiff.'"

William Branigin writes in The Washington Post: "Charging that Bush 'refuses to fund his own war,' Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement: 'The president demands more money to continue his failed war policy, yet he and his enablers in Congress have rejected our proposal for an additional $50 billion provided they work with us to change course in Iraq. He cannot have it both ways.'

"Democrats contend that the administration is exaggerating threats of imminent layoffs, saying the Pentagon can draw from a $459 billion base budget that Congress has approved. Bush disputed that yesterday."

Murtha's View

Brian Bowling writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: "U.S. Rep. John Murtha believes the Bush administration is beginning to show a willingness to negotiate with Congress an end to the war in Iraq.

"The Johnstown Democrat said Thursday that Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, Bush's 'war czar' for Iraq and Afghanistan, called him Wednesday after Murtha returned from a four-day tour of Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey and Belgium. Congressional leaders want to meet with Bush to discuss a plan for getting out of Iraq.

"'In talking to General Lute, I got the impression that this is something that we might finally get to,' Murtha said. . . .

"Murtha, chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee and a critic of the Iraq war, helped shepherd a bill through the House that would give the Defense Department the $50 billion, but require it to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by December 2008. The Senate hasn't passed any version of the bill.

"Congressional leaders are willing to bend on that deadline if they can get a plan for ending the conflict, which is costing the country $14 billion a month, Murtha said."

Speaking of Appropriations

Respected budget expert Stan Collender writes in his NationalJournal.com column that he's been "wondering why the White House rejected a proposal by congressional Democrats to cut in half the $22 billion in additional spending they want for domestic programs.

"This has been the major point of contention on the budget over the past six months and the primary reason the FY08 appropriations process has been so protracted. As a percentage of total spending, the $22 billion was so close to what the president requested that he could have declared victory from the start. And getting Democrats to agree to cut that in half would have allowed the White House to claim it had an even larger impact on the debate.

"But the deal apparently was never seriously considered.

"As far as I can tell, there are two reasons why the Bush administration dismissed out of hand what would normally have been viewed as an appropriate compromise: Because it could, and because it wanted to.

"The 'could' part is relatively easy to explain. Congressional Democrats seem to be in disarray on appropriations and have failed to effectively communicate why the additional funds are needed. This means the president and his allies in Congress haven't paid a political price for their opposition to the spending. . . .

"The 'wanted to' part is not as understandable and, as a result, far more discomforting.

"A deal would have allowed the FY08 appropriations process to move forward and for everyone involved to do what they were elected to do: govern. But governing obviously isn't the Bush administration's goal. If it were, the White House would have felt some responsibility to get together with congressional Democrats, and this would have been settled months ago. . . .

"As the administration's dismissal of the appropriations deal clearly shows, the White House's primary objective is to disrupt the process even when an accommodation might be possible and in its interest."

Subpoena Watch

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "The Senate Judiciary Committee inched forward Thursday in its struggle with the White House over subpoenas demanding information from current and former Bush administration officials about the firing of several United States attorneys last year.

"The committee's chairman, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said he was formally rejecting White House claims that the subpoenaed officials, including President Bush's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, were protected by executive privilege from being compelled to cooperate with an investigation into whether the prosecutors were fired for political reasons.

"By rejecting the administration's claims, Mr. Leahy took the next procedural step toward seeking to enforce the subpoenas in court, a step that could require the intervention of the new attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey, who has suggested that he wants a better relationship with Congress than was built by his predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales."

Leahy's memo is worth a read.

"That [White House Counsel Fred] Fielding asserts executive privilege on behalf of the President is surprising in light of the significant and uncontroverted evidence that the President had no involvement in these firings. To date, the President has not taken responsibility for the firings and his own statements regarding the firings refer to others making the decisions. The Attorney General's former chief of staff, the former political director at the White House and the Attorney General himself have testified under oath that they did not talk to the President about these firings. Courts analyzing executive privilege claims have made clear that the purpose of the privilege is to protect the President's ability to receive candid advice."

The White House hasn't exactly been willing to compromise on this stuff. Writes Leahy: "[T]he White House's only response to our many attempts to work out an accommodation has been to restate an unacceptable 'take it or leave it' offer of limited document availability and off-the-record, backroom interviews with no transcript, no oath, and no ability to follow up. The Committee rejected that as unacceptable when it was offered in March and, despite all of our efforts, the White House has been unwilling to work with us on a voluntary basis. When I wrote to the President in August following the suggestion of Senator Specter, the Committee's Ranking Member, to ask the President to sit down with us and work out an accommodation, my offer was flatly rejected."

And Leahy reviews what his committee has uncovered so far: "The evidence we have found supports a conclusion that officials from the highest political ranks at the White House, including Mr. Rove, manipulated the Justice Department into its own political arm to pursue a partisan political agenda. We have found evidence of the involvement of White House political officials in pressuring prosecutors to bring partisan cases and seeking retribution against those who refuse to bend to their political will. . . .

