By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 14, 2005
A series of scandals involving some of the most powerful Republicans in Washington have converged to disrupt President Bush's agenda, distract aides and allies, and exacerbate political problems for an already weakened administration, according to party strategists and White House advisers.
With Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove returning to a grand jury as early as today, associates said the architect of Bush's presidency has been preoccupied with his legal troubles, a diversion that some say contributed to the troubled handling of Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court. White House officials are privately bracing for the possibility that Rove or other officials could be indicted in the next two weeks.
Bush's main partners on Capitol Hill likewise are spending time defending themselves as the president's legislative initiatives founder. The indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for alleged campaign funding illegalities has thrown Republicans into one of the most tumultuous periods of their 11-year reign and created the prospect of a leadership battle. And while Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) deals with a subpoena in an insider-trading investigation, a bipartisan majority rebuked Bush over torture policies.
Most of the scandals have little direct connection with one another, but their accumulation in a compressed period has challenged a White House already beset by political problems stemming from the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and high gasoline prices, according to Republican advisers close to the Bush team, several of whom said they could speak candidly only if they were not identified by name.
"The Rove thing has gotten to be enormously distracting," said one outside adviser to the White House. "Knowing the way the White House works, being under subpoena like this, your mind is not on your work, it's on that."
"It looks like a perfect storm," said Joseph E. diGenova, a Republican and former independent counsel, who noted that so many investigations can weigh on an administration. "People have no idea what happens when an investigation gets underway. It's debilitating. It's not just distracting. It's debilitating. It's like getting punched in the stomach."
Beyond the short-term problems, Republicans are particularly anxious about the sprawling investigations of conservative lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose business and political dealings regularly brought him into contact with dozens of lawmakers and top White House officials. Among insiders, he was one of the most familiar faces among the generation of operatives and lobbyists who came of age when Republicans took control of Congress after the 1994 elections.
"The one that people are most worried about is Abramoff because it seems to have such long tentacles," said former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a lobbyist with close ties to the White House. "This seems to be something that could spread almost anywhere . . . and that has a lot of people worried."
The Abramoff scandal has already resulted in two unanticipated casualties: David H. Safavian, a former Rove business partner serving as the top White House procurement official, recently resigned and was arrested on charges that he lied about and impeded an investigation into his dealings with Abramoff. And Timothy E. Flanigan, Bush's nominee for deputy attorney general, the number two job at the Justice Department, withdrew last week after questions were raised about his interactions with the lobbyist.
"The Abramoff thing is a lingering nuisance to everybody," said GOP lobbyist Charles Black. "I don't know who else might be caught up in it."
Twin investigations of Abramoff by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and a multi-agency federal task force appear likely to tar a host of lawmakers the White House has relied on for passage of critical legislative initiatives. At the same time, the House ethics committee, which has been essentially shut down over a staffing dispute, is expected to get back in business and look into allegations against DeLay and nearly a dozen other lawmakers, Democrats included. This is where the Abramoff and unrelated investigations could start to merge.
House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), a DeLay ally, is facing questions about ties to Abramoff, including his participation in a golf outing in Scotland that the lobbyist organized in 2002. And Rove allies have also been entangled in the Abramoff investigation. One is Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader who has struggled during a campaign for lieutenant governor of Georgia to shake off suggestions that he received Indian gambling money to mount a lobbying effort against rival casinos.
The current atmosphere is not what Bush envisioned as a candidate in 2000. Coming off the Clinton years, which were dominated by seven independent counsel investigations and the impeachment of the president, Bush vowed to run a cleaner and more ethical Washington. "In my administration," Bush told voters in Pittsburgh in October 2000, "we will ask not only what is legal but what is right, not what the lawyers allow but what the public deserves."
It was a vow that was welcomed in a capital weary of scandal, and the Bush White House made it through the first term without losing many scalps . With the lapse of the independent counsel statute and congressional oversight committees in the hands of the president's party, the instruments of political investigations were more limited.
But scandal historically has ripened in second terms, including Watergate for Richard M. Nixon, the Iran-contra affair for Ronald Reagan, and the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation for Bill Clinton. "It always comes back," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia scholar who has written on Washington scandals. "There may be a couple of dry years occasionally, but it is a style of American politics -- always has been, always will be. And now it's back with a vengeance."
Some administration allies lament the return of the scandal culture. "There was essentially none of that for the first five years," said Indiana Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R), Bush's first budget director. "That doesn't make the current situation any easier to watch."
Other White House advisers see politics behind the recent spurt of investigations. "Some of it is cyclical politically," said Leonard A. Leo, who has taken leave as executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society to help promote the Miers nomination. "And some of it, I'll be honest, is when the left and the Democrats are losing the battle of ideas, they turn to manufacturing scandal."
In the end, some Republicans argue, it will not add up to much or turn off voters. "I don't think people feel there is a sleaze factor at all," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), adding that most voters are more aggrieved over excessive spending and gas prices.
Several Republicans close to Bush said they believe the CIA leak investigation has taken a particular toll, reducing Rove's role in key decisions and prompting Bush to rely on other, less sure-footed advisers. One well-connected outside adviser cited the Miers pick as an example. He said even if Rove considered the selection a risk or mistake, he knew he was in no position to press Bush on it.
"My sense is Karl knows he has spent a lot of political capital with the president on this CIA leak case," the adviser said. "No matter how close Karl is to the president, there is a limit of how much capital you can spend even with a close, close friend."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan denied that Rove had little input in the Miers nomination. "I don't think that's an accurate reflection at all," he said. Asked if Rove's involvement in White House issues had shifted, McClellan said: "No. He continues to perform his duties."
Two Republicans close to the White House said officials are nervous that Rove and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the two most powerful staffers in the federal government, could be indicted by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald within two weeks. While the idea struck many on the Bush team as unfathomable a few months ago, now the common assumption is that both men could be in trouble.
Staff writers R. Jeffrey Smith and Dan Eggen contributed to this report.