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On Kerik Nomination, White House Missed Red Flags

By Mike Allen and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page A04

President Bush hoped to limit the political damage from the nomination of Bernard B. Kerik by cutting him loose as soon as he confessed he had not paid taxes for a Mexican nanny who apparently had been in the country illegally. Instead, questions about Bush's judgment have escalated because of a cascade of damaging details about Kerik's business and personal lives that White House vetters either missed or ignored.

A few days of digging by news organizations have revealed that Bush had planned to entrust one of the most sensitive jobs in his Cabinet, secretary of homeland security, to a man who had failed to report lavish gifts he received as a New York City official, had declared personal bankruptcy and was the subject of an arrest warrant in a civil case involving unpaid condominium fees.

Bernard B. Kerik withdrew as secretary-designate of homeland security. (File Photo)

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Since Kerik withdrew, reports have emerged that he helped a company suspected of doing business with organized crime, and he has been accused of extramarital affairs that his representatives do not deny.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the lobbying community, accustomed to a White House that resists any whiff of sleaziness, were left wondering whether it was more astounding that Kerik allowed himself to be considered or that Bush disregarded a forest of red flags and nominated him anyway.

An exhausted staffer who has been closely involved in the matter from the beginning called it "a case of hubris on both sides."

Marshall Wittman, a former Republican who is now a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council, called this the first instance of the overreaching that officials in both parties had expected after Bush won reelection and claimed a broad mandate.

"When you believe you are invulnerable, you will always take a step too far, and this was it," Wittman said. "The most cursory checking would have shown this guy has more skeletons than a haunted house. This choice was political from the beginning to the end."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said: "Commissioner Kerik withdrew his name. The matter is closed, and now we're moving forward on another nominee."

McClelllan would not say where that process stands, but other administration officials said they do not expect a nominee to be announced this week.

Officials close to the White House said it is clear that Bush chose Kerik, who was New York police commissioner on Sept. 11, 2001, largely at the behest of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R). The White House says Giuliani was only one of several people who recommended Kerik. "We do not choose people based on recommendations," a White House official said.

Close aides to Bush said they are not angry at Giuliani, and McClellan on Monday described the two as "very good friends." The president invited the former mayor to the residence when he was at the White House for a holiday dinner on Sunday night. Giuliani and his wife, Judith, rode in the limousine with the president and Laura Bush, as they rode back from a "Christmas in Washington" event to attend the holiday dinner at the White House.

White House officials said they knew about many of the issues before the nomination but did not deem them disqualifying. In part, they were relying on the support of New York's two Democratic senators, Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both of whom had issued statements praising Kerik after the announcement. The White House also was banking on the notion that Kerik had survived the rough-and-tumble New York political world, including its bare-knuckled tabloid press, and figured that no senator would dare question Kerik on his extramarital activities at a confirmation hearing.

One senior official said even Kerik's failure to pay employment taxes for the nanny would not have been enough to pull the nomination because he could have owned up to the error and paid the back taxes. But the official said the idea of hiring an undocumented immigrant was in the end untenable for the Cabinet secretary in charge of immigration.

In hindsight, according to people close to the White House, it appeared Bush or his aides allowed their affection for Kerik to cloud their judgment. Kerik traveled extensively on behalf of Bush's reelection campaign and became a popular figure within the president's circle. His hero status from the Sept. 11 attacks and his colorful personality, Bush advisers figured, would help inoculate Kerik from questions about his past.

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