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An Important Indictment

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 9, 2005 4:18 PM

The flailing Bush presidency continues to spin off new compelling story lines almost daily; yesterday it was torture, today it's Bush as electoral albatross. It's almost inevitable that the media will let some fall by the wayside.

But according to a new Pew Research Center poll, the recent indictment of senior White House aide Scooter Libby is a really big deal: Even more important to the country, for instance, than the 1998 charges that President Bill Clinton lied under oath about Monica Lewinsky. Those, of course, led to Clinton's impeachment.

Here is Pew's summary of the poll results; here are the complete results .

Pew notes that "fully 79 percent of Americans say the recent indictment of I. Lewis Libby, formerly a top aide to Vice President Cheney, on perjury and other charges is a matter of at least some importance to the nation; that is greater than the percentage who said that in 1998 about charges that former President Clinton lied under oath about a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky (65 percent). . . .

"Just 36% now believe that Bush has lived up to his campaign pledge to restore integrity to the White House."

Poll respondents who said they were paying at least some attention to the Libby indictment were asked what one word best described their reaction to the news. The top responses, in order of their frequency: Not surprised/unsurprised; Surprised; Shocked; Disappointed; Disgusted; Expected; Good; Disbelief/unbelievable; Finally; About time; Traitor/treason; Guilty; Typical; and Wow.

Wow, indeed. The White House these days finds itself under siege on so many fronts that its continued stonewall on the CIA leak case may seem like a relatively minor issue. But many important questions remain -- and clearly the American people would be interested in the answers.

More From the Poll

The Pew poll also finds Bush's job approval rating at an all-time low of 36 percent, down from 40 percent in late October and 50 percent at the start of the year.

The decline mostly reflects a souring of opinion about Bush among independents, Pew finds. "However, Bush is also now facing a significant loss of support within his own party particularly among moderate Republicans."

Bush's job approval rating is nine points higher than former President Richard M. Nixon's approval mark at the same point in his second term. But, Pew notes, "it is largely GOP loyalty that separates Bush from Nixon at comparable points in their presidencies. Bush's 29 percent approval rating among independents is only four points higher than Nixon's standing among independents in early November 1973. And Bush's 12 percent approval rating among Democrats is nearly identical to Nixon's."

The Next Campaign

Dana Bash reports for CNN: "Top White House officials say they're developing a 'campaign-style' strategy in response to increasing Democratic allegations that the Bush administration twisted intelligence to make its case for war.

"White House aides, who agreed to speak to CNN only on the condition of anonymity, said they hoped to increase what they called their 'hit back' in coming days.

"The officials say they plan to repeatedly make the point -- as they did during the 2004 campaign -- that pre-war intelligence was faulty, it was not manipulated and everyone was working off the same intelligence. . . .

"One senior official said Cheney would not participate in the White House response, despite that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, has accused the vice president of being a key offender in manipulating intelligence."

McClellan's Offensive

There were many heated exchanges at yesterday's compellingly readable press briefing .

Press secretary Scott McClellan was questioned repeatedly and persistently about what sort of exemption the White House is requesting from a proposed congressional ban on torture.

He wouldn't say. And when the journalists in the room wouldn't back off, he lost his cool.

When Hearst columnist Helen Thomas kept interrupting McClellan's talking points and demanding a "straight answer" about the exemption, McClellan shot back: "You don't want the American people to hear what the facts are, Helen, and I'm going to tell them the facts."

After NBC's David Gregory jumped in -- again, asking McClellan to explain why the White House feels an exemption is necessary -- McClellan accused his interlocutors of being, essentially, anti-American.

"Well, obviously, you have a different view from the American people," McClellan said. "I think the American people understand the importance of doing everything within our power and within our laws to protect the American people."

Moments later, he repeated the accusation: "This involves information that relates to doing all we can to protect the American people. And if you have a different view -- obviously, some of you on this room -- in this room have a different view, some of you on the front row have a different view."

At which point CBS News reporter Bill Plante plaintively pointed out: "We simply are asking a question."

Later, when American Urban Radio reporter April Ryan took up the question again, McClellan accused her of "showboating for the cameras" and told her she needed to "calm down."

