White House at Cross Purposes

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 22, 2006 1:12 PM

As President Bush's traditional allies fall away, there are signs that the curtain that has been so successfully drawn around the inner workings of the White House for so long is coming down, too.

Two recent glimpses into how the White House does business suggest that staffers are sometimes working at cross-purposes -- or, as Ronald Reagan once famously put it at a Gridiron Dinner, sometimes its right hand doesn't know what its far-right hand is doing.

In Sunday's Washington Post, Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei tell this amazing story: "While President Bush was on the U.S.-Mexican border Thursday promoting an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, Senate conservatives were persuading a team of White House aides to deny 200,000 low-skilled immigrants citizenship."

That happened in a series of private meetings with lower-level aides.

The result: "After 8 p.m., a succession of conservatives went to the Senate floor to declare Bush's support for their amendment to ensure that temporary work visas really would be temporary."

But then less-conservative senators managed to reach more senior aides by phone.

The result: "Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) stormed to the Senate floor to announce that new White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten had assured him that the president now opposed the measure in the name of preserving bipartisan backing."

Another good example of the White House apparently working at cross purposes with itself came last week in a story seriously underreported by the major media.

Bush has lately been distancing himself from a House Republican approach to immigration that, for instance, would make being in this country without documentation a felony.

But Frederic J. Frommer wrote for the Associated Press that powerful House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) told reporters in a conference call last week that it was the White House itself that asked for those felony provisions to be inserted into the bill in the first place.

Sensenbrenner was angry with Bush. "He basically turned his back on provisions of the House-passed bill, a lot of which we were requested to put in the bill by the White House," Sensenbrenner said.

So, assuming Sensenbrenner wasn't making that up: Precisely who in the White House requested those provisions? How high up did it go? What happened in the interim?

Those would all be good things to follow up. But Sensenbrenner was on CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday and nobody there or elsewhere has asked him.

It's about time the public got a better idea of what goes on inside this White House. But that certainly won't come from Tony Snow.

It'll come from more aggressive questioning of Bush's former allies. How does the White House really work? They know. Maybe now they'll tell.

The Politics of Politics

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Confronting the worst poll numbers seen in the West Wing since his father went down to defeat, President Bush and his team are focusing on the fall midterm elections as the best chance to salvage his presidency and are building a campaign strategy around tax cuts, immigration and national security.

"Modern history offers no precedent of a president climbing from a hole as deep as the one Bush finds himself in, and White House strategists have concluded that no staff shake-up or other quick fix will alter their trajectory. In the sixth year of his tenure, they said, Bush cannot easily change the minds of voters whose impressions are fully formed. . . .

"If Republicans retain Congress in November, Bush advisers note, he could assert that for the third straight election, the party defied historical patterns and popular predictions. Bush, they said, could advance a fresh agenda in early 2007."

And so, as a result: "Bush has turned his attention to the campaign."

Still Got High Hopes

Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News: "Even though he doesn't like to admit it, Bush is privately giving considerable thought to his legacy. He tells friends he defines himself as 'an idealist about goals and a realist about means.' He wants to be remembered, says a senior adviser, as 'a champion of freedom abroad and ownership at home' -- freedom particularly in Iraq and ownership by everyday Americans of their houses, small businesses, and personal accounts for education, healthcare, and retirement. Bush aims to leave behind a series of institutional changes, aides say, that cannot be easily 'unraveled' by his successors or future Congresses, such as massive tax cuts, the new prescription-drug benefit under Medicare, and a commitment to stable democracy in Iraq. . . .

"Saying it and doing it, however, are two very different things. Bush's effectiveness appears to be at its lowest ebb, with only about a third of voters approving of his job performance -- one of the worst ratings in presidential history. His reputation for competence has been battered, his image as a straight talker compromised."

And He's Not Liked

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "It's not just the way he's doing his job. Americans apparently don't like President Bush personally much anymore, either.

"A drop in his personal popularity, as measured by several public polls, has shadowed the decline in Bush's job-approval ratings and weakened his political armor when he and his party need it most."

But what about Karl Rove's insistence last week that Republican National Committee polls show Bush's personal approval rating higher than 60 percent?

Thomma writes: "The Republican National Committee wouldn't release a copy of the poll. Spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said she couldn't explain why public polls show a decline in Bush's personal popularity except to say that, 'you can ask a poll question four different ways and get four different answers.' "

Yeah, well, as Thomma notes: "Six public polls in recent weeks showed the opposite of Rove's account -- that Bush's personal approval ratings have dropped since he was re-elected in 2004."

Hispanic Flight

Thomas B. Edsall and Zachary A. Goldfarb write in The Washington Post: "Hispanic voters, many of whom responded favorably to President Bush's campaign appeals emphasizing patriotism, family and religious values in Spanish-language media in 2004, are turning away from the administration on immigration and a host of other issues, according to a new survey."