"We have found that at least one Department official, the White House liaison Monica Goodling, who attended political briefings provided by White House political officials, admitted while testifying in the House under a grant of immunity to screening career employees for political loyalty and to wielding undue political influence over key law enforcement decisions and policies. We have found that officials at the White House and the Justice Department were determined to use the Attorney General's new authority enacted as part of the Patriot Act reauthorization to put in place 'interim' U.S. Attorneys indefinitely, doing an end-run around the Senate's constitutional and statutory role in the confirmation of U.S. Attorneys.

"Along the way, this subversion of the justice system has included lying, misleading, stonewalling and ignoring the Congress in our attempts to determine what happened. It is obvious that the reasons given for these firings were contrived as part of a cover up and that the stonewalling by the White House is part and parcel of that same effort."

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino's response: "I don't understand why he continues to have this rope-a-dope that's not going to go anywhere."

Impeachment Watch

Adam Leech writes in the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Herald: "Presidential hopeful Delaware Sen. Joe Biden stated unequivocally that he will move to impeach President Bush if he bombs Iran without Congressional approval.

"Biden spoke in front of a crowd of approximately 100 at a Seacoast Media Group forum Thursday, which focused on the Iraq War and foreign policy. When an audience member expressed fear of another war with Iran, he said he does not typically engage in threats, but had no qualms about issuing a direct warning to the oval office.

"'The President has no authority to unilaterally attack Iran and if he does, as foreign relations committee chairman, I will move to impeach,' said Biden, which was followed by a raucous applause.

"Biden said he is in the process of meeting with constitutional law experts to prepare a legal memorandum saying as much, and intends to send it to the President."

Keller's Critique

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, gave a lecture last night in London about the state of journalism -- and the Bush administration: "[W]e have endured nearly seven years of the most press-phobic government in a couple of generations," Keller said.

"The Bush administration has . . . fed a current of public antipathy that has been running against us for a long time, a consequence of our own failings and, perhaps, a tendency to blame the messenger when news is bad. But Mr Bush has contributed to that unwelcoming environment in at least two significant ways.

"First, he has rejected out of hand the quaint idea of our founders that the press has a constructive role to play in American society, and that this role consists in supplying citizens with the information to judge whether they are being well served by their government. The Bush administration believes that information is power, and that like most other forms of power it is not to be shared with those the regime does not trust. It most decidedly does not trust us.

"Whatever you think of its policies, the current administration has been more secretive, more mistrustful of an inquisitive press, than any since the Nixon administration. It has treated freedom of information requests with contempt, asserted sweeping claims of executive privilege, even reclassified material that had been declassified. The administration has subsidised propaganda at home and abroad, refined the art of spin, discouraged dissent, and sought to limit traditional congressional oversight and court review. The war in Iraq alone is a case study of the administration's determination to dominate the flow of information - from the original cherry-picking of intelligence, to the deliberate refusal to hear senior military officers when they warned of the potential for chaos, to the continually inflated claims about the progress in building up an indigenous Iraqi army. . . .

"The White House and its allies have done an excellent job of putting the press on the defensive. Much of my time in the past few years has been consumed explaining why the founding fathers entrusted someone like me with the right to defy the president. . . .

"Besides a decided preference for operating in the dark, the Bush administration has contributed to the woes of the press in another way. It has helped create a toxic climate for the press by inflaming the polarisation of our public. . . . There are many reasons for this - including the proliferation of partisan blogs, hate-mongering radio broadcasts and intemperate television shout shows - but a president plays a considerable role in setting the tone of public discourse, and the tone of public discourse in my country has been nasty. It has been nasty by design; dividing the electorate into mistrustful camps and pandering to their fears was an explicit strategy of the president's political wizard, Karl Rove."

Rove Watch

ThinkProgress has a video clip of former White House chief of staff Andrew Card on MSNBC yesterday morning, thoroughly discrediting Rove's recent assertion (see yesterday's column) that it was Democrats in Congress who rushed the Bush administration into war with Iraq.

Joe Scarborough: "We have to start with something that we all are talking about a couple of days ago where Karl Rove went on Charlie Rose and he blamed the Democrats for pushing him and the president into war. Is that how it worked?"

Card: "No, that's not the way it worked."

Scarborough: "What the heck? Seriously, what the hell was that about?"

Card: "Democrats pushed us a lot of stupid things, but they didn't push us into war."

Scarborough: "Yeah, yeah. You worked with Karl. Is that just Karl spinning beyond the White House?. . . ."

Card: "Well, Karl is very smart. He's -- sometimes his brain gets ahead of his mouth. And sometimes his mouth gets ahead of his brain."

