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Coming to a Boil

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 12, 2005 1:21 PM

Is the Bush White House starting to buckle under all the pressure?

To the extent that there are any long-simmering internal divisions and fault lines within the White House, one would certainly expect them to surface about now.

The blundering response to Hurricane Katrina, the dismal approval ratings, the lead-balloon nomination of sidekick Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court -- inspiring a growing revolt from the right -- and the accelerating investigation of the CIA leak case have all created unprecedented strains for a group of people who are, in the end, only human.

Tension City

Let's start with President Bush himself. How is he holding up?

"He can barely stand, he's about to drop on the spot," Bush said, with several of his trademark chuckles, when Matt Lauer asked on the "Today Show" yesterday morning.

"He's doing great. He's got big, broad shoulders," insisted the first lady.

But maybe Bush was closer to the truth than his wife. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank's close inspection of Bush's body language in the video of the interview exposed any number of signs of strain -- including blinking and twitching.

"Only the president's closest friends and family know (if anybody does) what he's really thinking these days, during Katrina woes, Iraq violence, conservative anger over Harriet Miers, and legal trouble for Bush's top political aide and two congressional GOP leaders. Bush has not been viewed up close; as he took his eighth post-Katrina trip to the Gulf Coast yesterday, the press corps has accompanied him only once, because the White House says logistics won't permit it. Even the interview on the 'Today' show was labeled 'closed press.'

"But this much could be seen watching the tape of NBC's broadcast during Bush's 14-minute pre-sunrise interview, in which he stood unprotected by the usual lectern. The president was a blur of blinks, taps, jiggles, pivots and shifts. Bush has always been an active man, but standing with Lauer and the serene, steady first lady, he had the body language of a man wishing urgently to be elsewhere.

"The fidgeting clearly corresponded to the questioning. When Lauer asked if Bush, after a slow response to Katrina, was 'trying to get a second chance to make a good first impression,' Bush blinked 24 times in his answer. When asked why Gulf Coast residents would have to pay back funds but Iraqis would not, Bush blinked 23 times and hitched his trousers up by the belt.

"When the questioning turned to Miers, Bush blinked 37 times in a single answer -- along with a lick of the lips, three weight shifts and some serious foot jiggling."

Milbank also touches on Bush's habit of making inappropriate facial expressions. At one point, he writes, Bush "seemed to lose control of the timing. He smiled after observing that Iraqis are 'paying a serious price' because of terrorism."

And Milbank doesn't even mention the tic that has been the subject of intense speculation in the blogosphere for several months: Bush's bizarre, shifting lower jaw movement that increasingly punctuates the ends of his sentences.

Harry Shearer first wrote about it three months ago in the Huffington Post blog, right after Bush's nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court.

The strange jaw movement was amply on display just last week during Bush's press conference, as seen in this compilation video .

Back in July, The New York Daily News's Lloyd Grove wrote that he asked press secretary Scott McClellan if Bush has a bite issue -- but apparently McClellan never responded.

So who knows what it could be?

Rove, Card at War -- Over Iraq?

Chris Matthews kicked off his MSNBC show the other night with the question: "Is the CIA leak case shaking the very political foundations of the White House?"

Newsweek editor Howard Fineman's response was in the affirmative: "Right now, my sense, in reporting this, Chris, is that the Bush family, political family, is at war with itself inside the White House. My sense is, it's Andy Card, the chief of staff, and his people against Karl Rove, the brain.

"MATTHEWS: Right.

"FINEMAN: And that runs through a whole lot of things, whether it's Harriet Miers or Katrina. But it all starts with Iraq.

"And some submerged, but now emerging divisions within the administration over why we went into that war, how we went into that war and what was done to sell it. There are people [who] are out for Karl Rove inside that White House, which makes his situation even more perilous. . . .

"MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, you just raised a curtain-raiser for me. I didn't even know this.

