Pointing the Finger at the White House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 29, 2008; 1:14 PM

The Justice Department's new investigative report into the removal of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 points a steely and incriminating finger over the stone wall -- toward the White House.

Let's be frank here: Not many people in Washington have ever suspected that notoriously weak-willed and suggestible former attorney general Alberto Gonzales came up with the idea of the firings on his own. So it's not big news that the report released this morning contains a series of humiliating conclusions about his abysmal lack of leadership and general cluelessness -- rather than a criminal referral.

The big news is that in response to the report, and its call for the appointment of a criminal prosecutor to pursue the case further than the Justice Department's internal investigations could, Attorney General Michael Mukasey today appointed Nora R. Dannehy, a career prosecutor currently acting as U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to oversee such a probe. And that means further pressing the White House, which repeatedly refused the Justice Department investigation teams' requests for interviews and documents.

From the report's conclusion:

"The most serious allegations that arose were that the U.S. Attorneys were removed based on improper political factors, including to affect the way they handled certain voter fraud or public corruption investigations and prosecutions. Our investigation found significant evidence that political partisan considerations were an important factor in the removal of several of the U.S. Attorneys.

"However, we were unable to fully develop the facts regarding the removal of Iglesias and several other U.S. Attorneys because of the refusal by certain key witnesses to be interviewed by us, as well as by the White House's decision not to provide internal White House documents to us. Therefore, we recommend that counsel specially appointed by the Attorney General work with us to conduct further investigation and ultimately to determine whether the totality of the evidence demonstrates that any criminal offense was committed."

The lack of White House cooperation with the internal DOJ investigation was brazen. According to the opening chapter of the report, top White House aides "including White House Counsel Harriet Miers, Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor Karl Rove, Deputy White House Counsel William Kelley, and Associate White House Counsel Richard Klingler, declined our request to interview them."

Investigators for the Inspector General's Office and Office of Personal Responsibility "requested and received documents from the White House showing communications between the White House and outside persons and entities, including the Department of Justice, related to the removal of the U.S. Attorneys. However, the White House Counsel's Office declined to provide internal e-mails or internal documents related to the U.S. Attorney removals, stating that these documents were protected from disclosure because, according to the White House Counsel's Office, such material 'implicate[s] White House confidentiality interests of a very high order . . . ' The White House did not formally assert executive privilege as grounds for withholding the material from us, but asserted that its 'internal communications . . . are, in our judgment, covered by the deliberative process and/or presidential communications components of executive privilege in the event of a demand for them by Congress.'"

And there's more. Astonishingly enough, the results of an internal White House investigation -- which were provided to the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and to then-attorney general Gonzales early last year -- were nevertheless denied to the DOJ's internal investigators. The report states that associate White House counsel Michael Scudder interviewed Justice and White House personnel in early 2007 at the request of White House Counsel Fred Fielding. "[W]e requested that OLC produce a complete copy of the final Scudder memorandum and all drafts of the memorandum. OLC declined to produce the document, stating that the White House Counsel's Office directed it not to do so. . . .

"The White House Counsel's Office eventually provided to us a heavily redacted version of the document, but the redactions made the document virtually worthless as an investigative tool. We disagree with the White House's rationale for withholding this document, particularly since the document was shared with OLC and e-mail records also show that drafts had been provided to former Attorney General Gonzales. We also disagree with the White House Counsel's Office decision not to provide us White House internal documents related to the U.S. Attorney removals and, as we discuss below, believe it hindered our investigation."

The good news for the White House, however, is that all this is happening today -- rather than 18 months ago, when the internal investigation began. Since the next investigation will inevitably take months if not years, the stonewall has effectively worked. Nothing will happen while Bush is still in office.

All this despite the facts that, as the report makes clear, the idea of firing U.S. attorney originated in the White House, no one within the Justice Department has been able to provide a persuasive explanation for why several of the names showed up on the firing list, and the White House aides who just might possibly be in a position to resolve the mystery insist on remaining silent.

It's a lot like that Sherlock Holmes story about the dog that didn't bark in the night.

The report specifically raises the possibility of White House involvement in at least four of the firings. It lists Todd Graves of the western district of Missouri as the first U.S. attorney to go in the purge, not long after the White House counsel's office complained that Missouri's Republican Senator Christopher Bond was urging the White House to remove him.

In June 2006, Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins was the second U.S. attorney told to resign, and "the evidence shows that the main reason for Cummins's removal was to provide a position for former White House official Tim Griffin" to please Karl Rove.

