By John Solomon, Alec MacGillis and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Thirteen months before President Bush was reelected, chief strategist Karl Rove summoned political appointees from around the government to the Old Executive Office Building. The subject of the Oct. 1, 2003, meeting was "asset deployment," and the message was clear:
The staging of official announcements, high-visibility trips and declarations of federal grants had to be carefully coordinated with the White House political affairs office to ensure the maximum promotion of Bush's reelection agenda and the Republicans in Congress who supported him, according to documents and some of those involved in the effort.
"The White House determines which members need visits," said an internal e-mail about the previously undisclosed Rove "deployment" team, "and where we need to be strategically placing our assets."
Many administrations have sought to maximize their control of the machinery of government for political gain, dispatching Cabinet secretaries bearing government largess to battleground states in the days before elections. The Clinton White House routinely rewarded big donors with stays in the Lincoln Bedroom and private coffees with senior federal officials, and held some political briefings for top Cabinet officials during the 1996 election.
But Rove, who announced last week that he is resigning from the White House at the end of August, pursued the goal far more systematically than his predecessors, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Post, enlisting political appointees at every level of government in a permanent campaign that was an integral part of his strategy to establish Republican electoral dominance.
Under Rove's direction, this highly coordinated effort to leverage the government for political marketing started as soon as Bush took office in 2001 and continued through last year's congressional elections, when it played out in its most quintessential form in the coastal Connecticut district of Rep. Christopher Shays, an endangered Republican incumbent. Seven times, senior administration officials visited Shays's district in the six months before the election -- once for an announcement as minor as a single $23 government weather alert radio presented to an elementary school. On Election Day, Shays was the only Republican House member in New England to survive the Democratic victory.
"He didn't do these things half-baked. It was total commitment," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), who in 2002 ran the House Republicans' successful reelection campaign in close coordination with Rove. "We knew history was against us, and he helped coordinate all of the accoutrements of the executive branch to help with the campaign, within the legal limits."
In the past few months, revelations about a few dozen political briefings that Rove's team conducted at federal agencies and several election-related slides from those briefings have touched off investigations into whether the White House improperly politicized federal workers or misused government assets to win elections.
Investigators, however, said the scale of Rove's effort is far broader than previously revealed; they say that Rove's team gave more than 100 such briefings during the seven years of the Bush administration. The political sessions touched nearly all of the Cabinet departments and a handful of smaller agencies that often had major roles in providing grants, such as the White House office of drug policy and the State Department's Agency for International Development.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee are investigating whether any of the meetings violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from using federal resources for election activities. They also want to know whether any Bush appointees pressured government for favorable actions such as grants to help GOP electoral chances.
"What we are seeing is the tip of a whole effort to make the federal government a subsidiary of the Republican Party. It was all politics, all the time," Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the oversight committee, said last week.
The White House has repeatedly said that Rove's team stayed within the confines of federal law and that the meetings were an effort to ensure the president's agenda and those who supported it were fully promoted.
But the Office of the Special Counsel, which protects whistleblowers, has concluded that the Hatch Act was violated during one such briefing, conducted for General Services Administration political appointees by J. Scott Jennings, the White House's deputy director of political affairs. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch said he hopes his investigation of political briefings will have "an educational benefit and a deterrent effect" in reminding federal employees about their legal obligations. "Yes, people have their political parties, and that is good. But they have to check those affiliations at the door when you do the people's business," he said in an interview last week.'How We Can Work Together'
An invitation to a March 12, 2001, political briefing for federal officials -- one of the Rove team's earliest -- framed the mission this way: "How we can work together."
In practical terms, that meant Cabinet officials concentrated their official government travel on the media markets Rove's team chose, rolling out grant decisions made by agencies with red-carpet fanfare in GOP congressional districts, and carefully crafted announcements highlighting the release of federal money in battleground states.
"We did that from Day One of the administration, strategically utilizing the president's appointees to sell his agenda," Drew DeBerry, the Agriculture Department's liaison to the White House between 2001 and 2005, recalled in an interview last week.
The scope of Rove's ambitions was unprecedented.
"Karl's ability to see the chessboard and deploy all of the various pieces to the maximum effect is flat-out unrivaled," said Mark Corallo, a longtime GOP operative who worked with Rove as a top Justice Department communications official and later as a private consultant. "At the same time, he was always thoroughly aware of the limits and of the boundaries."
To lead the charge, Rove had his "asset deployment team." It comprised the chief White House liaison official at each Cabinet agency. The team members met -- sometimes as often as once a month -- to coordinate the travel of Cabinet secretaries and senior agency officials, the announcement of grant money, and personnel and policy decisions. Occasionally, the attendees got updates on election strategies.
White House officials say Rove had two basic rules: the first was to avoid meddling with grant and contract decisions made by career government employees; the second was to make sure they complied with the Hatch Act. "What was surprising was how adamant Karl and his whole team was that we involve the lawyers in our discussions to make sure we didn't come up with things that ran afoul of the law," DeBerry said. In March 2002, then-White House lawyer Brett Kavanaugh gave such a briefing on the "do's and don'ts regarding your participation in politically related activities," according to the invitation.