"You believe that the fight between those who may be headed toward indictment, the vice president's [deputy] chief of staff, Karl Rove, there is a war between them and the people who are going to survive them, Andy Card, etcetera?

"FINEMAN: Yes.

"MATTHEWS: But is Andy Card saying now, here's his chance to prove the war was wrong? Is that what this -- it's a shadow fight over that?

"FINEMAN: I think it's possible. I think it's possible.

"Look, when you are up, you're up big time. Karl Rove was the boy genius.

"MATTHEWS: Right.

"FINEMAN: Karl Rove could do no wrong.

"But now Karl Rove seems to have been caught overstepping on this.

"MATTHEWS: Right.

"FINEMAN: And now people are questioning everything about it. And it goes back. If you have to have an organizing principle, it's the war in Iraq. That's what it is."

Rove, Card at War -- Over Miers?

Michael Scherer writes in Salon: "In some corners, conservatives have begun to focus on what they see as a split within the White House that has sidelined the more ideological forces. Activists who have worked closely with the White House said they believe Karl Rove, the White House advisor most in touch with the base, and even William Kelly, the deputy White House counsel, have been distracted by the ongoing Plame leak investigation. This distraction allowed more moderate advisors, like Chief of Staff Andy Card, to hold sway over the president's thinking. (The White House press office did not return calls for comment.)"

National Journal's Hotlineblog asks: "Is it just us or is there already a storyline developing about 'who's to blame for Miers'? And if so, is WH CoS Andrew Card about to be on the wrong end of this blame game?

"This scenario holds Card responsible for pushing President Bush to select Miers, for pushing her through the vetting process secretly, inartfully, and incompletely, and for screwing up the outreach to conservatives."

The American Specator's Washington Prowler reports: "Sources inside the White House say Card in several meetings literally shouted down opposition to Miers during the vetting process. 'Harriet was his pick all the way up 'til the President jumped on board wholeheartedly,' says a White House staffer. 'This was not a Rove pick or Laura Bush pick. It was Card's pick.' "

Et Tu, Cheney?

And Philadelphia Daily News blogger Will Bunch examines the circumstantial evidence floating about in the blogosphere and concludes: "Dick Cheney and George W. Bush don't like each other anymore."

An Even Broader Republican Problem?

David Ignatius , writing in his Washington Post opinion column, sees an even broader problem for Republicans: "What you sense now, as conservative and moderate Republicans alike take potshots at their president, is that the GOP is entering the post-Bush era. A war of succession has begun, cloaked in a war of principles. . . .

"Principles are a fine thing, but a narrow, partisan definition of principle has led the Republicans to a dead end. Their inability to transcend their base and speak to the country as a whole is now painfully obvious. Like the Democrats in their years of decline, they are screaming at each other -- not realizing how far they have drifted from the mid-channel markers that have always led to open waters and defined success in American politics."

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Plame Endgame

Signs are everywhere that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is tightening his noose, possibly around Bush's and Vice President Cheney's two most essential aides: Rove and Scooter Libby. But even more than that, it also looks more and more like his investigation, once it's made public, could pull back the curtain on some less than savory White House efforts to incite the country to war in Iraq and then prevent the press from exposing its secrets.

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "New York Times reporter Judith Miller answered questions yesterday about a previously undisclosed conversation she had with Vice President Cheney's chief of staff in June 2003 and is scheduled to testify before a grand jury today to answer more questions in the investigation of how a covert CIA operative's identity was leaked to reporters. . . .

"Numerous lawyers involved in the 22-month investigation said they are bracing for Fitzgerald to bring criminal charges against administration officials. They speculated, based on his questions, that he may be focused on charges of false statements, obstruction of justice or violations of the Espionage Act involving the release of classified government information to unauthorized persons. The grand jury's term is to expire Oct. 28."

Murray Waas writes for the National Journal: "In two appearances before the federal grand jury investigating the leak of a covert CIA operative's name, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, did not disclose a crucial conversation that he had with New York Times reporter Judith Miller in June 2003 about the operative, Valerie Plame, according to sources with firsthand knowledge of his sworn testimony. . . .

