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'Eight-Gate' and Karl Rove

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 12, 2007 1:58 PM

When it comes to Republican political shenanigans, Karl Rove is often the most likely suspect.

The political mastermind of the Bush presidency, Rove has exercised a singular amount of control from his West Wing office through his network of loyal operatives inside government and out.

One of his trademarks in the White House has been boldly crossing lines that previous administrations had only dared to blur. For instance, it was Rove who publicly advocated using national security as a wedge campaign issue. And critics charge that it is largely thanks to him that the Bush White House has subordinated domestic policy to politics, focusing less on the common good than on partisan goals such as providing tax cuts for the rich.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the more we learn about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys for allegedly political reasons, the more Karl Rove's name seems to come up.

In particular, it looks like some of the prosecutors -- who serve at the pleasure of the president but are nevertheless expected to put the law above politics -- were considered by top administration officials to be have acted with insufficient partisanship before the 2006 election. And one of those officials just might be Rove.

Ron Hutcheson, Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The White House acknowledged on Sunday that presidential adviser Karl Rove served as a conduit for complaints to the Justice Department about federal prosecutors who were later fired for what critics charge were partisan political reasons.

"House investigators on Sunday declared their intention to question Rove about any role he may have played in the firings.

"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Rove had relayed complaints from Republican officials and others to the Justice Department and the White House counsel's office. She said Rove, the chief White House political operative, specifically recalled passing along complaints about former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias and may have mentioned the grumblings about Iglesias to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. . . .

"The White House's explanation of Rove's role is the latest attempt to explain the firings of Republican appointees in the middle of an administration and in the absence of allegations of misconduct. After initially citing 'performance-related' reasons, the Justice Department later acknowledged that policy differences played a role but denied acting at the request of the White House. Rove's statement Sunday indicates a bigger White House role than was previously known."

That was a follow-up to Saturday's story by Talev and Taylor, in which they wrote: "Presidential advisor Karl Rove and at least one other member of the White House political team were urged by the New Mexico Republican party chairman to fire the state's U.S. attorney because of dissatisfaction in part with his failure to indict Democrats in a voter fraud investigation in the battleground election state.

"In an interview Saturday with McClatchy Newspapers, Allen Weh, the party chairman, said he complained in 2005 about then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to a White House liaison who worked for Rove and asked that he be removed. Weh said he followed up with Rove personally in late 2006 during a visit to the White House.

"'Is anything ever going to happen to that guy?' Weh said he asked Rove at a White House holiday event that month.

"'He's gone,' Rove said, according to Weh."

Adam Zagorin writes for Time that "the House Judiciary Committee is turning its attention to the White House's role in the affair.

"Committee chairman John Conyers, Jr., and Linda Sanchez, chairwoman of the Judiciary subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, co-signed letters today to White House Counsel Fred Fielding and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, requesting that both Miers and current deputy White House counsel William Kelly submit to interviews with the committee concerning the fired U.S. attorneys. The letters also ask that the White House supply comprehensive documentation of all discussions and communications dealing with the matter.

"The letters specifically ask for communications on the firings between the White House and the Department of Justice as well as with members of Congress, in addition to materials dealing with internal White House deliberations."

Here are the letters to Fielding and Miers.

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek: "A key question for investigators now: did Justice officials, with involvement from the White House, fire attorneys in retaliation for actions that didn't favor the GOP? . . .

"Justice officials say the dismissals were for 'job-performance reasons,' as well as for failure to pursue Bush administration policy priorities. But where did the list of particular U.S. attorneys to fire come from? Two senior Justice officials, who didn't want to be named discussing the dismissals, tell Newsweek that Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's chief of staff, developed the list of eight prosecutors to be fired last October -- with input from the White House."

How close is Sampson to Rove? In October 2005, during a flurry of speculation that Rove might have to step down on account of the Valerie Plame investigation, Al Kamen wrote in The Washington Post that Sampson was his most likely replacement.

For more background, see the "Gonzales Eight" section of Friday's column. And don't forget that one of the eight fired prosecutors, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, was fired to make room for a former Rove aide Tim Griffen.

