What Karl Rove Fears Most

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 2, 2008; 1:18 PM

Former White House political guru Karl Rove may be the reigning champion when it comes to the Bush administration's practice of giving the superficial impression of answering a question, while in fact dodging, weaving and spinning to the point of misdirection.

When he's in situations where he knows his statements won't be challenged -- lectures, op-eds, appearances on Fox News -- the alleged master of political dirty tricks is happy to deny various accusations that have been made against him. On the subject of the possibly politically-motivated prosecution of a former Democratic official, for instance, he's been all over the media, vaguely denying involvement.

There is, however, one thing that Rove avoids at all cost: being forced to answer a direct question -- especially under oath. So it's not surprising that he refuses to do so before the Congressional committee investigating what actually happened to that Democratic official.

But things could be coming to a head.

Ben Evans writes for the Associated Press: "The House Judiciary Committee threatened Thursday to subpoena former White House adviser Karl Rove if he does not agree by May 12 to testify about former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman's corruption case.

"In a letter to Rove's attorney, committee Democrats called it 'completely unacceptable' that the Republican political strategist has rejected the panel's request for sworn testimony even as he discusses the matter publicly through the media.

"'We can see no justification for his refusal to speak on the record to the committee,' the letter states. 'We urge you and your client to reconsider . . . or we will have no choice but to consider the use of compulsory process.'

"Committee Democrats are investigating whether Rove and Republican appointees at the Justice Department influenced Siegelman's prosecution to kill his chances for re-election. It is part of a broader inquiry into whether U.S. attorneys were fired for not aggressively pursuing cases against Democrats."

This, of course, is only the latest development in a long standoff between Bush and Congress over testimony from current and former White House staffers. See my Mar. 11 column, Playing Constitutional Chicken, and Tuesday's column, Cheney's Total Impunity.

Here's yesterday's announcement from House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers.

On April 7, MSNBC anchor Dan Abrams reported that Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, said Rove would agree to testify if Congress issues a subpoena to him as part of an investigation into the Siegelman case.

Ten days later, committee members invited Rove to appear, citing among other things Rove's interview with GQ magazine. In that interview, Rove hurled insults at CBS News for airing a 60 Minutes segment on the Siegelman case, called his chief accuser a "lunatic" -- but didn't specifically deny any of the accusations.

In an April 29 letter back to the committee, Luskin wrote that Rove would only appear under the following conditions: "Mr. Rove is prepared to make himself available for an interview on this specific issue with Committee staff. Mr. Rove would speak candidly and truthfully about this matter, but the interview would not be transcribed nor would Mr. Rove be under oath."

Yesterday, Conyers and three colleagues fired back: "[A]n interview conducted without a transcript and not under oath would frustrate a full and fair inquiry. An interview without a transcript is an invitation to confusion and will not permit us to obtain a straightforward and clear record, as several of us have explained in response to a similar offer by White House counsel Fred Fielding in the U.S. Attorney matter. . . .

"We simply do not understand why anyone who is prepared to tell the truth would object to an oath and a record of what is said. This is particularly true in this case, where Mr. Rove has already spoken on the record on this subject."

As I wrote in my April 22 column, a letter Rove himself sent to MSBNC's Dan Abrams -- the only network anchor who's devoted substantial time to the Siegelman case -- was a classic.

Rove likes questions as long as he's asking them -- he raised 59 of them, most of them argumentative, about Abrams's coverage. But at the same time, he answered none of the obvious questions about his own conduct. The closest he came to an actual denial was this carefully phrased declaration: "I certainly didn't meet with anyone at the Justice Department or either of the two U.S. Attorneys in Alabama about investigating or indicting Siegelman." But did he talk to anyone, or e-mail them? Did any of his subordinates? Did he express interest in prosecuting Siegelman to anyone, in any way?

Abrams wrote back, appropriately enough: "Your letter poses questions that you believe I should have asked as part of our coverage, but many of the most significant ones only you can answer. . . . You accuse me of 'diminishing the search for facts and evidence,' yet thus far you have refused to answer any questions under oath or even from me that would aid in that very search."

Another Rove Mention

Andrew Stern writes for Reuters: "A witness at the trial of political fundraiser Antoin Rezko testified on Thursday that then-White House aide Karl Rove was asked to replace the federal prosecutor in Chicago to abort a probe of Illinois corruption.

"Rove has denied knowledge of any discussion to replace Patrick Fitzgerald, the widely respected U.S. attorney in Chicago, when Rove was one of President George W. Bush's top advisers."

Prosecution witness Ali Ata "said Rezko told him in 2004 when the FBI's investigation of Rezko became public, that 'there will be a change in the U.S. attorney's office' and the probe would end. . . .