"The other seven U.S. Attorneys were all told to resign on December 7, 2006. The most controversial case was the removal of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. . . . [W]e were unable to uncover all the facts pertaining to his removal because of the refusal by key witnesses to be interviewed. . . . However, the evidence we uncovered showed that Iglesias was removed because of complaints to the Department and the White House by Senator [Pete] Domenici and other New Mexico Republican political officials and party activists about Iglesias's handling of voter fraud and public corruption cases in the New Mexico."

And fired U.S. attorney John McKay "told us that White House Counsel Miers and Deputy White House Counsel William Kelley told him at a meeting in August 2006 -- a few weeks before McKay's name reappeared on the removal list -- that Washington State Republicans were displeased with his handling of voter fraud complaints. Because Miers and Kelley, as well as Rove, declined to cooperate with our investigation, and because we were denied access to internal White House documents, we cannot rule out the possibility that McKay's handling of voter fraud complaints played a part in the decision to remove him from office."

Bailout Watch

Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane write for The Washington Post: "President Bush this morning urged lawmakers to act quickly to approve the financial system bailout plan hammered out over the weekend, acknowledging that the vote will be 'difficult' in the face of opposition from taxpayers and voters but necessary to protect the economy.

"With House members likely facing a yes or no vote this morning on a $700 billion plan that has sparked widespread public opposition, Bush tried to give the bailout package a Main Street spin.

"'A vote for this bill is a vote to prevent economic damage to you and your community' by stabilizing financial markets and renewing the flow of credit, Bush said, attempting to undercut arguments that the proposed legislation bolsters Wall Street at taxpayers' expense. 'This is a bold bill that will keep the crisis in our financial system from spreading through our economy.' "

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "There have been bumps along the road -- the most significant of which was a contentious White House meeting sparked by the highly dramatic and seemingly counterproductive intervention of Republican presidential nominee John McCain. But as difficult and bitter as the process has been, the rescue, if it passes both houses of Congress, could be remembered as a case study in bipartisanship under extremely difficult circumstances."

AFP reports: "The White House sought to reassure anxious Republican lawmakers on Sunday over a proposed 700-billion-dollar Wall Street bailout, saying the government expects assets acquired from troubled banks to eventually generate income and ease any potential burden on taxpayers.

"'The impact on the taxpayer will be considerably less than 700 billion dollars,' White House budget director Jim Nussle said in a letter to the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, John Boehner."

Language Watch

Brian Stelter writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush and other government officials have characterized the measure in positive terms -- 'rescue plan' and 'asset relief program' -- thereby carefully avoiding more loaded words like 'bailout.'"

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post about what a long way it is from Bush's frequent bragging "about the government's role in increasing homeownership rates and in decreasing government regulation of the housing market. . . .

"In 2004, for example, Bush told a group of carpenters in Phoenix that 'the housing industry is booming, which means more people own their home. And that's positive.'

"'We want more people owning their own home. There's nothing like saying this home is my home,' Bush said, adding: 'I've called on private-sector mortgage banks and banks to be more aggressive about lending money to first-time home buyers. And the response has been really good.'

"During an October 2004 speech to the National Association of Home Builders, Bush talked about his administration's record on encouraging homeownership -- including a proposal to allow first-time buyers to make no down payment. He cast the effort as part of an 'ownership society' that would also include health-care and retirement accounts."

And so on.

A Pattern

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "As the Bush administration attempts to stabilize the nation's economy, we are witness to the final chapter of a period of perverse and dishonest leadership that has used its own crises to justify the expansion of its own power. This was a president who came to office on promises of modesty -- who championed a 'humble nation,' scorned nation building and promised a more limited role for government in the lives of its citizens. Then he presided over a six-year attempt to tear down and rebuild the nations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and now has embarked on the most profound expansion of the federal government's role in the private economy since the Depression.

"In both cases, the pattern is the same. Ineptitude led to crisis; crisis then became the argument for the radical expansion of executive power. The administration insisted that it exercise its new authority with a minimum of scrutiny by Congress, the courts or the public. . . .

"These troubles are about more than a president who is unfaithful to his word. Bush has transformed the balance of power in our government. We are seeing the erection of an imperial presidency, immune from oversight when it fights terrorists and when it rescues banks."

Bush the Socialist?

Jacob Heilbrunn writes in a New York Times opinion piece: "Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist and former chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers (under Bill Clinton), put it most bluntly: 'If this isn't socialism,' he recently said of the bailout package, 'then I don't know what is.' . . .

