On Tuesday evening the White House announced the resignations of both Attorney General John Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Don Evans with little fanfare. How do the resignations change the Bush Administration as the president heads into a second term? Who else is likely to leave in the coming weeks? What names are being floated to replace Ashcroft and Evans?
Ronald Kessler, author of "A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush," discusses Bush's second term and the recent resignations.
The transcript follows.
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Ronald Kessler: Welcome to the discussion. I look forward to your questions.
Mr. Kessler, good morning. The two resignationals announced yesterday had been more or less widely anticipated. What others do you foresee happening over the course of the next month or so?
I've thought for some time that George Bush is not someone who trusts easily, and delegates so much that trust is essential in key appointees. It follows from this that he will not seek major turnover in top posts unless it can't be avoided. Am I misreading him?
Ronald Kessler: No you are absolutely right. Bush despite the characters you see operates like a good CEO. N fact Stephen Friedman, former chairman of Goldman Sacks who is now his economic advisor, told me that Bush operates like the best CEOs on Wall Street. He reads briefing materials before meetings, he solicits different views during meetings, he asks questions about areas that people have not thought of and then he makes up his mind. When it comes to selecting personnel he wants people who have experience, who are good managers and who don't measure their success by whether their name appears in the Washington Post, so when it comes to the second term, he wants to keep the people who have been functioning well and maintain as much continuity as possible.
As a Commerce employee, what can I expect to change with a new Commerce Secretary. What will to President look for in selecting a new Secretary and what is on the President's agenda for Commerce? Thank you.
Ronald Kessler: I don't think you will see much change as all. Don Evans being one of Bush's closest friends emulated Bush's approach. I do think it is interesting that I knew in August that Don Evans was going to be leaving and that his wife Sue had already moved back to Texas and yet they were able to keep his departure secret until this week. It shows how incredibly good the White House is at keeping secrets.
Isn't the talk about these resignations much ado about
nothing? The president is still the same and there is no
evidence that his policies will change. Thus won't who
ever takes the places of these resignations carry out the
Ronald Kessler: Yes, that is true. In the case of John Ashcroft the policies will remain the same but I do think that Bush wanted someone in that position who comes across in a less confrontational or more dulcet manner. Al Gonzles is a good example of someone who can be just as tough on terrorism and enforce the law but also comes across as someone like the legendary Edward Bennett Williams. Another example of that is Don Evans. Last night Chris Matthews was singing his praises. It is not so much his policies as how they come across on TV or perhaps in a speech to the ACLU. Bob Mueller the FBI director spoke to the ACLU and they were eating out of his hands. Ashcroft would have received a much more chilly reception.
It seems to me that there was nothing subtle about John Ashcroft submitting his resignation on Election Day. It seems that he was telegraphing his inpatience to get out. Do you know anything more?
Ronald Kessler: I do think that the Bush people thought that Ashcroft was the one person they would have most wanted to replace. How that played out I don't know.
It's been long discussed that Colin Powell will also not return for a second term. Is this pretty much a given, or do you think he might possibly stay on?
Ronald Kessler: I think he might stay on for a time. He certainly has telegraphed that he is tired but at the same time what else is he going to do? I think he is definitely someone Bush would want to remain in the cabinet.
The speculation that Condi Rice wants to be Defense Secretary is absolutely wrong. If she remains in the administration, and I believe she will, she will want to retain her present position as National Security Director. She loves that job, she is in the middle of the action and she has been very affective.
How can the Senate possibly confirm Gonzales when he was the guy who drafted the policy allowing torture of U.S. prisoners, in violation of the Geneva Convention?
Ronald Kessler: I totally disagree that there was any memo advocating torture or what was proposed violated the Geneva Convention. Gonzales is someone who grew up in a family of eight with no running hot water and no telephone. He went to Harvard Law School, he is a brilliant lawyer with what I believe is a balanced approach to looking at the law. He was instrumental in drafting the PATRIOT Act, which despite the claims, does not infringe on civil liberties. In fact any search or wiretap under the PATRIOT Act has to be approved by a judge.
Before the election, it was said that Rice would probably take over for Rumsfeld, as he was rumored to be leaving and she apparently doesn't want to remain as NSA Advisor. Now, Rumsfeld is indicating he wants to stay. Do you think Bush will push him aside to keep Rice, who's clearly one of his closest confidants?
Ronald Kessler: No. As I mentioned Rice wants to stay in her current position. Bush highly values Rumsfeld who despite the problems in Iraq waged a successful war in both Iraq and Afghanistan and modernized the Defense Departments approach to winning the war on terror. Bush is like the investor Warren Buffett who takes a long term approach. He doesn't look at the momentary setbacks or media criticism but instead looks at what his policies will achieve years from now. And I think it is a good bet that years from now we will see a democratic Iraq and we have already seen success in the war on terror. The fact that we have not been attacked in more than three years is because Bush's leadership of the FBI, CIA and military's efforts to win the war on terror.
My impression is that the PATRIOT Act was primarily John Ashcroft's baby. Is it reasonable to assume (hope?!) that his departure will make it easier to modify its extreme portions and even derail the second PATRIOT Act?
Ronald Kessler: Actually the concepts for the PATRIOT Act was George Bush's a few days after 9/11. He asked Al Gonzales to start working on legislation that would update the FBI's efforts and give them the tools they will need to uncover plots before they happen. The ACLU has scared people into thinking that the PATRIOT Act is all about having FBI agents look over the shoulders of grandmothers reading Catcher in the Rye in libraries. Most of the power in the PATRIOT Act already existed. For example if the FBI wanted to search a computer of a suspected terrorist it could ask a judge to keep the search warrant secret. Under the PATRIOT Act that automatically happens. If the FBI thought a terrorist group were about to release a biological or radiological attack on the U.S. that might kill 100,000 people would you want the FBI to let these suspected terrorists know that they are coming to his house to search his computer before they arrive?
