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On Kerik Nomination, White House Missed Red Flags

But the Bush team effectively compartmentalized Kerik's controversies, assuming that each dispute and controversy could be deflected or explained away without anticipating the political toll of the accumulation of so many. Even before Kerik's withdrawal, news organizations began picking apart his history and Democrats began smelling blood -- if not enough to block Senate confirmation, at least enough to stir up a tumultuous process.

The White House never checked with Schumer and Clinton before making the nomination, according to spokesmen for the senators. "There was no heads-up," said Philippe Reines, Clinton's press secretary. "It's an absurd notion that they run their picks past us."

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

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Moreover, some Bush advisers say Kerik may have wanted the job so much that he was not as forthcoming as he ought to have been. The vetting conducted by the White House counsel's office before a nominee's announcement is not as thorough as the FBI investigation that follows and depends heavily on the nominee's candor.

A former Bush administration official who has been through the process said that lawyers from the White House counsel's office "sit you down and ask you everything, but then they don't go back and double-check until after the announcement."

"The understanding is: You tell us everything, and we'll help you get through this," the former official said. "The difficulty here was Kerik's definition of 'everything.' "

Jack Quinn, who as White House counsel oversaw vetting for President Bill Clinton's second-term team, said his team would grill potential nominees for a wide range of possible controversies. "Nothing was more terrifying to me than the possibility that a nominee would blow up in my face," Quinn said. "You feel an enormous responsibility to the president not to let that happen. I sat down with these people and got pretty obnoxious and spent a lot of time at the end of my interviews asking, 'What have I forgotten?' "

James Hamilton, a Washington lawyer who vetted about 75 nominees for Clinton when he was first elected, said, "In any good vet, tax matters, marital matters, business matters are explored in great detail."

The White House makes sure to ask questions as broadly as possible to draw out anything the vetters had not thought to ask. Question 43 on the Clinton form was: "Please provide any other information, including information about members of your family, that could suggest a conflict of interest or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family or the president."

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