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) that "none of this is surprising. The Bush administration has been purging, politicizing and de-professionalizing federal agencies since the day it came to power. But in the past it was able to do its business with impunity; this time Democrats have subpoena power, and the old slime-and-defend strategy isn't working.

"You also have to wonder whether new signs that Mr. Gonzales and other administration officials are willing to cooperate with Congress reflect the verdict in the Libby trial. It probably comes as a shock to realize that even Republicans can face jail time for lying under oath. . . .

"For the first time in six years, it's possible to hope that all the facts about a Bush administration scandal will come out in Congressional hearings - or, if necessary, in the impeachment trial of Alberto Gonzales."

Gonzales Takes the Heat

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "Another day, another scandal. The Justice Department's improper and illegal use of the USA Patriot Act puts Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on the hot seat, an all-too-familiar place for President Bush's inner circle.

"The last thing a troubled president needs is another friend in trouble. . . .

"It is too soon to tell whether Gonzales will be forced to leave, but his ouster would do little to change a perception that the Bush administration is unraveling amid declining public support and trust."

Walter F. Roche Jr. writes in the Los Angeles Times: "U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales has so politicized the Justice Department that he should step down for the sake of the nation, the Senate's third-ranking Democrat said Sunday."

And the New York Times editorial board writes: "During the hearing on his nomination as attorney general, Alberto Gonzales said he understood the difference between the job he held -- President Bush's in-house lawyer -- and the job he wanted, which was to represent all Americans as their chief law enforcement officer and a key defender of the Constitution. Two years later, it is obvious Mr. Gonzales does not have a clue about the difference.

"He has never stopped being consigliere to Mr. Bush's imperial presidency. If anyone, outside Mr. Bush's rapidly shrinking circle of enablers, still had doubts about that, the events of last week should have erased them. . . .

"Mr. Bush should dismiss Mr. Gonzales and finally appoint an attorney general who will use the job to enforce the law and defend the Constitution."

Scooter Libby Watch

Michael Isikoff and Richard Wolffe write for Newsweek: "On June 5, Libby will return to court for sentencing by Judge Reggie Walton, a no-nonsense jurist who metes out tough prison sentences and cuts no slack for white-collar defendants. Libby could get two years. His lawyers will ask that Libby be allowed to remain free while his appeals work their way through the courts. As he has in past prosecutions, Fitzgerald is likely to press for Libby to go straight to prison. 'Fitz is so by-the- book he would send his own mother to jail,' joked a veteran federal prosecutor who asked not to be identified talking about his colleague.

"The prospect of Libby's serving time is fueling an intense debate in Washington: should President Bush pardon him? . . . Out of obligation and duty, Cheney is almost certain to press Bush to pardon his close friend and protégé.

"But don't count on Bush to go along -- at least not yet. . . .

"At his first press conference as president in February 2001, Bush set himself apart from Bill Clinton, who had caused a stir with several controversial pardons in his final days. When it came to granting pardons, Bush said, 'I'll have the highest of high standards.' . . .

"Former White House aides, who didn't want to be named discussing Bush's strategizing, say they believe the president will ultimately grant him one. Libby may just have to wait, probably until after the '08 election."

And here's an amazing quote: "'What you saw was a vice president's office that was out of control,' says a former White House staffer who asked not to be named talking about internal discussions. According to trial testimony, White House aides Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer both disclosed the identity of Wilson's wife to reporters. But the way the White House sees it, Rove and Fleischer 'went up to the line,' the staffer says, 'but they didn't cross it. The vice president's office crossed it.'"

Think Progress has video of William Kristol, appearing on Fox News, arguing for Bush to take action right away: "He needs to pardon Libby now. I think that would actually reinvigorate his supporters and show that he's willing to fight to defend his people and defend the war that he led us into. . . .

"I mean, it's going to be hanging out there. Not to pardon him and to go into a defensive crouch, which is where the White House is now, is to leave that cloud hanging over his White House and over the war."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Even by Washington's standards, few debates have been more fatuous or wasted more energy than the frenzied speculation over whether President Bush will or will not pardon Scooter Libby. Of course he will.