"Robert Kjellander, a leading Illinois Republican and former treasurer of the Republican National Committee, is a friend of Rove's. . . .

"Asked by the prosecutor how Ata imagined Rezko could engineer the change, Ata said Rezko told him, 'Mr. Kjellander will talk to Karl Rove and make a change in the U.S. attorney's office.' . . .

"When prosecutors revealed that Ata would testify about the supposed plot to remove Fitzgerald, Kjellander and Rove both denied the allegation, saying there was nothing to it."

I don't know exactly when in 2004 this allegedly happened, but as I chronicled in my Mar. 16, 2007, column, The Politics of Distraction, we do know that in January 2005, Rove stopped by the White House counsel's office to float the idea of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys.

Addington Watch

Daniel W. Reilly writes in Politico that Conyers "has once again threatened to subpoena the top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney in an ongoing standoff over the legal justifications for harsh interrogation techniques.

"But unlike previous fights, the aide - Cheney Chief of Staff David Addington - has expressed a willingness to comply.

"Conyers announced Thursday that his committee will convene next week to vote on whether to issue a subpoena. But the chairman issued his threat after the committee received a letter from Cheney's counsel, Kathryn Wheelbarger, suggesting Addington would consider the request.

"The committee has asked Addington to appear at a hearing next Tuesday about the legal justifications for a series of controversial memos that laid the foundation for the administration's war against terror, including the detainment and treatment of suspected terrorists. . . .

"Wheelbarger sent the committee a letter Thursday arguing that Addington should not be required to testify before Congress about his duties as an aide to the vice president. However, in the letter, she acknowledges that Addington 'is prepared to accept timely service of a committee subpoena' for testimony at the May 6 hearing.

"'Since he hasn't been issued a subpoena, it would be a little premature to comment on whether he would comply,' said Cheney spokeswoman Megan Mitchell. But, in clarifying the intent of that letter, Mitchell said that if a subpoena is issued, Addington would 'review it and respond accordingly.'"

Paul Kiel writes for TPMMuckraker: "Can it really be true? Will the high priest of executive privilege actually submit to a Congressional subpoena?"

Why Was Doan Fired?

Dan Friedman writes for Congress Daily: "General Services Administration chief Lurita Doan was fired Tuesday almost a year after her actions drew heavy criticism from Capitol Hill Democrats, but her ouster was triggered by more recent friction with the White House, officials briefed on the matter said.

"According to House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Tom Davis, the headstrong administrator angered White House officials by refusing to abide by their wishes on several matters, including her recent rejection of suggested political appointees to fill senior-level vacancies at GSA.

"'That seems to be the straw that broke that camel's back,' said Davis, citing a conversation with White House officials regarding Doan's ouster.

"'At the end of the day it was that kind of thing,' added Davis, who has been a staunch backer of Doan and who criticized her removal.

"According to Davis and GSA officials, Doan rejected a series of White House candidates for the jobs of GSA general counsel and chief acquisition officer. Both posts, while recently filled by political appointees, are held by career civil servants serving in an acting capacity."

As readers in my Live Online discussion on Wednesday pointed out, one way for Bush to tie the hands of his successor is to install political loyalists in career positions.

Most Unpopular President Ever

Paul Steinhauser writes for CNN: "A new poll suggests that President Bush is the most unpopular president in modern American history.

"A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Thursday indicates that 71 percent of the American public disapprove of how Bush is handling his job as president.

"'No president has ever had a higher disapproval rating in any CNN or Gallup Poll; in fact, this is the first time that any president's disapproval rating has cracked the 70 percent mark,' said Keating Holland, CNN's polling director.

"'Bush's approval rating, which stands at 28 percent in our new poll, remains better than the all-time lows set by Harry Truman and Richard Nixon [22 percent and 24 percent, respectively], but even those two presidents never got a disapproval rating in the 70s,' Holland said. 'The previous all-time record in CNN or Gallup polling was set by Truman, 67 percent disapproval in January 1952.' . . .

"CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider adds, 'He is more unpopular than Richard Nixon was just before he resigned from the presidency in August 1974.' . . .

"The poll also indicates that support for the war in Iraq has never been lower. Thirty percent of those questioned favored the war, while 68 percent opposed it."

That 71 percent figure is even higher than the 69 percent disapproval rating Bush received in the latest Gallup Poll, the subject of my April 22 column, The Most Disappointing President.

Bush on Food

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush asked Congress yesterday to approve $770 million in new global food aid for the coming fiscal year, the centerpiece of an evolving administration response to a crisis that has sparked increased violence and hunger around the world. . . .