Bush's Housekeeper

In Newseek, Richard Wolffe, Holly Bailey and Evan Thomas trace Bush's "heartfelt" position on immigration in part to Maria Galvan, 53, who for more than a decade "has worked for Bush, looked after his daughters, befriended his wife and won the affection of the First Family for her loyalty, decency and hard work. . . .

"The White House last week refused to comment on Galvan, except to say that she is a U.S. citizen."

Scooter Libby Watch

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "The classified status of the identity of former CIA officer Valerie Plame will be a key element in any trial of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, according to special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald.

"Fitzgerald has said that at trial he plans to show that Libby knew Plame's employment at the CIA was classified and that he lied to the grand jury when he said he had learned from NBC News's Tim Russert that Plame, the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, worked for the agency."

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Lawyers for I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, the indicted former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, said in a court filing late Friday that Libby did not see the notes Cheney inscribed on a key newspaper column criticizing the administration's rationale for invading Iraq until he was shown the annotations in the course of an FBI investigation."

Blogger Tom Maguire Web-posts the Libby filing here .

Karl Rove Non-Story Watch

Hey folks: Don't believe everything you read on the Internet.

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "The claim that President Bush's top political strategist had been indicted in the CIA leak investigation was written by a journalist who has battled drug addiction and mental illness and been convicted of grand larceny. That didn't stop more than 35 reporters -- from all the major newspapers, networks and newsmagazines -- from calling [Rove lawyer Robert] Luskin or Rove's spokesman, Mark Corallo, to check it out."

More on the non-story from Tim Grieve at Salon, Talkleft blogger Jeralyn Merritt , Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Byron York of the National Review.

Kenneth R. Bazinet and James Gordon Meek write in the New York Daily News: "Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has emerged as a key witness in the CIA leak probe, the Daily News has learned. . . .

"Armitage's testimony could hurt Vice President Cheney's indicted former chief aide Lewis (Scooter) Libby, or President Bush's political guru, Karl Rove.

"Two sources familiar with the case said Armitage, Rove and Libby all had contacts with the press about Plame. Unlike Rove and Libby, Armitage appears to have tried to dissuade reporters from writing about her."

Meet David Addington

Regular readers of this column know who David Addington is. See, for instance, my November 1 , November 2 and November 4 , 2005 columns.

But Chitra Ragavan extensively profiles the secretive and wildly powerful aide at great length in U.S. News today.

She starts off by describing Addington's role in Bush's unprecedented use of presidential signing statements, which have resulted in "a historic shift in the balance of power away from the legislative branch of government to the executive. . . .

"Much of the criticism that has been directed at these measures has focused on Vice President Dick Cheney. In fact, however, it is a largely anonymous government lawyer, who now serves as Cheney's chief of staff, who has served as the ramrod driving the Bush administration's most secretive and controversial counterterrorism measures through the bureaucracy. . . .

"Name one significant action taken by the Bush White House after 9/11, and chances are better than even that Addington had a role in it. So ubiquitous is he that one Justice Department lawyer calls Addington 'Adam Smith's invisible hand' in national security matters. . . .

"In national security circles, Addington is viewed as such a force of nature that one former government lawyer nicknamed him 'Keyser Soze,' after the ruthless crime boss in the thriller The Usual Suspects. . . .

"Addington is a strong adherent of the so-called unitary executive theory, which is cited frequently and prominently in many of Bush's legislative signing statements. The theory holds that the president is solely in charge of the executive branch and that Congress, therefore, can't tell him how to carry out his executive functions, whom to pick for what jobs, or through whom he must report to Congress. Executive power, separation of power, a tight chain of command, and protecting the unitary executive -- those became the guide stars of Addington's legal universe."

There's much, much more. Go read it.

What's the Big Idea?

David Gergen writes in U.S. News that "the overriding issue isn't whether George W. Bush can climb back 5 or 10 points or who will win more congressional seats this fall. The real issue is whether we will drift through nearly three years with a president wounded, a Congress divided, and a public disillusioned. A thousand days as a leaderless nation would leave us almost defenseless against dangers bearing down upon us."

Those dangers: Mediocre schools, high medical costs, deficits, energy dependence and international competitiveness.

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Immigration, healthcare and energy are three of America's most complex domestic problems. Each presents a unique political and policy puzzle.

"But the debates in Washington about these issues over the last two weeks have all turned on a common question: Can the president and Congress think big enough to forge comprehensive solutions to the nation's challenges?"

Snow and Fox

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that Tony Snow, former Fox newsman now press secretary, insists that there is no official television channel at the White House.

This in spite of the fact that, as Bumiller notes: "Televisions in the West Wing are regularly tuned to Fox. Televisions on Mr. Cheney's plane and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's plane are tuned to Fox. Televisions in Mr. Cheney's hotel rooms must be tuned to Fox before his arrival. Until last month, the television in the press cabin of Air Force One was tuned to Fox."

Invisible Cabinet

Michael Grunwald writes in The Washington Post about Bush's amazingly invisible Cabinet.