"Meanwhile, in recent days Fitzgerald has also expressed significant interest in whether Libby may have sought to discourage Miller -- either directly or indirectly through her attorney -- from testifying before the grand jury, or cooperating in other ways with the criminal probe, according to attorneys familiar with Miller's discussions with prosecutors."

John D. McKinnon, Joe Hagan and Anne Marie Squeo write in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Rove, who has already testified three times before the grand jury and was identified by a Time magazine reporter as a source for his story on Mr. Wilson, is expected to go back to the grand jury, potentially as early as today, to clarify earlier answers.

"Lawyers familiar with the investigation believe that at least part of the outcome likely hangs on the inner workings of what has been dubbed the White House Iraq Group. Formed in August 2002, the group, which included Messrs. Rove and Libby, worked on setting strategy for selling the war in Iraq to the public in the months leading up to the March 2003 invasion. The group likely would have played a significant role in responding to Mr. Wilson's claims."

What Was the White House Iraq Group?

Remarkably little has been written about this critically important assemblage.

One of the few stories that even mentions the group was by Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus, in The Washington Post on Aug. 10, 2003.

"The escalation of nuclear rhetoric a year ago, including the introduction of the term 'mushroom cloud' into the debate, coincided with the formation of a White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, a task force assigned to 'educate the public' about the threat from Hussein, as a participant put it," they wrote.

"Systematic coordination began in August [2002], when Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. formed the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, to set strategy for each stage of the confrontation with Baghdad. A senior official who participated in its work called it 'an internal working group, like many formed for priority issues, to make sure each part of the White House was fulfilling its responsibilities.' . . .

"The group met weekly in the Situation Room. Among the regular participants were Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser; communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin and James R. Wilkinson; legislative liaison Nicholas E. Calio; and policy advisers led by Rice and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, along with I. Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff."

Life in the Post-Rove Era?

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Karl Rove's fingerprints are all over everything at the White House, from politics to policy to the shape of President Bush's entire career in government.

"It's hard to imagine Bush without Rove, and vice versa. But the question of what would happen if Rove were forced to resign is something to contemplate, now that the grand jury is pressing the president's aide-de-camp in its investigation into who leaked the identity of a covert CIA officer.

"White House insiders speaking privately say Rove would be irreplaceable. While Bush has a few other close confidants in aides like chief of staff Andy Card and counselor Dan Bartlett, none combine such an intimate working knowledge of politics and policy with such a long trusted relationship with the president."

Will Fitzgerald Tell All?

Whether or not Fitzgerald eventually gets the grand jury to indict anyone, much of what he has found out could remain secret unless he issues a report to Congress -- much like the Starr Report (remember that?).

David Johnston writes in the New York Times that "four senior House Democrats wrote to Mr. Fitzgerald in a letter dated Oct. 12, urging him to issue a final report to Congress when he concludes his inquiry. Such a report, they said, should address 'all indictments, convictions and any decisions not to prosecute.' "

Miers Watch

Joan Biskupic writes in USA Today that "in revising its strategy for Miers' confirmation by the Senate, the administration has ignited new controversies."

And Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Laura Bush said yesterday that some critics of Harriet Miers may be motivated by sexism, echoing an allegation that earlier infuriated conservative activists opposed to the Supreme Court nominee."

Dobson's Secret

Evangelical Christian leader James Dobson announced last Wednesday that, based on "some of the things that I know that I probably shouldn't know," he believed Miers would be a good justice.

Dobson acknowledged that he had talked privately with Rove before the Miers announcement, and as a result, speculation ensued that Rove had assured him, either overtly or with "a wink and a nod," that Miers could be counted on to vote against Roe v. Wade.

