Bush: Clueless and Happy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 26, 2008; 1:16 PM

President Bush last night delivered a buoyant campaign-style address to the 2008 Republican Governors Association Gala, once again raising the question of whether he has any idea what a drag he'll be on the Republican ticket.

Bush told big party donors that he is optimistic about the GOP's prospects -- as well as the verdict of history. "I don't know about you," he said, "but I'm confident we'll hold the White House in 2008. . . .

"Our ideas are those embraced by the American people. American people want strong national defense and they want the government to protect the people from further attack, and that's precisely what Republicans will give them. Americans want lower taxes and less government, and it's precisely what Republicans will give them. Americans want strong, principled leadership, and that is precisely what Republicans will give them.

"And so when I say I'm confident, I am so because I understand the mentality of the American people."

As for his own legacy, Bush said: "I believe 50 years from now, people will look back at this period of time, and say, thank God the United States of America did not lose its faith in the transformative power of liberty to bring the peace we want for our children and our grandchildren."

Does Bush not recognize what a mess he has created for his party? Is he unaware of the gulf between the "mentality of the American people" and his positions on the most important issues of the day? Americans overwhelmingly want to get out of Iraq and are overwhelmingly negative about his stewardship of the economy. Even on national security and the war on terror, traditionally winning issues for the GOP, Bush has driven the public into the arms of the Democrats.

Outwardly, Bush remains wildly upbeat -- see my Jan. 7 column, Bush's Messiah Complex. But inwardly? Who knows?

Who Likes Bush? Who's Like Bush?

Edwin Chen writes for Bloomberg: "Senator John McCain's battles with George W. Bush date back to the 2000 presidential campaign. That's a political strength these days, says Republican strategist John Feehery. If Democrats are able to portray a McCain presidency as a third Bush term, it would be a 'disaster,' Feehery said.

"One drawback for McCain: On three major issues -- Iraq, the economy and health care -- he has embraced Bush's unpopular policies.

"'Their positions are virtually indistinguishable,' said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research group. 'That makes him vulnerable to the charge that, 'If you liked President George Bush, you will love President John McCain.' . . .

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the lowest blow seems to be calling your opponent Bush-like.

It's Still the War, Stupid

And Bush's war in Iraq will be a -- if not the -- defining issue of the 2008 election.

Rick Pearson and Mike Dorning write in the Chicago Tribune that McCain said yesterday that "if he can't convince Americans that the U.S. policy in Iraq is succeeding, 'then I lose. I lose.' Speaking to reporters in Ohio, the Arizona senator quickly sought to backtrack and said, 'I'd like to retract "I'll lose,"' though he acknowledged he is closely tied to the U.S. military 'surge' and support for the American presence in Iraq."

John Podesta, Ray Takeyh and Lawrence J. Korb write in a Washington Post op-ed: "The plight of the Bush presidency should be a lesson on what not to do. An administration without any consequential domestic achievements and a divisive foreign policy, hostage to an endless conflict, is what awaits anyone seeking to perpetuate the war. Remarkably, Sen. John McCain stakes his claim to the presidency on continuing down this path. This is a legacy that Democratic presidential aspirants would be wise to avoid."

Bush to Governors: Drop Dead

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "President Bush rebuffed appeals from the nation's governors on Monday to increase spending on roads, bridges and other public works as a way to revive the economy.

"Governors said Mr. Bush had told them at a White House meeting that he wanted to see the effects of his economic stimulus package before supporting new measures.

"A bipartisan group of governors is pushing for major road and bridge projects as a way to create jobs and foster economic development. But the White House says the money could not be spent fast enough to be of much immediate help. . . .

"Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a Democrat who is vice chairman of the National Governors Association, described the response as 'a fairly significant no.'

"'There are tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure projects ready to go,' Mr. Rendell said. 'I asked the president if he would support spending on those projects as part of a second stimulus package, and he said no.'