"A president who tries to void laws he doesn't like by encumbering them with 'signing statements' and who regards the Geneva Conventions as a nonbinding technicality isn't going to start playing by the rules now. His assertion last week that he is 'pretty much going to stay out of' the Libby case is as credible as his pre-election vote of confidence in Donald Rumsfeld. The only real question about the pardon is whether Mr. Bush cares enough about his fellow Republicans' political fortunes to delay it until after Election Day 2008.

"Either way, the pardon is a must for Mr. Bush. He needs Mr. Libby to keep his mouth shut. Cheney's Cheney knows too much about covert administration schemes far darker than the smearing of Joseph Wilson."

The History of Pardons

Michael J. Sniffen writes for the Associated Press: "Richard Nixon. Mark Felt. Caspar Weinberger. Marc Rich. Is President Bush willing to risk -- on behalf of ex-White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby -- the kind of political grief that pardons for those four men brought the presidents who granted them? . . .

"All received presidential pardons processed outside normal channels.

"As in those cases, Bush would have to bypass the regular clemency process to pardon Libby for the four felonies he was convicted of on Tuesday.

"Such pardons historically have gotten presidents into political trouble."

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "The Gallup Organization, reopening its archives, has found that 'the public has generally opposed high-profile presidential pardons in the recent past.' In the long-run, they may prove less harmful, however. 'The evidence is more mixed,' Gallup reports, 'as to how the pardons affect the president's image in the years after they have been issued.' . . .

"'The current president Bush, whose job approval rating is at 33% -- including a 9% rating among Democrats -- doesn't have a lot to lose in the court of public opinion,' they suggest, 'but history suggests that the public's initial reaction to the pardon itself is highly likely to be negative.'"

McClellan's View

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Friday that he and President Bush were misled by top administration aides who assured them they had not been involved in the leak of a CIA operative's identity.

"He said he plans to write a book that will include more of the 'back story than what has come out.' . . .

"In September and October 2003, McClellan told reporters that Rove, Libby and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams had told him they were not involved in the leak.

"'I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this,' he said on Oct. 10, 2003. 'And that's where it stands.'

"On Friday, McClellan said, 'I did believe that was true. The president believed it was true too, based on the assurances we were given.'

"'Additional information,' as McClellan called it, 'did change things.' . . .

"McClellan, asked if he was flat-out lied to by Rove and Libby, said, 'I don't want to at this point go further than what I've said. There is certainly enough in the public domain for people to draw their own conclusions. I've made clear what the truth is from my standpoint.'"

But it's really hard to see McClellan as a victim here, considering that at the time he was embarked on a robotic orgy of carefully parsed denials. Are we really supposed to believe he interrogated Rove and Libby about their behavior? Isn't it more likely that he made the mistake of accepting their own carefully parsed denials, and passing them on as the whole truth?

Maybe as a form of penance, McClellan is now calling for the White House to come clean. ( Just like me.)

Herman writes "'My belief is that continuing not to comment on it is only raising more questions in the public's mind and it only increases suspicions. It makes people say: "What are you hiding?"' McClellan said.

"Though Libby's lawyers will seek a retrial and, failing to get that, an appeal, McClellan said White House comment at this point would not compromise the legal proceedings.

"'The position that they are going to continue to not comment on it has no validity any more in my view,' McClellan said, adding that the White House could 'help quell this firestorm' by answering questions about it."

Can We All Call It an Escalation Now?

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush approved 8,200 more U.S. troops for Iraq and Afghanistan on top of reinforcements already ordered to those two countries, the White House said Saturday, a move that comes amid a fiery debate in Washington over the Iraq war.

"The president agreed to send 4,700 troops to Iraq in addition to the 21,500 he ordered to go in January, mainly to provide support for those combat forces and to handle more anticipated Iraqi prisoners. He also decided to send a 3,500-member brigade to Afghanistan to accelerate training of local forces, doubling his previous troop increase to fight a resurgent Taliban. . . .

"In Iraq particularly, the moves could fuel suspicions that a troop increase initially described as a temporary 'surge' may grow larger and last longer than predicted."

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's troop buildup in Baghdad apparently will be bigger and more costly -- and perhaps last longer -- than it seemed when he unveiled the plan in January as the centerpiece of a new Iraq strategy."