In a radio transcript available today, Dobson denied that he and Rove had talked explicitly about Miers's position on Roe v. Wade. "What did Karl Rove say to me that I knew on Monday that I couldn't reveal? Well, it's what we all know now, that Harriet Miers is an Evangelical Christian, that she is from a very conservative church, which is almost universally pro-life, that she had taken on the American Bar Association on the issue of abortion and fought for a policy that would not be supportive of abortion, that she had been a member of the Texas Right to Life."

Dobson said he was being mysterious about the information he possessed because he had been told it in confidence and wasn't sure it was all public yet.

But a Sacramento Bee editorial today says Dobson's explanation falls short.

And Bill Scher writes in the Huffington Post blog that Dobson is lying. How do we know?

"Because during Dobson's Fox News interview on Monday, October 3 -- when he first said 'I do know things that I am not prepared to talk about here' -- he eagerly volunteered that Miers is 'a conservative Christian,' an 'Evangelical Christian,' and was 'willing to stand up against the American Bar Association with regard to the policy on abortion.'"

And those, Scher points out, are "all the things he now claims were the things he had been keeping secret."

Not a Federal Responsibility?

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times: "After six weeks of faltering steps in response to the storm, Mr. Bush seemed to have honed at least one message: that the federal government is not the best steward of the recovery now that the immediate crisis has passed."

A New York Times editorial cuts to the chase: "Americans were understandably dismayed when confronted with President Bush's slow response to the unfolding disaster of Hurricane Katrina. They were equally dismayed by the evident lack of disaster expertise among the men the president had tapped to handle such emergencies. Mr. Bush was supposed to have put an end to that dismal story when he spoke at Jackson Square. But that seems to have been nothing but a grand and meaningless gesture. Where are the actual programs he's supposed to be putting into place to rebuild the city?"

Impeachment Watch

After waiting fruitlessly for a polling company to repeat a question first asked by Zogby in June, a group that supports a congressional inquiry into Bush's decision to invade Iraq paid another polling company to do so.

The question: "If President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable by impeaching him."

AfterDowningStreet.org reports on the results .

"By a margin of 50% to 44%, Americans say that President Bush should be impeached if he lied about the war in Iraq, according to a new poll. . . .

"The poll was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, the highly-regarded non-partisan polling company. The poll interviewed 1,001 U.S. adults on October 8-9."

The Zogby poll in June found 42 percent of respondents agreed with a very similar statement.

I wrote about the amazing non-coverage of the Zogby poll in my July 6 column .

New Iraq Report Out

John Diamond writes in USA Today: "A newly released report published by the CIA rebukes the Bush administration for not paying enough attention to prewar intelligence that predicted the factional rivalries now threatening to split Iraq.

"Policymakers worried more about making the case for the war, particularly the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, than planning for the aftermath, the report says. The report was written by a team of four former CIA analysts led by former deputy CIA director Richard Kerr. . . .

"White House spokesman Fred Jones said Tuesday that the administration considered many scenarios involving postwar instability in Iraq. The report's assertion 'has been vehemently disputed,' he said."

Meet Frederick Jones

And who exactly is this very on-message Fred Jones? Funny you should ask.

Peter Baker in The Washington Post today profiles the genial message enforcer for the National Security Council.

"Jones serves a White House notably stingy with information. As a matter of policy, the Bush White House values secrecy. Reporters who deal with the NSC almost uniformly like Jones and credit him with improving responsiveness since taking over, but still bristle at the restrictions he operates under. . . .

"In past administrations, reporters were able to talk regularly with various experts at the National Security Council to get a better understanding of the nation's foreign policies from the people who helped formulate them. Under Bush, none of the directors or senior directors at the NSC is supposed to talk without clearing it with Jones's office -- and even then Jones listens in on any such interview, a practice that keeps officials from straying too far from the talking points.

" 'I need to be part of that conversation to make sure that individual director is delivering the message we want delivered,' Jones said. 'It's part of my message-coordinating function that keeps people on message. If I'm there, it's easier for them to stay on message.' He added, 'The White House has a way they like to deal with the press, and I follow leads.' "

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