"Other governors pushing for spending on transportation projects include Jon Corzine of New Jersey, a Democrat; Charlie Crist of Florida, a Republican; Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a Republican; and Eliot Spitzer of New York, a Democrat.

"After the cool reception at the White House, governors said they would take their proposals to Congress."

Lisa Lambert and Jeremy Pelofsky write for Reuters that the governors argued that such a program would address unemployment and put the economy on a more sustainable path of growth.

"'We suggested a $12 billion infusion into the states, for water projects, for roads, for bridges; again, to build our economy for the future but to put people to work today,' Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, told a news conference.

"'I think I can summarize his remarks best by saying he didn't think he would be interested,' she said.

"Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, also a Democrat, said his state has 50 or more infrastructure projects the state could begin working on in 30 to 90 days, if only the federal government would provide matching funds. . . .

"'The president ... had an open mind when he listened to them, but he did say he was very concerned about any proposal that would raise taxes,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters after the meeting."

On another front, Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told Bush administration officials Monday that he is tired of the Pentagon treating the California National Guard like a stepchild by using its equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan without returning or replacing it."

White House E-Mail Watch

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding a hearing today about missing White House e-mails -- both the ones apparently deleted from White House servers and the ones that were never on those servers in the first place, because they were sent from Republican National Committee accounts.

Here's the opening statement from committee chairman Henry Waxman: "The result is a potentially enormous gap in the historical record. Karl Rove, the President's closest political advisor, was a prolific user of his RNC e-mail account. Yet the RNC preserved virtually none of his e-mails from before 2004. The result is that we may never know what he wrote about the build-up to the Iraq war.

"In recent weeks, the White House has launched an all-out attack on its own analysis of the missing e-mails. One White House spokesman tried to claim there were no missing e-mails after all. Another senior White House official said she had 'serious reservations' about the accuracy of the White House's previous work and that she had 'so far been unable to replicate its results or to affirm the correctness of the assumptions underlying it.'

"Many of us have grown used to the White House attacking any congressional or independent study that conflicts with President Bush's policies. This is the first time I can remember the White House using those same tactics on itself. It is remarkable.

"But that's not all. The White House is also refusing to cooperate with the National Archives. For almost a year the nonpartisan National Archives has been urging the Bush White House to assess the problem of missing e-mails and to take "whatever action may be necessary to restore any missing emails. . . .

"The Archives also asked the White House to start recovering official e-mails that the Republican National Committee deleted pursuant to its policy of regularly purging e-mails from its servers. These repeated requests have also been rebuffed. In fact, the RNC has informed our Committee that it has no intention of trying to restore the missing White House e-mails from backup tapes containing past RNC e-mail records."

Waxman also published a report from the Democratic Committee staff on the story so far. More on that tomorrow after I have a chance to go through it. But I gather that the information in the report provided by Steven McDevitt, a senior official in the White House Office of the Chief Information Officer from September 2002 through October 2006, is quite incendiary. He apparently suggests the White House adopted a new e-mail archiving system with full knowledge that users could delete e-mails without leaving a trace, and that there was a high risk of data loss.

Meanwhile, Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The White House still has not finished work on a new records management and e-mail archiving system, a project that began nearly five years ago."

Addington's Man in the Pentagon Steps Down

Jess Bravin writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "A principal architect of the Bush administration's detainee policies is stepping down, just as military officials gear up for the Guantanamo Bay trial of alleged planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, conspiracy.

"Since becoming Defense Department general counsel in 2001, William J. Haynes pushed the Pentagon toward a near-revolution in military law, away from traditional procedures for enemy prisoners and through a series of experiments in detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists outside the Geneva Conventions or domestic law.

"Teaming up with like-minded lawyers in the White House and the Justice Department, Mr. Haynes, a Harvard Law School graduate and former Army officer, formed the so-called war council that crafted the administration's legal response to the Sept. 11 attacks. . . .