In Colombia yesterday, Bush bristled at the notion that he keeps upping the ante. "The troop announcement I made was over 20,000 combat troops," he said.

And it's true that in his Jan. 10 speech, Bush said "I've committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq."

But in an official briefing earlier that same day, a senior administration official gave the exact -- and apparently no longer operative -- numbers: "What we're talking about is -- actually, it's two Marine battalions in Anbar, which comes to 4,000 troops, five army brigades in Baghdad. Together, you total them up, it's somewhere in the 21,000-22,000 total."

Is This Plan B?

Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel write in the Los Angeles Times: "American military planners have begun plotting a fallback strategy for Iraq that includes a gradual withdrawal of forces and a renewed emphasis on training Iraqi fighters in case the current troop buildup fails or is derailed by Congress.

"Such a strategy, based in part on the U.S. experience in El Salvador in the 1980s, is still in the early planning stages and would be adjusted to fit the outcome of the current surge in troop levels, according to military officials and Pentagon consultants who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing future plans."

Bush's Trip

Bush is in Guatemala today.

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "President Bush on Monday will promote free trade in Central America and the need for greater security against an upsurge in political and drug violence in a visit to Guatemala.

"Taking a break from official meetings, Bush will visit a rural farm cooperative and take an archeological tour of ancient Mayan ruins, to the chagrin of Mayan leaders who promised to spiritually 'cleanse' the site afterward because they consider Bush an aggressor."

Marc Lacey writes in the New York Times about widespread child labor in Guatemala: "President Bush is likely to miss this side of Guatemala's labor market when he comes to this rural area on Monday to visit a thriving agricultural cooperative that sells products to Wal-Mart's stores in Central America."

Yesterday, Bush spent seven hours in Bogota, Colombia.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "As Air Force One swooped over the Andes Mountains toward this city for the first time in a quarter-century, President Bush and his aides sat in the front compartments with an optimistic message about improved security after decades of civil war and drug trafficking.

"But the message didn't make it even to a rear compartment on the plane for Secret Service agents accompanying the first U.S. president to visit Bogota since 1982. 'Colombia presents the MOST SIGNIFICANT THREAT ENVIRONMENT of this five country trip!' the monitor in the agents' compartment warned starkly. The terrorist threat, it went on, was 'HIGH.'

"The divergent themes dominated Bush's whirlwind visit here Sunday, a seven-hour stay intended to showcase progress in Colombia but that unavoidably underscored continuing problems. Bush told a story of success that was aided by billions of U.S. dollars as he lent support to President Álvaro Uribe, his closest ally in the region. Sharpshooters on the roofs and police firing tear gas at rock-throwing protesters on the streets told another story. . . .

"Colombia put 21,000 police officers on duty, lining every road traveled by Bush and shutting down much of downtown. Authorities closed the airport, banned alcohol sales, put cameras along Bush's motorcade route and canceled the normal Sunday practice of reserving major streets for bicycling and jogging. The city prohibited motorcyclists from carrying passengers to thwart would-be drive-by assassins."

Saturday was Uruguay. Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times that Uruguay "has two things that provide a particular draw: a left-leaning president in the area who is still willing to buck the anti-American push of regional strongmen like President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and one who has a sprawling presidential retreat that is a cross between Camp David and Mr. Bush's Texas ranch."

Patrick J. McDonnell and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times about one Uruguayan minister's dilemma.

Bush's first stop was Brazil. Jim Rutenberg and Larry Rohter write in the New York Times: "President Bush began the first full day of his weeklong trip to Latin America here on Friday promising job-creating aid but ended up competing for attention with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who called the American visit an act of imperialism, adding, 'Gringo, go home!'

"'I don't think America gets enough credit for trying to help improve people's lives,' Mr. Bush said, speaking at a joint news conference with Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

"But while President Bush pressed that point, President Chávez led an 'anti-imperialist' rally at which he railed against what he called American hypocrisy and greed, and called Mr. Bush a 'political cadaver.'"

