Calling Fred Fielding

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

When Fred Fielding was named White House counsel in January, his selection was viewed as a welcome sign of the new times.

Here, it seemed, was a sober acknowledgment that, with Democrats in control of Congress, the White House needed a counsel who understood the workings of Washington, when to pull and when to yield in the necessary tug of war between the branches and parties.

After all, Fielding was adept enough to have survived service in the Nixon counsel's office unscathed -- except for persistent (but inaccurate) rumors that he was Deep Throat. He held the counsel's job during the Reagan years, when he was viewed as something of a wise man even at age 45.

"Part of Fielding's staying power stems from his ability to conciliate, negotiate and get his way without offending," The Post's Al Kamen wrote in 1984. "He is the consummate behind-the-scenes player."

Fielding had even, as a member of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, helped pry documents out of a notoriously recalcitrant White House -- the one he's now working for.

All of which is why Fielding's performance so far in the controversy over the fired U.S. attorneys has been so puzzling -- and disappointing. Where, I've been wondering, is Fielding the canny but soothing dealmaker?

Fielding has a client to represent in this dispute. His job isn't to make friends in Congress; it's to negotiate the arrangement that best protects the legitimate needs of the president for candid advice from aides. Maybe, behind the scenes, he's a force for reasonable accommodation.

But Fielding's approach has so far seemed more Harriet Miers than Clark Clifford, more Alberto Gonzales than, well, Fred Fielding.

Three weeks ago he made lawmakers an offer they couldn't afford not to refuse. The Fielding feint imposed unacceptable conditions on lawmakers' access to White House officials, including the outlandish demand that any interviews not be transcribed.

Fielding also insisted that interviews not be under oath and that they be conducted behind closed doors, with no prospect of subsequent public testimony.

I assumed this was a classic negotiating ploy: Impose constraints that you know are unreasonable so you can then give something up. But Fielding couched his March 20 offer in take-it-or-leave-it terms -- and then promptly left.

Since then, he hasn't responded to a March 22 letter from all 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee rejecting the offer. He hasn't responded to a March 28 letter from the chairmen of the Senate and House judiciary committees asking that the White House at least provide those documents that Fielding had agreed ought to be turned over. He hasn't responded to an April 6 letter from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asking about Fielding's response to the first two letters.

Are they having some kind of problem with mail delivery at the White House?

As it turns out, Fielding has talked with the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), and the senator's counsel, Mike O'Neill. According to Specter, Fielding says the White House is interested in reaching an accommodation along the lines suggested by Specter -- unsworn private testimony with a transcript as a first step -- but worries about whether the House will agree.

That Fielding is talking to someone is welcome news -- but given that Democrats are in the majority now, shouldn't he at least respond to their requests? Maybe have an aide call and say, "Got your note, we'll get back to you"? No one expects a group hug, but it doesn't seem smart to tick off people who have subpoena power.

The White House may be slow-walking this because it wants to wait for the make-or-break -- and it's awfully hard to see how it can't break -- testimony of Attorney General Gonzales next Tuesday. If Gonzales doesn't survive, the White House will no doubt declare the problem solved and urge everyone to move on. Nothing more to see here, folks.

There's scant chance that Democrats will go along -- nor should they. If that's the White House strategy, Specter says, "that is very wishful thinking. There is too much that has gone on."

The evidence shows that the White House was deeply involved in the firings. That's neither surprising nor necessarily improper; these are presidential appointees, after all. But lawmakers have, by the administration's own admission, been misled about the role of the White House, especially the involvement of Karl Rove. President Bush and Rove both passed on to Gonzales complaints about specific U.S. attorneys.

In short, there's ample predicate for lawmakers to seek more information than they've gotten so far. And it gets you to thinking: Where's a Fred Fielding type when you need him?

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