"In 2004, key Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, now his party's likely presidential nominee, joined with Democrats to derail Mr. Haynes's nomination to a federal appeals court, in large part over dissatisfaction with his role in detainee policies. . . .

"Mr. Haynes is a long-time confidant of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff David Addington, who is credited with championing the Bush administration's expansive views of executive power. Mr. Haynes served as the Army's general counsel during the elder President Bush's administration, when Mr. Cheney was defense secretary and Mr. Addington the Pentagon general counsel."

Haynes's departure comes only days after his latest appearance in the news.

Ben Fox wrote for the Associated Press last week: "The former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said yesterday that he will be a defense witness for the driver of Osama bin Laden.

"Air Force Col. Morris D. Davis, who resigned over alleged political interference in the U.S. military tribunals, said he will appear at a hearing for Salim Ahmed Hamdan. . . .

"It is not clear whether the Pentagon will allow Davis to testify. In December, two months after he resigned as the chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals, the Defense Department barred Davis from appearing before a Senate subcommittee.

"Hamdan's defense team plans to argue at an April pretrial hearing that the alleged political interference cited by Davis violates the Military Commissions Act, said Hamdan's military attorney, Navy Lt. Brian Mizer.

"'Davis alleged, among other things, that Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes II said in August 2005 that any acquittals of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo would make the United States look bad.'"

Ross Tuttle wrote for The Nation about his interview with Davis: "When asked if he thought the men at Guantanamo could receive a fair trial, Davis provided the following account of an August 2005 meeting he had with Pentagon general counsel William Haynes -- the man who now oversees the tribunal process for the Defense Department. '[Haynes] said these trials will be the Nuremberg of our time,' recalled Davis, referring to the Nazi tribunals in 1945, considered the model of procedural rights in the prosecution of war crimes. In response, Davis said he noted that at Nuremberg there had been some acquittals, something that had lent great credibility to the proceedings.

"'I said to him that if we come up short and there are some acquittals in our cases, it will at least validate the process,' Davis continued. 'At which point, [Haynes's] eyes got wide and he said, "Wait a minute, we can't have acquittals. If we've been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can't have acquittals, we've got to have convictions."'"

Blogger Hilzoy writes that "Haynes led the working group that wrote one of the most appalling torture memos. This memo argues that the President 'enjoys complete discretion in the exercise of his Commander-in-Chief authority', and that 'In light of the President's complete authority over the conduct of war, without a clear statement otherwise, criminal statutes are not read as infringing on the President's ultimate authority in these areas.' Also: 'Any attempt by Congress to regulate the interrogation of unlawful combatants would violate the Constitution's sole vesting of the Commander-in-Chief authority in the President.' (p. 23) Or, in other words: when we're at war, the President does not have to obey the law."

Hilzoy also brings up Haynes' brief in Center for Biological Diversity v. Pirie.

"In this amazing brief," Hilzoy writes, "Haynes argued that bombing a nesting site for migratory birds would benefit birdwatchers, since 'bird watchers get more enjoyment spotting a rare bird than they do spotting a common one.' Moreover, he added, the birds would benefit as well, since using their nests as a bombing range would minimize 'human intrusion'. The judge's comment on this novel line of argument: 'there is absolutely no support in the law for the view that environmentalists should get enjoyment out of the destruction of natural resources because that destruction makes the remaining resources more scarce and therefore more valuable. The Court hopes that the federal government will refrain from making or adopting such frivolous arguments in the future.'"

Hyperbole Watch

The ratio of useful information to hyperbole in White House press briefings has gotten dramatically worse under press secretary Dana Perino.

Here are just a few of the argumentative, nonfactual statements from yesterday's briefing regarding the furious political battle over warrantless wiretapping.

"[L]ook, the President's most solemn obligation is to protect the American people. And in some ways it seems that the House Democrats' most solemn obligation is to help protect the trial lawyers -- they're the ones who have brought all these lawsuits."