Surprisingly, there's no outcry in today's coverage over McClellan's tactics. But it does make you wonder how much longer he can trade on his accumulated good will with the press corps.

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. EST, happily responding to your questions and commments about all things White House.

The Albatross Effect

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "Iraq, Katrina, CIA leak, Harriet Miers. Things couldn't possibly get any worse for President Bush. Wait, they just did.

"Bush put his wispy political prestige on the line in the Virginia governor's race and lost Tuesday when the candidate he embraced in a last-minute campaign stop was soundly defeated. While there are many reasons for Jerry Kilgore's defeat, chief among them his poor campaign, giddy Democrats said the Virginia race as well as a Democratic victory in New Jersey prove that Bush is a political toxin for Republicans."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Democrats swept gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia on Tuesday, sending new tremors through Republicans worried that President Bush's sagging popularity may drag down the party in next year's midterm elections."

The New York Times editorial board opines: "It's always dangerous to read national sentiments in local election results, especially when the balloting is as scattered and sparse as it was yesterday. But a few things seem obvious. Negative campaigning lost its punch. And George Bush's political capital turned into a deficit."

Brendan Nyhan posts a statistical analysis on his blog that suggests that Bush's misfortunes could have a considerable impact on the 2006 election.

But the president remains good for at least one thing: raising money.

Matthew Mosk writes in The Washington Post that Bush will host a fundraising luncheon for Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele this month.

"Steele is asking attendees to raise $5,000 to pose for a photograph with the president at the Nov. 30 event at Ravens Stadium in Baltimore. Other guests will be charged between $125 and $500."

Ethics Classes

Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Hundreds of White House employees, selected in alphabetical order, filed into Room 450 of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Tuesday to begin ethics refresher courses on how to handle classified information.

"With the CIA leak investigation contributing to a drop in his approval ratings, President Bush ordered the hourlong briefings by White House Ethics Officer Richard Painter to be conducted over the next two weeks.

"Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said the briefings were mandatory for all 3,000 people who work in White House offices and agencies, except for the two men who hired the staff: Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

"Tuesday's audience included staffers whose last names began with the early letters of the alphabet, including White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, the president's top political advisor, is expected to attend class today."

McClellan wouldn't directly acknowledge that the ethics classes had anything to do with the leak scandal: "The President made this decision in light of recent circumstances, that we should take this action," he said.

From the briefing transcript:

"Q Is this all we should expect from the President, the ethics refresher courses, the extent of his reaction to the indictment?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as you're aware, if you're asking a question about an ongoing investigation, we're not going to have further say at this point while it continues. It is a very serious matter, and we are going to continue to cooperate. That's what the President directed us to do and that's what we are doing.

"Q I asked you a different question. Is this the full extent of what the President deems necessary, 'in light of circumstances?'

"MR. McCLELLAN: The President is always free to take the action that he feels is appropriate."

Nedra Pickler reports for the Associated Press: "The Democratic National Committee dismissed the briefings.

" 'Given that Karl Rove is still reporting for work every day with his security clearance, I'm sure the American people will see these so-called ethics classes for the cheap political stunt that they are,' said communications director Karen Finney. 'If President Bush were truly serious about restoring ethics -- not to mention his own credibility -- he would have no problem keeping his word to fire anyone involved in the CIA leak scandal, starting with Karl Rove.' "

Libby's Defense Fund

Richard W. Stevenson and Eric Lichtblau write in the New York Times: "I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, is establishing a fund to help pay for his legal defense in the C.I.A. leak case, and associates of Mr. Libby have begun soliciting money from his friends and Republican donors, lawyers and people who have been contacted about the fund said on Tuesday. . . .

"But in establishing the fund, Mr. Libby is opening himself to questions. Legal and campaign finance specialists said, he could face scrutiny about whether any financial assistance he might receive from allies of President Bush and Mr. Cheney was going to finance a defense strategy intended in part to minimize harm to the administration."

Pardon Me?

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "The Senate's top Democrats challenged President Bush on Tuesday to rule out a pardon for I. Lewis Libby, a former top White House aide who faces trial on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury in the CIA leak case.

