By Peter Baker and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
MERIDA, Mexico, March 13 -- As President Bush toured ancient Mayan ruins and exchanged toasts with the new Mexican president Tuesday, his aides furiously worked the telephones back to Washington. Another administration official was out, and the attorney general was deflecting calls for his own ouster as well.
The cascade of controversies that followed Bush to Latin America has left a president familiar with weathering crises in uncharted territory. For the first time since taking office, Bush confronts political furors on multiple fronts and an opposition Congress armed with the subpoena power to investigate them.
The response to the dispute over dismissed federal prosecutors underscores the inexperience of a White House accustomed to having its own party in control on Capitol Hill. After first brushing aside suggestions from a Congress that had been reluctant to exercise oversight for the past six years that the firings may have been improper, officials then sought to minimize White House involvement in the mass ouster. Tuesday's release of e-mails documenting the role of key administration figures in the decision to dismiss the prosecutors provoked outrage on both sides of the aisle.
In the past, questions about its actions might have died down without the internal administration e-mails being made public. Now the White House is in the position of explaining why it has repeatedly changed its story.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Democrats will not let Bush brush aside controversies. "This is going to be a rockier year for the White House because every time there is a perceived mistake, they can fire up an investigation," he said. "It puts the White House on the defensive."
"What you have got is a White House that has become an accountability-free zone that is now facing the reality of checks and balances from Congress," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a member of the House Democratic leadership. "You had a White House that was used to a rubber-stamp Congress for so long that they could get away with anything. This is the kind of stuff that in the past Congress would have put their head in the sand about."
The matter over the U.S. attorneys comes to a head amid a two-week period of repeated blows to the administration. The uproar over conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center triggered multiple investigations and resignations. The perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former top aide, ended in the conviction of the highest-ranking White House official in two decades. And an internal investigation uncovered an array of FBI abuses of intelligence-gathering powers.
Bush has been confronted with questions about some of these matters as he made his way across Latin America, and dispatched one of his closest aides, counselor Dan Bartlett, to go before cameras to defend the White House on the prosecutor dismissals. Bartlett dismissed any broader interpretation of the spate of investigations. "You're trying to connect a lot of dots that aren't connectible," he said. "But that doesn't negate the fact that those who serve our country and serve in this administration have to live up to the highest ethical standards. And the president will insist on nothing less."
At the same time, he acknowledged, the U.S. attorney issue was mishandled, noting that Justice Department officials initially offered a misleading explanation. "They didn't want to make this a big public embarrassment about the managerial decisions internally being made in the Department of Justice, which, unfortunately left a different impression as to why" the prosecutors were fired, Bartlett said.
He made no mention, however, of the shifting White House version of events. A week ago, the White House said it knew of no involvement of Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. But this week it disclosed that Rove was consulted two years ago on a suggestion to fire all 93 U.S. attorneys and that he warned against it. On Tuesday, Bartlett said that "it wouldn't be surprising that Karl or other people were receiving these complaints" about prosecutors and passing them on.
The president, for his part, has made a point of appearing focused on the goals of his six-day "social justice" tour, which will end Wednesday. He did not speak with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales before his old friend's news conference Tuesday, nor has he been on the phone with other officials in Washington, aides said. Instead, he has let Bartlett and Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, who is also on the trip, interact with aides at the White House, where Deputy Chief of Staff Joel D. Kaplan is in charge.
The coincidence of timing has created a split-screen trip, with Bush boating with Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez and touring the legendary Uxmal ruins with Mexican President Felipe Calderón while at home his administration faces one crisis after another. Bush hoped to use his five-nation tour to repair frayed ties to the region, but the main images transmitted to the United States were of violent protests in the streets that greeted him at every stop.
Bush aides believe they accomplished what they wanted in the tour of the region, because Latin Americans received fuller coverage of his events and remarks about their concerns, such as immigration and poverty. Yet even here, Bush's every move was shadowed by his leftist regional bête noire, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, taunting him with go-home-Gringo-themed speeches and demonstrations.
Bush has faced tough political moments before, including the uproar over abuse at Abu Ghraib, the original CIA leak scandal and the revelation of secret warrantless eavesdropping. The difference now is that Democrats are in charge on Capitol Hill and the Bush team is not used to the jousting with another branch, which was commonplace for Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
That has been evident in the disparate responses to recent issues by different players in the administration. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a veteran of President George H.W. Bush's administration, responded to Walter Reed disclosures in a traditional and predictable Washington manner by firing the Army secretary and two generals, and vowing to fix the problem. By contrast, Gonzales, who had no Washington experience before coming from Texas with Bush, through his office provided shifting accounts of what happened with the U.S. attorneys before finally resorting to the more familiar "mistakes were made" news conference Tuesday and accepting the resignation of his top aide the day before.
The arrival of the new Congress was the reason that Bush eased out Harriet E. Miers, his old friend and lawyer, as White House counsel and brought in Fred F. Fielding, a seasoned Washington hand who helped Reagan deal with a Democratic Congress in the 1980s. Now that she is out, Miers has found herself on the spot for her actions regarding the prosecutors.
"I think that the White House Counsel's Office, and the leadership at Justice and the leadership at the FBI all deserve part of the blame for the unacceptable way these issues have been handled," Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) said about the prosecutors and FBI abuses. "The president is ultimately responsible for making these appointments. One of the real disappointments in each of these examples is there were real failings at many different levels."
Abramowitz reported from Washington.