The leading lawsuits, of course, have been filed by non-profit public-interest groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Q If this is such a big deal, why didn't the President accept another extension?

"MS. PERINO: Because the House couldn't even pass an extension bill, even if they had wanted to. They couldn't pass it."

They couldn't pass it because Republicans voted against it -- on instructions of the White House.

"Q Is the President's position that he would veto [surveillance legislation] without retroactive immunity [for telecommunications companies]?

"MS. PERINO: That has been his position for a long time, and the reason is because you can't have -- without the cooperation of the companies, we won't have a program."

Bush said that himself last week, but that doesn't make it remotely true. In reality, plenty of surveillance would continue to be legal, and plenty more would become legal if the House version of the surveillance bill -- which does not include retroactive immunity -- became law.

'60 Minutes' Redux

Bill Carter writes in the New York Times: "A television station in Huntsville, Ala., offered viewers nothing but a black screen for 12 minutes Sunday night -- at the exact time that the CBS News program '60 Minutes' was broadcasting a report about potential political skulduggery involving the former Bush administration official Karl Rove in the conviction of a former Democratic governor of the state.

"The interruption raised suspicions among some viewers, especially Democratic backers of Don Siegelman, the former governor, that partisan political interests might be behind the blackout."

Ben Evans writes for the Associated Press: "Attorneys for imprisoned former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman on Monday called for a special prosecutor after a key government witness claimed that he was forced to write out his testimony to get his story straight."

I wrote in Friday's column about the allegation, made by former Republican campaign worker Jill Simpson on that "60 Minutes" show, that Rove asked her to find evidence that Siegelman was cheating on his wife.

TPM Muckraker has video of Rove on Fox News yesterday, denying that he had ever asked Simpson to "do a darned thing."

MSNBC host Dan Abrams asked Simpson to reply to Rove's denial last night. Her response: "Well, this is what I'd say. Since Karl Rove has said that and he feels so good about saying that, what I want him to do is go and swear in front of the United States Congress and swear what he is saying is true."

Scott Horton, a legal blogger who has championed the investigation of the Siegelman case, writes about Rove: "He calls himself 'Grendel,' 'Moby Dick,' and 'Lord Voldemort.' He is the man ever behind the scenes, manipulating and driving the events on the surface without being seen. His hand is behind the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys and his manipulations were a conscious effort to put federal prosecutors to work for partisan political purposes. And his involvement is so sensitive that the White House had adopted a scorched earth policy to thwart all Congressional efforts to probe it. Karl Rove won't appear before Congress, deliver up his documents showing his communications or dealings with Justice Department matters or raise his hand, swear an oath and testify. But he has no compunction about talking about these matters on Fox News, where he knows he'll get one fluff ball after the next and never be asked for follow-up. . . .

"Rove states that he's never met Jill Simpson, then he backtracks on that, owning up that, well, maybe he did. But 'I never asked her to do a darn thing.'

"Jill Simpson has said the opposite, and she has given much of her account, naming him, under oath and subject to cross examination. My hunch is that Karl Rove will do anything to avoid speaking under oath. . . .

"Simpson is accusing Rove of engaging in tactics, and of involving her in tactics, that are the hallmarks of the Rove campaign playbook. And that playbook also calls for Rove to aggressively deny accusations, always carefully building clever little escape hatches into his denials."

Bush Library Watch

Paul Meyer writes in the Dallas Morning News: "Karl Rove left President Bush's side as his chief political adviser in August, but he's still been active tending to his ex-boss's legacy. Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, said Monday that Mr. Rove has provided advice on the project in an informal capacity.

"'Karl's pretty busy doing a lot of things in his private life right now, but he's a critical resource about what happened in the administration, and he has a lot of good ideas about programming and positioning,' said Mr. Langdale, a longtime friend and former neighbor of Mr. Bush."

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