"Future historians will marvel at Bush's tiny White House inner circle, and the extraordinary message discipline it has enforced. Even first-tier Cabinet secretaries don't seem to matter in this administration; Treasury Secretary John W. Snow remains there at least in part because the White House can't persuade anyone else of stature to do the job. It's no coincidence that independent-minded freelancers such as [Colin] Powell, who expressed concern about Iraq, and [Christine Todd] Whitman, who expressed concern about global warming, and former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who expressed concern about the federal deficit, are no longer in the administration."

Bikegate!

Mark Silva blogged for the Chicago Tribune on Sunday: "For a while, the White House was mum about a bicycle accident involving one of the president's bike-mates on a glorious Saturday afternoon at a wildlife refuge.

"But today, the White House revealed that it was Michael Wood, the president's nominee to serve as U.S. ambassador to Sweden, who fell and broke his collar bone. . . .

"Wood is 'a friend of the president' who often accompanies Bush on his weekend mountain biking."

Ken Herman blogged for Cox News Service: "The morning-after announcement concerning Wood's injury is reminiscent of how Vice President Cheney's office handled his accidental shooting of a hunting buddy earlier this year."

Tax Increase Watch

David Cay Johnston writes in the New York Times: "The $69 billion tax cut bill that President Bush signed this week tripled tax rates for teenagers with college savings funds, despite Mr. Bush's 1999 pledge to veto any tax increase. . . .

"Mr. Bush pledged in 1999 to veto any bill that raised taxes. In response to a question about the tax increase on teenagers in the new legislation, the White House issued a statement Friday that made no reference to the tax increase, but recounted the tax cuts the administration has sponsored and stated that President Bush had 'reduced taxes on all people who pay income taxes.'

"Challenged on that point, the White House modified its statement 21 minutes later to say that Mr. Bush had 'reduced taxes on virtually all people who pay income taxes.' "

Safavian Watch

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "A former White House budget official is scheduled to go on trial this week, the first defendant to face a jury in the corruption scandal centered on the lobbyist Jack Abramoff."

Colbert Watch

Noam Cohen writes in the New York Times: "An audio version of the roast of President Bush by Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central rose to the rank of No. 1 album at Apple's iTunes store on Saturday, three weeks to the night of the White House Correspondents Dinner. . . .

"By many accounts, Mr. Colbert's performance landed with a thud among his influential audience of journalists and politicians, who were more overtly enthusiastic about a comedy routine involving Mr. Bush and a professional George W. Bush impersonator. . . .

"Mr. Colbert's speech has also become a cause célèbre among many commentators, writing online and off, who charged that the mainstream press ignored his performance because it was so mocking of the president and of the Washington media."

A Justice's Prayers

Lloyd Grove writes in the New York Daily News that at a Washington book party for the President's sister, Doro Bush Koch, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas came up to the author and said: "We have to pray for your brother. He's in real trouble."

Spin Watch

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "Before President Bush addressed the nation about immigration last week from the Oval Office, his staff used a tried-and-true device to frame and influence the news coverage."

Less than three hours before the speech, the White House released to reporters a series of excerpts that emphasized a get-tough rhetoric on immigration.

"When he delivered the speech, Bush somewhat listlessly delivered the security and law-and-order sections of his speech, but warmed up considerably when talking about creating a path to citizenship and conducting a dignified national debate.

"But the early excerpts had worked their magic anyway -- much of the coverage of Bush's speech focused on his enforcement initiatives, especially his plan for the National Guard to augment the Border Patrol."

Cheney's Rehash

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "Yesterday, when Vice President Dick Cheney delivered the commencement address at Louisiana State University, he spoke of his first meeting with Donald Rumsfeld in the 1960s. It didn't go so well. Cheney also spoke of his Yale days. They didn't go so well either. . . .

"It seems the vice president was dusting off a well worn commencement address."

Indeed, Silva shows how part of Cheney's remarks in Baton Rouge were almost word for word from his commencement speech on May 1, 2004 in Tallahassee .

Here's something new, however: New York Times White House correspondent David E. Sanger, serving as pool reporter, related the opening remarks from Sean O'Keefe, a former administration official and now chancellor of LSU.

O'Keefe recalled "how on the morning of Sept. 11 he was reviewing budget issues with the Veep, when they were told a single plane had hit the World Trade tower. They watched on television, he recalled, as the second plane hit. Then Secret Service agents burst in, grabbed the Vice President, and left Dr. O'Keefe to fend for himself in Mr. Cheney's office. 'They didn't need to say "you're on your own," ' he joked."

In Case You Missed It

Under the headline "In Case You Missed It," the White House communications office on Sunday morning sent out an excerpt from remarks by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on his reelection: "I want to thank you, Mr. President. You and I have probably been the most vilified politicians in the country. But I want to thank you for moving that promise that you made in Jackson Square forward. . . . You are delivering on your promise, and I want to thank you for all the citizens of the City of New Orleans."

Spitting Images

This Crooks and Liars post of an animated short from Saturday Night Live is the rage of the liberal blogosphere today.

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