The Anti-Chavez Mission

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "President Bush has brought an unaccustomed message for Latin Americans on his weeklong swing through the region: I feel your pain. And he is taking it to some unaccustomed places -- hotbeds of poverty and disaffection that he generally has missed on earlier trips."

In the past, McKinnon writes: "Mr. Bush considered poverty reduction an almost-inevitable side benefit of expanded international commerce. 'The vast majority of financing for development comes not from aid, but from trade and domestic capital and foreign investment,' he said at a 2002 international conference in Monterrey, Mexico. 'So to be serious about fighting poverty, we must be serious about expanding trade.'

"Mr. Bush now seems to recognize that benefits from his free-trade policies are taking a while to reach many people, and that in the meantime, many in the region need reassurance."

Massimo Calabrese writes for Time: "At some point during the nine-hour flight from Andrews Air Force base to Sao Paulo Thursday President Bush must have slipped and fallen. Into an alternate reality, that is. . . .

"If Bush is starting to sound more like a 1980s campus radical than a 21st century Republican there are good reasons. Bush's newfound rhetoric is calculated for the task at hand: countering the rising influence of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, an expert rabble-rouser and rhetorical pot-stirrer who has taken up Castro's mantle as Latin America's most popular anti-American leftist."

Bush has refused to say Chavez's name out loud. It's somewhat reminiscent of how he used to not mention Osama bin Laden by name -- until, that is, he started quoting him all the time.

In a briefing yesterday, White House officials seemed annoyed that the press is paying Chavez so much attention.

Said press secretary Tony Snow: "I mean, it's the narrative you guys are bringing. There is an active agenda on these meetings and it's worth covering. . . . We didn't pack anybody else in our luggage."

Life in the Pool

In his blog on the trip, The Post's Peter Baker provides an exhaustive report of the tedium of following the president around, and shows how limited access really is to a president and his top advisers.

About Face?

John Barry, Richard Wolffe and Evan Thomas write in Newsweek: "The behind-the-scenes scramble to rectify the mess at [Walter Reed Army Medical Center] and to take better care of veterans is revealing of a new way of doing things in the Bush administration. . . .

"Firing high-level officials for the mistakes and wrongdoings of their subordinates has not exactly been standard procedure at the White House. . . .

"Rumsfeld gone, Cheney marginalized. Has President Bush himself gone soft, become a touchy-feely multilateralist? The answer is no -- at least not yet, and probably never. White House officials (speaking anonymously about sensitive national-security-policy questions) insisted to Newsweek that Iran's mullahs have been shaken and made more pliable by the administration's show of force in the region. . . . Bush is not about to suddenly reverse himself and embrace the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission (of which Gates was a member) that call for a troop drawdown in Iraq and an all-encompassing international peace conference on the Middle East. What has changed so far in Bush's administration is more a matter of style than substance -- though new ways of doing business can sometimes produce tangible differences in outcomes."

The implication that embracing accountability, realism and mulilateralism is tantamount to "going soft" is utterly specious, of course. But I would agree that so far the changes we've seen have been more of style than of substance. The decision to send yet another 4,700 to Iraq -- that's what I call substance.

Not a Broken Man

Bush biographer Fred Barnes writes for the Weekly Standard about the mood in the White House "in the context of a Bush presidency smacked by Scooter Libby's felony conviction, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal, and the overblown flap over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. And of course there's still the war in Iraq, which remains unpopular. Given all this, why hasn't the president's staff drifted into despair and gloom and given up? Because President Bush hasn't.

"Bush's relentlessly upbeat demeanor, which he flaunts at press conferences and other public events, infuriates his political opponents and much of the mainstream media. They want him to act like the broken man they think he should be. Sorry, but he's a healthy man, mentally and physically. He's bolstered by his religious faith, his sense of mission, his scorn for elite opinion, and what an aide calls 'his really good physical shape.' Exercise and sleep help to 'keep his spirits high,' the aide says."

Lancing a Boil

Colin McEnroe writes in his Hartford Courant opinion column that he was not impressed with the information that came out about Tim Russert in the Libby trial.

"[H]here and there, you read comments about the prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and how much he damaged the First Amendment by sweating a bunch of journalists. Please. It's more like he lanced some kind of infectious boil."

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