By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007
President Bush yesterday tapped veteran GOP strategist and lobbyist Edward W. Gillespie as White House counselor, adding another Washington insider to a key position in his administration as it continues to battle with Congress over Iraq, the Justice Department and immigration.
Gillespie, 45, will replace outgoing counselor Dan Bartlett, who is leaving at the end of the month to spend more time with his family, and is the latest in a parade of prominent outsiders who have gradually been replacing Bush's original team. Gillespie will also be stepping down as chairman of the Republican Party in Virginia.
Bush made the announcement in the Oval Office after lunching with Bartlett and Gillespie. He described Gillespie as "a seasoned hand who has got excellent judgment. He's a good strategic thinker that I know will do a fine job."
In Gillespie, Bush is gaining one of Washington's top Republican strategists and someone who has been a key ally outside the administration since the beginning of his term. Gillespie was a spokesman for Bush during the 2000 Florida recount, helped steer his two Supreme Court nominees through the Senate confirmation process and served a stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2004 campaign.
Along with the new White House counsel, Fred F. Fielding, and a number of lower-level appointments, Gillespie represents an influx of veteran Washington hands into a White House that once seemed to prize its opposition to the ways of the nation's capital. With the administration facing multiple investigations by congressional oversight committees and a fierce battle in Congress to maintain support for funding of the Iraq war, that kind of experience will be essential, in the view of many outside allies of Bush.
Gillespie's background as one of Washington's top lobbyists for corporate interests quickly proved a magnet for criticism yesterday. As chairman of the firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates, Gillespie has been registered to lobby for 57 companies and associations in the financial services, telecommunications, pharmaceutical and transportation fields. Gillespie's firm had come to be regarded as the one to see if a company wanted access to the White House.
Opensecrets.org reported that Quinn Gillespie had income of $16.8 million from lobbying during 2006, including $320,000 from the American Hospital Association, $360,000 from AT&T and $600,000 from the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Some of the firm's clients have major decisions pending before federal regulatory bodies and other government institutions. DaimlerChrysler, for instance, is worried about moves to raise fuel-efficiency standards, while XM Satellite Radio is looking for approval of its proposed merger with Sirius. Gillespie will make $168,000 a year in his new job, White House aides said.
Gillespie, in a brief interview yesterday, said he would recuse himself from dealings with former partners and clients, but some outside ethics experts and lobbyists said it would be all but impossible for him to avoid influencing at least in a general way the industries he once represented.
"This shows the reverse revolving door, spinning at the stratospheric level," said Don Simon, a Washington lawyer and former general counsel for Common Cause, the good-government advocacy group. "Someone who is at the top of the corporate lobbying world is going into the top of the White House staff, and it shows the sometimes incestuous relationship between lobbyists and government."
White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten dismissed concerns about this lobbying background, saying Gillespie has worked out "a good recusal regime" with the counsel's office and that he always viewed Gillespie as more of a specialist in strategic communications than lobbying.
Bolten, who first sounded out Gillespie about the job a month ago, said the one-time aide to former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) was far and away the president's first choice for the job. Bolten said he expected Gillespie to develop a "strong and close personal relationship of confidence" with Bush while retaining the "ability to step back and see the big picture."
As structured under Bush and Bartlett, the position of White House counselor has been a free-ranging adviser with broad authority over communications, as well as a hand in policy and almost everything else that comes across the president's desk. Both Bolten and Gillespie suggested that model will continue, though officials said it is unlikely that Gillespie will be able to fully replace Bartlett, who worked with Bush for almost 14 years and enjoyed an unusual rapport with him.
But Gillespie is well liked by the president's staff and could be helpful to Bush in some parts of the White House operation that have drawn criticism over the years, including relations with Congress and the news media, said several GOP strategists outside the administration. He is also close to political adviser Karl Rove, who some Republicans said had a tense relationship with Bartlett.
"It's good for the White House because Ed has great relationships with the key folks to be successful in that post -- the president, White House staff, Hill, reporters, K Street, party leaders," Ken Mehlman, the former RNC chairman, said in an e-mail exchange.
One thing that remains to be seen is how well Gillespie will work with the new Democratic majority in Congress, given his background as a fierce partisan.
During the 2004 presidential election, Gillespie regularly bashed Democratic nominee John F. Kerry for vacillating and indecision. The Democratic National Committee greeted his appointment with derision, describing Gillespie as a "loyal foot soldier" out to spin for the administration.
Gillespie had recently taken over as chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, which has struggled after Democratic victories in two successive governor's races and last year's U.S. Senate contest. He immediately sought to rejuvenate what had been widely regarded as the state party's ineffective fundraising operation, using his connections to Washington to organize events featuring party celebrities, such as former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
He has been said to be interested in running for elective office.
In a brief interview yesterday, Gillespie said he was "flattered" to have been asked to do the job by the president and expressed great enthusiasm for trying to advance Bush's "vigorous agenda" in the administration's last 18 months. But Gillespie would not tip his hand on his priorities and his analysis of the president's political situation, saying he would provide that kind of advice privately to Bush and hope "it doesn't leak."
Staff writers Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Tim Craig contributed to this report.