McClellan Redux

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's publisher continues to backpedal after an excerpt of McClellan's new book was widely perceived as implicating Bush and Vice President Cheney in a cover-up of White House involvement in the Plame leak.

Now Peter Osnos is out with a blog post trying to explain: "The [excerpted] chapter . . . . is a meticulous account of the period at the start of McClellan's tenure, when he had to handle the flap over the disclosure that Valerie Plame was a covert CIA operative, collateral damage in the Washington fracas over blame for the Iraq war blunders.

"McClellan defended the White House then because, aside from that being his job, he believed what he was told by senior officials, two of whom we now know were lying. . . .

"The first reaction to the excerpt was that McClellan, by saying they were 'involved,' was accusing the president and vice-president of deliberate deception. The rejoicing among administration critics was palpable. . . .

"We conferred with McClellan and decided that he was better off working on his book than grappling with the media . . . and I explained [to reporters] that the chapter reports that McClellan believes that Bush, at least initially, did not know he was telling his press secretary to relay a series of howlers about who said what to whom. The full story must await publication."

Denying the public the truth until the book comes out is outrageous. But Osnos reserves his outrage for others: "As for the known perpetrators of the Plame leak, whatever they may have done to McClellan and the pursuit of truth, they seem to have gotten away with it. Karl Rove is now a contributing columnist for Newsweek and is getting a substantial book contract. [Scooter] Libby was convicted of perjury but excused from jail time by President Bush."

President Who?

CNN's Wolf Blitzer pointed out something odd yesterday: "He's been in the White House for almost seven years, but you'd never know it if you listen to the Republican presidential candidates who want to take over his job. President Bush all but unmentionable at last night's CNN/YouTube Republican debate. . . .

"Why was the president of the United States, himself a Republican, his name hardly mentioned by these candidates last night?"

CNN correspondent Carol Costello responds: "It's kind of strange, isn't it?

"It sure seems like Bush has become a four letter word you don't want to mention if you're a Republican running for office. They've taken to talking about him in code -- not daring to say Bush, but not shy about promoting his agenda. . . . The Bush moniker [was] uttered just four times in two hours."

Bush and the Tory

Precisely how many minutes did Bush spend yesterday with David Cameron, the leader of Britain's conservative Tory Party? The British press seems to think this is very important.

Suzanne Goldenberg writes for the Guardian: "David Cameron did not rate an official mention on the White House schedule yesterday. But the Tory leader said his 30-minute meeting with George Bush, wedged between the president's photo-op with a US women's golf team and meetings at the Pentagon, would rekindle that old ideological flame."

But Tom Baldwin writes in the Times of London that "a senior American source told The Times that the meeting had been 'more like 15 to 20 minutes'. A Tory source, when asked about the discrepancy, repeatedly insisted that the discussion with Mr Bush had been 'just under 30 minutes'.

"Later, US officials telephoned back that 'the meeting had been a decent one' and should not be overshadowed by an argument over 'a few minutes here or there'.

"It was the first time that a leader of the Conservative Party had met President Bush, or even set foot in Washington, since Iain Duncan Smith's last visit in 2002. And aides on both sides were anxious to avoid the strange dispute about how long it lasted, echoing Neil Kinnock's oft-described 'humiliation' in 1987 when he received only a short audience with President Reagan."

What's the back story? Baldwin explains that despite the long alliance between Tories and Republicans: "A public feud erupted between the Tories and the White House three years ago when Michael Howard irritated President Bush after he called for Tony Blair to resign over Iraq's missing weapons of mass destruction."

Here, from the Times, is the "diary of a feud":

* "Feb 2004: White House allegedly tells Michael Howard he is not welcome in Washington

* "Aug 2004: Tories blamed for leaking details of the row

* "Feb 2006 William Hague predicts David Cameron will visit before end of the year

* "Sept 2006: Cameron causes http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article1521911.ece

fresh annoyance

* "Nov 2007: He ends five-year absence of Tory leaders from Washington, longest since advent of jet travel."

Holiday Party Watch

Haven't gotten invited to a White House holiday reception? (Yeah, yeah, me neither.) Enjoy it virtually. Cox News Service White House correspondent Ken Herman shoots some video of the first lady's media preview of the festivities. McClatchy photographer Chuck Kennedy has a photo gallery.

And here's this year's presidential holiday card.

A Silver Lining

Joseph L. Galloway writes in his McClatchy Newspapers opinion column that it's good that Bush's attempts at brokering peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were only half-hearted: "Had the president applied his diplomatic skills ('You're either with us or you're against us') and his keen character judgment (think Vladimir Putin and Pervez Musharraf), the Middle East might now be in flames."

Cartoon Watch

Ben Sargent on Bush's optimism; Steve Sack on Bush's legacy.

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