"To Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of 'Leviathan on the Right,' Mr. Bush is not a conservative by any definition. 'Anybody would be more restrained than Bush,' Mr. Tanner said. 'Bill Clinton was a more conservative president than Bush' because Mr. Clinton 'balanced the budget.'

"Mr. Bush's thinking, it appears, is rooted in a rival conservative vision. In this view, big government is here to stay and the job of conservatives is to convert it to the proper uses."

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President George W. Bush's $700 billion rescue plan for financial markets is prompting widespread soul-searching within the conservative movement. . . .

"Many frustrated conservatives see Mr. Bush's rescue plan, on top of his decision to invade Iraq, as cementing his legacy as a big-government conservative.

"'Bush doesn't have a conservative legacy' on the economy, said Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. 'Tax-rate reductions are the only positive achievement, and those are temporary. . . . Everything else that has happened has been permanent, and a step toward more statism.' He cited big increases in the federal budget, along with continuing subsidies in agriculture and transportation, new Medicare drug benefits, and increased federal intervention in education and housing."

Johanna Neuman and Richard Simon blog for the Los Angeles Times: "If this deal is sealed, what will history say about a president who presided over first one of the largest increases in federal spending and then one of the largest rescues for those who benefited from the spending?

"Bush's reputation as a free spender is cemented. As Veronique de Rugy of the conservative American Enterprise Institute calculates, Bush has already authorized more in discretionary spending than any recent president since the free-spending, Great Society's Lyndon Johnson.

"As for the financial crisis, widely blamed on bank deregulation approved by both parties and lax supervision during the Bush administration, Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff under President Reagan, told CNBC's Ben Feller that the Wall Street mess could come to rival the 9/11 terror attacks as one of the key definers of Bush's presidency."

Lame Duck Watch

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times that last week's summit at the White House "with President Bush, Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama illustrated just how much power at the top of the nation's political hierarchy has already fragmented, leaving a leadership void that complicated the path to consensus last week over the deepening turmoil on Wall Street. . . .

"What is left, though, is uncertainty about whom to follow. 'There's no leadership; nobody's leading,' said Pat Caddell, who was an adviser to President Jimmy Carter. 'The country's not looking to him to lead,' he said of Mr. Bush. 'And the Congress couldn't lead an Easter egg hunt.'

"The problem for Mr. Bush is that he has all the levers of the Oval Office without all of the authority. Even some of his own advisers concede that the country long ago tuned him out, and last week's revolt by House Republicans against his initial economic plan demonstrated his trouble asserting command even of his own party. As Ed Rollins, the White House political director under Ronald Reagan, put it cruelly but crisply on CNN on Friday: 'This isn't a lame-duck administration. This is a dead-duck administration.'. . .

"This sense of uncertain leadership has arisen repeatedly in American history, but usually after a presidential election when the next leader has actually been anointed rather than before, as now."

Daniel Dombey and Alan Beattie write in the Financial Times that "the president, who was the byword for executive authority, has failed to hold sway over the stage he once commanded.

"Today, Mr Bush's poll numbers are at record lows, Mr McCain is running as a candidate of change, and rank-and-file Republicans in the House of Representatives have flirted with open revolt over the president's rescue plan.

"'There is no such thing as a Bush Republican outside the White House, in the same way that there is now no such thing as a Jimmy Carter Democrat,' said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. 'The man has no coat-tails. He is a president with neither a party nor a constituency.'"

Torture Watch

Scott Horton blogs for Harper's: "One of the major breakthroughs of the first McCain--Obama debate on Friday night passed with almost no notice. Both John McCain and Barack Obama, in characterizing their opposition to the Bush Administration's interrogation program, called it torture. To those who have tracked this question with any care, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Bush Administration pursued torture as a matter of policy. However, ferocious blowback from the administration has up to this point intimidated the American media from calling things by proper names."

Here's what McCain said at the debate: "[W]e've got to -- to make sure that we have people who are trained interrogators so that we don't ever torture a prisoner ever again."

Obama responded: "I give Senator McCain great credit on the torture issue, for having identified that as something that undermines our long-term security."

Mary McNamara writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Oscar-winning documentary 'Taxi to the Dark Side,' which debuts at 9 tonight on HBO, is a hair-raising, stomach-clenching reminder of why documentaries, and HBO, were invented. . . .

"Far from a partisan attack on the Bush administration, many of the voices in 'Taxi to the Dark Side' are Republicans and/or military personnel, including some of the soldiers who participated in the torture. The most damning evidence against the architects of the new torture 'guidelines' -- Vice President Dick Cheney, then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and then-White House legal advisor Alberto R. Gonzales -- comes from their own lips."

India Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The House overwhelmingly gave final approval yesterday to a landmark civil nuclear agreement with India, putting the Bush administration in reach of a substantial foreign policy achievement.

"The legislation, which passed 298 to 117, still faces obstacles in the Senate, where it has been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but several senators have blocked it from coming to the floor for debate. The administration has pressed for final action before Congress adjourns, even though the 2006 bill that gave preliminary approval to the deal called for a much longer period of discussion and debate. . . .

"The deal, which has been fiercely opposed by nuclear proliferation experts, would give New Delhi access to U.S. nuclear technology for the first time since it conducted a nuclear test in 1974."

Pakistan Watch

Andrew J. Bacevich writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "President Bush will leave office without concluding either of the two wars he initiated after 9/11. Now, in the waning months of his administration, the president seems intent on expanding his 'global war on terror' still farther. To the existing fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq, he is adding a third: Pakistan.

"Eclipsed perhaps only by Iraq, Pakistan ranks in the very top tier of the Bush administration's foreign policy blunders."

North Korea Watch

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration is dispatching its chief North Korea negotiator, Christopher Hill, to Pyongyang this week in a last-ditch effort to rescue what the White House had hoped would be a singular foreign policy achievement: an accord leading to the country's nuclear disarmament.

"The rapid decision to send Mr. Hill to the North Korean capital, days after North Korea broke the seals that United Nations inspectors placed on its equipment and said it was restarting a facility to manufacture bomb-grade plutonium, seemed to underscore the administration's desperation to restore an accord that took most of President Bush's second term to negotiate and implement. Mr. Hill, one administration official said, is 'flying blind,' hoping to get a previous agreement back on track."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration hard-liners have never wanted to negotiate with North Korea. For six years they managed to block any serious talks. During that time North Korea produced enough plutonium for at least four additional weapons and tested a nuclear weapon.

"Over the past two years, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a competent team of diplomats have been running the show. But now it looks as if Mr. Cheney and Co. are back in charge. The administration is insisting that before it will remove North Korea from the terrorism list, Pyongyang must first accept a plan for verifying its nuclear programs that only a state vanquished in war might accept."

Campaign Watch

Nicholas D. Kristof writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Although he is frantically trying to distance himself from President Bush, Mr. McCain, by his own accounting, would be more Bushian in foreign policy than even Mr. Bush is now. While Mr. Bush has been forced to accept more sensible policies in his second term, Mr. McCain has become steadily more of a neocon in the cowboy role that Mr. Bush played in his first term, prone to solving problems with stealth bombers rather than United Nations resolutions."

Abramson on Woodward

From New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson's review on Bob Woodward's latest book: "In contrast to his other Bush volumes, 'The War Within' does provide interstitial analysis and judgments throughout. It also renders an extremely harsh final appraisal of President Bush. In a stinging epilogue, Woodward concludes: 'For years, time and again, President Bush has displayed impatience, bravado and unsettling personal certainty about his decisions. The result has too often been impulsiveness and carelessness and, perhaps most troubling, a delayed reaction to realities and advice that run counter to his gut.'

"Some will deem this judgment obvious and long overdue. They will also come away hungry if they expect Woodward to grapple with the central question surrounding the Iraq war: whether it was launched and fought with just cause. Still, Woodward has traveled far since the publication of his first two volumes; in both he viewed events through an overly heroic prism in the aftermath of 9/11. In his third volume, 'State of Denial,' the author took a mulligan. Writing as the insurgency in Iraq was spinning out of control, he rewound the story back to the beginning and offered a much tougher account of Bush's war policies and their executors.

"In 'The War Within,' more judgmental still, President Bush shrinks in stature as the narrator's presence grows. Cynics will say that Woodward waited until the last book to fully criticize the president and his closest advisers because he no longer needs access to them."

Legacy Watch

Stanley Fish blogs for the New York Times with the following prediction: "[W]ithin a year of the day he leaves office, and no matter who succeeds him, George W. Bush will be a popular public figure, regarded with affection and a little nostalgia even by those who voted against him and thought he was the worst president in our history."

Why? Because Bush is so darn likable. "We'll not be depending on him," Fish writes, "so we'll be free to like him."

Cartoon Watch

Clay Bennett on a fitting Bush tribute, Daryl Cagle on Bush's offer, RJ Matson on Bush's new ownership society, Paul Zanetti on the time to panic, and Adam Zyglis on fool me once.

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