"The president said he is asking Congress to include the money in a broader Iraq war funding bill for fiscal 2009 that the administration sent to Capitol Hill yesterday.

"The proposal came under immediate criticism from some congressional Democrats and outside experts, who said additional money would do little to alleviate the current crisis if it is not available until the 2009 budget year, which starts in October. Bush has also requested $350 million in additional food aid as part of the 2008 supplemental Iraq war budget, an amount that top Democrats say is too little.

"'That is far too late for the urgency of this problem,' said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), who along with Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) has asked Bush for at least $550 million in emergency food aid now. 'If you're hungry and your government is collapsing, waiting until December 2008 or January 2009 for food to hit the ground is just too late.'"

Roger Thurow and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal about another apparent example of Bush siding against monied agricultural interests. (I noted in Wednesday's column how Bush is fighting Democrats in congress to reduce farm subsidies to millionaires.)

Thurow and McKinnon write that Bush and his allies are trying use the food crisis "to push for major changes in the way the world community manages the fight against hunger. . . .

"The traditional U.S. approach effectively turns Washington into an intermediary for American-grown food to be shipped overseas at subsidized prices. That may alleviate immediate hunger, but it does little to deal with the fundamental issue: Africa's inability to feed itself.

"The head of the United Nations's World Food Program, an American, has been pushing for her program's dollars to flow directly to Africa's farmers and help build the kind of market -- with multiyear contracts, future pricing and the like -- that Western farmers take for granted.

"'As America increases its food assistance, it's really important that we transform the way that food aid is delivered,' Mr. Bush said."

Is Our Children Learning?

Sam Dillon writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's $1 billion a year initiative to teach reading to low-income children has not helped improve their reading comprehension, according to a Department of Education report released on Thursday.

"The program, known as Reading First, drew on some of Mr. Bush's educational experiences as Texas governor, and at his insistence Congress included it in the federal No Child Left Behind legislation that passed by bipartisan majorities in 2001. It has been a subject of dispute almost ever since, however, with the Bush administration and some state officials characterizing the program as beneficial for young students, and Congressional Democrats and federal investigators criticizing conflict of interest among its top advisers. . . .

"Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the education committee, and who has long criticized the program, said, 'The Bush administration has put cronyism first and the reading skills of our children last, and this report shows the disturbing consequences.'"

Michael Grunwald wrote in The Washington Post back in October 2006 that even then "an accumulating mound of evidence" suggested "that Reading First has had little to do with science or rigor. Instead, the billions have gone to what is effectively a pilot project for untested programs with friends in high places.

"Department officials and a small group of influential contractors have strong-armed states and local districts into adopting a small group of unproved textbooks and reading programs with almost no peer-reviewed research behind them. The commercial interests behind those textbooks and programs have paid royalties and consulting fees to the key Reading First contractors, who also served as consultants for states seeking grants and chaired the panels approving the grants. Both the architect of Reading First and former education secretary Roderick R. Paige have gone to work for the owner of one of those programs, who is also a top Bush fundraiser.

"On Sept. 22, the department's inspector general released a report exposing some of Reading First's favoritism and mismanagement. The highlights were internal e-mails from then-program director Chris Doherty, vowing to deny funding to programs that weren't part of the department's in-crowd: 'They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags.'"

Mission Accomplished Redux

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about how the anniversary of Bush's 'Mission Accomplished' speech (see yesterday's column) has become one of the Bush White House's least favorite days on the calendar.

"The White House pushed back with weapons of mass distraction. It issued a presidential proclamation declaring ' Law Day U.S.A., 2008.' Bush observed the National Day of Prayer in the East Room with a speech that shrewdly omitted any mention of the word 'Iraq.' When those two actions failed to make a dent in the Mission Accomplished coverage, the White House sent out an update announcing that the president would make a statement -- on food aid.

"But there was no escaping the anniversary. Those looking out of the north windows of the White House yesterday morning likely would have seen a demonstration organized on Pennsylvania Avenue where antiwar protesters unfurled a 50-foot replica of the Mission Accomplished banner. Alternatively, White House officials could have turned on cable news and seen the latest MoveOn.org ad showing candles on a cake with the 'Mission Accomplished' banner in icing."

Al Kamen rips into Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino's suggestion on Tuesday that "President Bush is well aware that the banner should have been much more specific and said 'mission accomplished for these sailors who are on this ship on their mission.'"

Kamen writes: "The problem, sources tell us, is that White House planners couldn't figure out how to get all that on the sign in letters large enough for people to read on television. The sign would have been so big that either the wind would have shredded it or the ship would have drifted erratically while Bush's pilot tried to land on the deck.