Most of the political briefings, officials said, were held at the White House or Old Executive Office Building for the liaisons or the agency chiefs of staff. But once or twice a year, Rove's team sought to spread the message beyond this core team. Attendees were presented a slide show with the latest polling data, election talking points and maps identifying competitive media markets, congressional races and presidential battleground states.
The subjects for such meetings -- which involved at least 18 agencies -- ranged from "a political update" and "mid-term election trends" to "outreach" and "coalition activities/organization," according to invitations gathered by congressional investigators.
DeBerry requested one such meeting at the Agriculture Department about five months before the 2004 election.
"We would like to hold a briefing for our political appointees on the strategy we should focus on over the next several months," he wrote on June 15, 2004, to Barry Jackson, the White House chief of strategic initiatives. "The briefing you gave the Asset Deployment team about a year ago would be perfect."
DeBerry's e-mail captures what administration officials said was the essence of Rove's approach: making sure that political appointees at every level of government pushed a uniform agenda in key media markets and on behalf of White House-backed candidates. That meant resisting the natural tendencies of the federal bureaucracy to cater just to congressional purse-string holders, officials said.
"I feel like people need to hear the message about resisting the urge to travel to the districts of the key committee chairmen and members for the sake of building relationships . . . that the White House determines which members need visits and where we need to be strategically placing our assets," DeBerry wrote.
Some briefings targeted political appointees because of their race or ethnicity. On Aug. 11, 2006, for instance, Hispanic political appointees were summoned to a meeting with Rove's team to discuss the administration's accomplishments for Hispanic Americans.
Even agencies traditionally considered to be above the elections fray sent representatives to such briefings. A White House-arranged meeting that year for Justice Department appointees at the Old Executive Office Building included "a presentation about what the Department of Justice is doing for Hispanic American citizens," the department recently told Waxman's committee.
During the Clinton administration, White House officials made their own attempt to harness the federal bureaucracy's grant announcements and travel, but they were far less systematic. The White House political office held two or three meetings in the 18 months before the 1996 election with each Cabinet secretary and one or two top aides, deeming some agencies such as Justice and State as off limits to politics, former Clinton officials said.
"It was not a full-scale agency briefing. There were no targets; we were not calling them in and giving them lists of who to take care of and punish," said Douglas Sosnik, White House political director in 1995 and 1996. "It was an overview of where we were headed with the campaign."Helping Endangered Republicans
Politically embattled Republicans such as Shays were frequent beneficiaries.
Between April 2006 and Election Day, Shays was able to announce at least 25 new federal grants or projects totaling more than $46 million, including a new veterans medical facility and a long-awaited installment of federal money for ferry service, according to a Post analysis of his news releases. Seven different Bush administration officials, including two Cabinet secretaries and the chief of the highway administration, visited his district during that time.
In contrast, Shays announced just $39 million in grants and got just one visit by a federal official in the prior 15 months, the analysis shows.
No federal generosity was too small to tout. A top official of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was on hand with Shays when the NOAA awarded a single severe-weather alert radio, valued at $23, to an elementary school in Norwalk, Conn., two months before Election Day.
Shays wrote Bush on Sept. 8, 2006, to seek the early release -- before the election -- of heating assistance money for low-income residents in his state. Just four days later, the White House released $6 million. Asked to comment on the administration's help, Shays's campaign manager Michael Sohn said, "Chris was grateful to be returned to office based on his record of hard work and accomplishment."
Similar efforts to promote grants in key states took place across the government. When the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, released 22 grants totaling $35.7 million for community health and disease-prevention programs in late September 2004, The Post analysis found, half the awards went to targeted election states or congressional districts, the rest to noncompetitive areas that included Democratic strongholds such as Boston and New Orleans.
The agency's news release about those grants, however, detailed at the top just four recipients -- in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and an Oklahoma congressional district -- that Rove's team identified in earlier 2004 briefings as key to the GOP's reelection strategy.
The White House briefings also frequently identified key media markets where Republicans most wanted their message out. A Post review of trips announced by several Bush Cabinet members during the 2004 election showed that their travel fell neatly into the markets listed on a slide included in briefings that year.
Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao made 13 official visits in the last two months of the election, never straying more than 50 miles from the media markets on Rove's office list, the analysis showed. That August, she attended three local Fraternal Order of Police meetings in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan to tout new overtime rules that would soon go into effect. Likewise, she traveled to Tampa -- another targeted media market -- to announce grants for recipients who actually lived in Jacksonville, Fla., a less competitive area.
Aside from her home town of Denver, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton visited just five cities in the first two months of 2004, according to the public announcements. But that pace changed between June and November, when -- in visits to 37 cities -- she hit the target election markets 32 times, the announcements show.
Those visits occurred after Interior liaison William Kloiber wrote to White House political affairs aide Matt Schlapp to thank him for a briefing about the political landscape. In an e-mail obtained by congressional investigators, Kloiber wrote, "Sometimes these folks need to be reminded who they work for and how their geographic travel can benefit the President."