If there is one thing George Bush is adamant about it is maintaining the PATRIOT Act as it is. He never wants to be in the same position he was in on 9/11 when he had wished that we had all done more to protect America.
Today Oregonians learned that Ashcroft's attempt to block our assisted suicide law was again moving forward, and then a couple of hours later we learned he had resigned. Will the plaintiff's resignation from his post end the suit?
Ronald Kessler: No.
Did Ashcroft resign on his own, or did he get a gentle (or not so gentle) push from the White House?
Ronald Kessler: As I indicated before I think that Ashcroft was the one person that Bush would have wanted to replace. How that was communicated or whether that was communicated I don't know.
Mr Kessler: With all due respect, your answer to the question about the possible torture question was quite evasive. Are you denying that Mr. Gonzales wrote the memo? That he defended the use of torture in it? That he opined torture in some circumstances to be permitted by the GC? These may all be reasonable positions, but your answer makes me unable to tell which you are advocating.
Your answer was more of a knee-jerk reaction that a reasoned response.
Ronald Kessler: I believe the memo had to do with depriving people of sleep and that sort of thing. That is not torture. In fact the CIA has never advocated torture because it produces false information.
From where I'm sitting in Blue Country, Ashcroft does not seem any more abrasive than Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. Why was the White House so eager to get rid of the Attorney General as opposed to other controversial figures?
Ronald Kessler: Whether you agree or not with Dick Cheney I don't think he comes across as someone who is threatening and he is very good at articulating policy. I don't think Ashcroft had the same touch.
Ronald Kessler: Much as he has done a superb job in the war on terror.
Fort Worth, Tex.:
What's your take on Giulianni's chances of heading the DOJ? Would the Bush White House be willing to accept some of his moderate-to-liberal stances on affirmative action, abortion, and gun control because of his staunch support during the campaign and his toughness on crime and terrorism?
Ronald Kessler: I don't think Giulianni wants the job and I do think Bush wants Al Gonzales in that job, but look for Giulianni as a presidential candidate in my opinion.
Will there be other resignations? or movement?
Ronald Kessler: Any person in the media who claims they know all these answers is spinning. George Bush himself hasn't made up his mind on many of the candidates and positions. I think additional changes will come, but they will be incremental. Bush wants the government to continue running smoothly and his team has remained the same essentially since the beginning of his first term. There is always a lot of focus on the brand names like Condi Rice and Donald Rumsfeld. Actually the names of some of the most influential advisors almost never appear in the media, such as Margaret Spellings, the domestic policy advisor, Harriet Miers, the deputy chief of staff, Dina Powell, who is charge of presidential personnel. Dina is the one who came up with the idea of selecting Snow as Treasury secretary and Williams Donaldson as SEC chairman.
Washington, D.C. at heart:
This may be a tad hypothetical, but if Gonzales gets the nod to replace Ashcroft, what affect do you see that having on judicial nominations? Gonzales has been instrumental in the process thus far, how could he continue to hold sway from the Justice department over nominations? Also, Gonzales as AG seems to preclude him being nominated for the Supreme Court. Or does it??
Ronald Kessler: The Attorney General does become involved in recommendation for judicial appointments so Gonzales would continue in that role. Being Attorney General gives him another important credential for being nominated for the Supreme Court, which Bush definitely would like to do at some point.
The overwhelming focus in the media has been on Ashcroft. I guess I understand that, but it seems like Evans is much more likely to have an impact in the future if, as many up here in New Hampshire suspect, he will spend much of the next three years in our living rooms.
Ronald Kessler: There has been so much speculation that Don Evans wanted to be Chief of Staff and now that he wants to be president. Evans really wants to go back to Texas and lead a happy life there.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
Pundits and media talking heads were widely predicting Colin Powell would not stay for a 2nd term at his post. I remember Bob Woodward saying "not a chance" when an interviewer asked him if Powell would stick around for a 2nd term. That talk seems to have died down dramatically since 11/2...your thoughts? Thanks for taking questions.
Ronald Kessler: The State Department of all agencies overflows with people who leak to the media, mainly false information and so you really have to be very skeptical about what you see in the media about Colin Powell. I do think he will stay for at least some time.
It is expected that Tom Ridge will step down soon (probably after the inauguration for homeland security reasons). Have you heard of potential replacements? I keep hearing about Asa Hutchison. Any other major potentials?
Ronald Kessler: No, but I think Bush will be looking for a good manger in that position. Ridge did not seem to have good management skills. If you look back at the coverage prior to Bush becoming president the vast majority of names floated in the media as potential aides and cabinet officers turned out to be wrong. Bush I think will reach out to people who do not seem to be obvious candidates but yet have the requisite management skills. The person who is helping in the selection process along with Dina Powell is Clay Johnson III, who is Bush's friend from Andover and Yale, was his chief of staff when you was governor, was chief of the first transition and then became chief of presidential personnel until he groomed Dina Powell to take over. On election night people like Al Gonzales and Margaret Spellings and other "lifers" as Clay calls them, were at his house along with his wife Anne Johnson. These are additional examples of people who don't appear in the media, but are very important in this administration.
Ronald Kessler: I appreciate your questions and I hope you will read my book, "A Matter of Character," to learn more about Bush and his administration.