" 'We also urge you to state publicly whether anyone in the White House -- including White House counsel Harriet Miers or Vice President Cheney -- has already discussed the possibility of a pardon with Mr. Libby,' added the letter, signed by Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and three other members of the leadership.

"White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to rule out a pardon when asked about the issue by reporters before Democrats sent their letter. 'I'm not going to discuss an ongoing legal proceeding. And I'm not going to speculate about any matters relating to it,' he said.

"At a news conference, Reid launched an extraordinary attack on Cheney, whom he said had been involved in the 'manipulation of intelligence to sell the war in Iraq' as well as 'leaking classified information to discredit White House critics.' "

Cheney Rift?

Thomas M. DeFrank wrote in the New York Daily News yesterday that there has been a "subtle but unmistakable erosion in the bond between President Bush and Vice President Cheney."

Wolf Blitzer had DeFrank on CNN last night.

"BLITZER: You are so well plugged in to all of these sources in Washington. And I remember when you covered the first President Bush you were very close to him. What are you hearing?

"DEFRANK: What I'm hearing, Wolf, is that the relationship between the president and the vice president has eroded somewhat. And actually it's not new. This has been going on a couple of years. It really has its roots in the run up to the Iraq war. But this distance is the word, is the phrase that I keep hearing. This distance seems to be accelerating in the wake of the CIA leak investigation."

What is Torture?

I wrote in yesterday's column about the apparent confusion over what Bush actually considers torture.

Douglas Jehl , in today's New York Times, provides some more clues about how the White House may see a distinction between "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment and "torture."

"A classified report issued last year by the Central Intelligence Agency's inspector general warned that interrogation procedures approved by the C.I.A. after the Sept. 11 attacks might violate some provisions of the international Convention Against Torture, current and former intelligence officials say. . . .

"A list of 10 techniques authorized early in 2002 for use against terror suspects included one known as waterboarding, and went well beyond those authorized by the military for use on prisoners of war. . . .

"The list of 10 techniques, including feigned drowning, was secretly drawn up in early 2002 by a team that included senior C.I.A. officials who solicited recommendations from foreign governments and from agency psychologists, the officials said. They said officials from the Justice Department and the National Security Council, which is part of the White House, were involved in the process. . . .

"Congressional officials said the report had emerged as an unstated backdrop in the debate now under way on Capitol Hill over whether the C.I.A. should be subjected to the same strict rules on interrogation that the military is required to follow. In opposing an amendment sponsored by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, [C.I.A. Director Porter] Goss and Vice President Dick Cheney have argued that the C.I.A. should be granted an exemption allowing it extra latitude, subject to presidential authorization, in interrogating high-level terrorists abroad who might have knowledge about future attacks."

Relations With China: Mixed

Bush held five interviews yesterday in anticipation of his upcoming trip to Asia.

He spoke to foreign print reporters at some length, and very briefly to NHK Television of Japan; the Korean Broadcasting System ; Phoenix Television of Hong Kong; and Christian-owned Eagle Television of Mongolia.

"I would say my personal relationship with President Hu is very good. I would say relations between the United States is mixed -- or between China and the United States is mixed," he said in one interview.

"[T]he relationship between China and America is an important relationship. It's a mixed relationship," he said in another.

Hello, Dalai Lama

Agence France Presse reports that Bush is meeting today at the White House with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet.

"The Dalai Lama will appeal to Bush to prod Chinese leader Hu Jintao during their summit in Beijing later this month to give 'genuine autonomy' to the Himalayan territory, said Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special envoy.

"Bush's previous meetings in 2001 and 2003 with the Dalai Lama drew angry complaints from China.

"As in previous meetings, Bush will hold his talks with the Dalai Lama at the White House residence rather than the offices, apparently to avoid the full wrath of China."

Political Cartoon Humor

Here is Tom Toles on Bush's "we do not torture" line.

Miss Manners in the Oval

Maybe Judith Martin -- best known for her " Miss Manners " column -- could stop by the briefing room on the way to the Oval office tomorrow, when she and other recipients of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal pick up their awards.

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