"Another option would have been to simply put an asterisk after 'mission,' and then down below, in illegible print, say 'just for these sailors on this particular ship on this one mission.' Some thought that too tacky and warned it might prompt sailors returning on other ships to demand that Bush fly out to greet them.

"So that's why the banner came out the way it did."

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board writes: "White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, apparently operating on a dying pair of AA batteries, said, 'President Bush is well aware that the banner should have been much more specific and said 'mission accomplished' for these sailors who are on this ship on their mission,' said Perino. Yet, Bush used the same phrase a month later in a speech that had nothing to do with that specific ship and its officers. As terrifyingly adept as the Karl Rove-installed deus ex machina is at creating threats and victories out of a thin vapor of lies, it falters in dealing with the fact that much of what the architects of this war said and did in getting us there is recorded and reported. The American public doesn't suffer from the White House's brand of amnesia. Nonetheless, Perino continued, 'And we have certainly paid a price for not being more specific on that banner.'

"She thinks the White House has paid the price? How about the 4,000 or so dead troops and their families? How about the injured soldiers and veterans? Or the ones being stop-lossed? How about the millions of Iraqis whose lives have been shattered by the violence and instability that our invasion brought into their country? And the losses continue to pile up. U.S. deaths have hit a seven-month high in Iraq, and life there and in Afghanistan, where raped women are imprisoned, is still hell. There isn't a banner in this world that could sum up what we've really 'accomplished' in the Middle East."

Sanchez Attacks

Ricardo S. Sanchez, the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq from 2003-2004, has written a new memoir: Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story. In an excerpt published by Time magazine, Sanchez lays the blame for the post-invasion bungling in Iraq squarely on the man who fired him -- then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- and his superiors.

Sanchez writes that he didn't learn until 2006, while talking to military investigators, that the U.S. even had a plan for post-war Iraq. What he learned then was that there had in fact been an "operational concept that had been prepared by CENTCOM . . . before the invasion of Iraq was launched. It was standard procedure to present such a plan, which included such things as: timing for predeployment, deployment, staging for major combat operations, and postdeployment. The concept was briefed up to the highest levels of the U.S. government, including the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, and the President of the United States.

"And the investigators were now telling me that the plan called for a Phase IV (after combat action) operation that would last twelve to eighteen months.

"To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I had never seen any approved CENTCOM campaign plan, either conceptual or detailed, for the post-major combat operations phase. When I was on the ground in Iraq and saw what was going on, I assumed they had done zero Phase IV planning. Now, three years later, I was learning for the first time that my assumption was not completely accurate. In fact, CENTCOM had originally called for twelve to eighteen months of Phase IV activity with active troop deployments. But then CENTCOM had completely walked away by simply stating that the war was over and Phase IV was not their job.

"That decision set up the United States for a failed first year in Iraq. There is no question about it. And I was supposed to believe that neither the Secretary of Defense nor anybody above him knew anything about it? Impossible! Rumsfeld knew about it. Everybody on the NSC knew about it, including Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, and Colin Powell. Vice President Cheney knew about it. And President Bush knew about it.

"There's not a doubt in my mind that they all embraced this decision to some degree. . . .

"In the meantime, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars were unnecessarily spent, and worse yet, too many of our most precious military resource, our American soldiers, were unnecessarily wounded, maimed, and killed as a result. In my mind, this action by the Bush administration amounts to gross incompetence and dereliction of duty."

Flowers for Helen

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "It's kind of like spam -- just nicer, and more fragrant. Lefty heroine Helen Thomas is the target of an unusual Internet campaign this week: fans bombarding her with flowers after her face-off with Dana Perino . In the April 23 White House press briefing, the Hearst columnist exchanged words with the Bush press secretary about the president's okay of harsh interrogation tactics. Frustrated with the 'usual stock answer,' Thomas told us, she turned to other reporters and scolded: 'Where is everybody? For God's sakes.'

"A C-SPAN clip of Thomas lit up the blogs, prompting Micah Fitch to organize a mass thank-you-- more than 50 bouquets sent to Thomas's office so far this week, said Sefika Kurt, whose Little Shop of Flowers handled most of the orders. (More than 500 people contributed $4,300 to keep the flowers coming, according to Fitch's Web site.) Too much of a good thing? Thomas said she plans to share them with hospitals and friends."

Here are photos of just some of the flowers, including one shot of Thomas and Kurt surrounded by them.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart mocks Bush's proposal to help the economy by extending his tax cuts: "Are you suggesting we take the policies into this mess in the first place, and render the irrevocable?" And John Oliver tells Stewart the solution is simple: "Find the wand!"

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on Cheney's hunt for oil; RJ Matson on Bush as Jeffy; Mike Luckovich on "Mission Accomplished"; Lee Judge on Bush's own reading problem.

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