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White House Blocks E-Mail Delivery

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 18, 2007 1:28 PM

The White House yesterday hinted that it may try to assert executive privilege in denying Congressional investigators access to e-mails sent and received by White House aides on their Republican National Committee e-mail accounts.

It would be an unconventional exercise of a privilege that is controversial even in its traditional application: to protect the White House itself from subpoenas. And it would be another twist in an already peculiarly convoluted story.

In what Democrats suspect was an attempt to avoid public scrutiny, some key White House aides violated internal policy and potentially federal law by using their RNC e-mail accounts (instead of their official White House e-mail accounts) to conduct official business. Once the use of those accounts was exposed, the RNC announced that many if not most of those e-mails had been deleted. Now, the White House is saying that should any of those e-mails somehow turn up, they should not be turned over to Congress without the White House's approval.

In an April 12 letter to the RNC, Judiciary Committee Democrats requested "all e-mail communications" from government officials "in any way retrievable from the RNC servers" related to the recent termination of U.S. attorneys.

The White House sent the RNC a letter yesterday making it clear the RNC was not to comply: "We understand that once [the RNC] has reached an agreement on the appropriate search terms with the Judiciary Committee and has gathered information it believes responsive to the Letter's requests, you will provide the Office of the Counsel to the President with an opportunity to review such material before communicating it to any other person. Such review is necessary to determine, among other things, (1) whether any materials implicating the Presidential Records Act are, in fact, involved, and (2) whether, the Executive Branch may need to take measures necessary to protect its other legal interests in communications responsive to the Letter's requests."

Margaret Talev writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Democrats and Republican critics of the administration said the move suggests that the White House is seeking to develop a strategy to block the release of the non-government e-mails to congressional investigators by arguing that they're covered by executive privilege and not subject to review.

"Scott M. Stanzel, deputy White House press secretary, called the action 'reasonable' and said that any review of the e-mails would 'be conducted in a timely fashion, to balance the committee's need for the information with the extreme over breadth of their requests.' Party officials declined comment, but a GOP aide familiar with the negotiations said the RNC would comply with the White House request. . . .

"Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., who'd asked the RNC to turn over any applicable e-mails by week's end, characterized the White House's stance as an 'extreme and unnecessary' effort to block or slow the release of the e-mails. . . .

"The White House has yet to turn over internal documents and e-mails requested by Congress and has reserved the option of asserting executive privilege to protect internal communications. But Democrats say executive privilege doesn't apply to e-mails sent on non-government accounts."

Monica Goodling Watch

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee said they are weighing an offer of immunity to a potential key witness in the investigation. . . .

"Frustrated by Monica M. Goodling's refusal to testify, committee Democrats said they may grant limited-use immunity to the former counsel to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. . . .

"Conyers cited Goodling's dual role as Gonzales's aide and the Justice Department's liaison to the White House for the unusual immunity offer, saying she could 'clear up the many inconsistencies and gaps surrounding this matter.'"

James Rowley writes for Bloomberg: "Limited immunity would have to be granted by a federal judge.

"A grant of immunity does not protect a witness from being prosecuted for lying to Congress. A refusal to testify under a grant of immunity would subject a witness to prosecution for criminal contempt of Congress, which carries a maximum one-year prison sentence.

"'There is much skepticism as to whether she even meets the rather low standard' for a 'valid Fifth Amendment claim as opposed to simply invoking the Fifth as a way of getting out of testifying,' said Charles Tiefer, a former deputy House of Representatives counsel who teaches law at the University of Baltimore.

"'This isn't the situation where the person' subpoenaed 'is the well-known target of an investigation,' such as Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal, Tiefer said."

Bush at Virginia Tech

President Bush traveled to the scene of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech University yesterday, speaking briefly at a university-side convocation before meeting with grieving families.

Here is the text of his nine-minute remarks, in which he sounded more like a preacher than a president.

"This is a day of mourning for the Virginia Tech community -- and it is a day of sadness for our entire nation. We've come to express our sympathy. In this time of anguish, I hope you know that people all over this country are thinking about you, and asking God to provide comfort for all who have been affected," he said.

"Across the town of Blacksburg and in towns all across America, houses of worship from every faith have opened their doors and have lifted you up in prayer. People who have never met you are praying for you; they're praying for your friends who have fallen and who are injured. There's a power in these prayers, real power. In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God. . . .

"May God bless you. May God bless and keep the souls of the lost. And may His love touch all those who suffer and grieve."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "In another era, a nation's grief at such a ceremony may have been conveyed by religious leaders, some White House veterans said.

"'In the television age, there are only so many voices you can hear, and the president has the megaphone,' said David Gergen, who served as an adviser to four presidents. 'At times like this, he takes off his cap as commander in chief and puts on the robes of consoler in chief.'

"Leon Panetta, Clinton's chief of staff, agreed: 'In many ways, he is our national chaplain.'"

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Disaster has been both the making and the undoing of President Bush.

"Bush's bearing after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- tough yet empathetic -- felt right to the public. He rode that support to a second term, despite questions about the economy and the war in Iraq.

"He was far less sure-footed when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. He stumbled through his initial appearances in the disaster zone, leaving the impression of a president who was distant from the immense suffering. His presidency -- like the region -- has never quite recovered from its faltering early reaction.

"When tragedy strikes, presidents are expected to be national consoler -- figures who affirm the grief even as they chart a path out of it. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't."

Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column: "Part of any president's job is helping the nation grieve, and President Bush, as he has before, assumed that responsibility gracefully with his appearance at Tuesday's memorial for the young people senselessly slaughtered the day before.

"But in the face of tragedy, the responsibility of political leaders is not just to look back in sorrow. Their job is to look forward toward practical steps that might reduce the risk of repeating the awful experience."

Brownstein writes that Washington should be asking "whether we are doing enough to diminish the overall risk of violence in our society. Bruce Reed, who helped coordinate President Clinton's response to the Columbine shootings as White House domestic policy advisor, strikes the right balance. 'It doesn't have to be about going back in the time machine with a policy that would have prevented this specific crisis,' Reed said Tuesday. 'It's taking the crisis to heart to see what we can do to stop future ones' . . .

"If we approached the Virginia shootings in the expansive spirit we summoned after 9/11, we would explore broadly. We would assess the availability of counseling for troubled young people. We would question Bush's decision to de-fund the Clinton program that subsidized the hiring of more local police -- especially since the nation's violent crime rate increased last year for the first time since 1991, according to FBI statistics. And, yes, we would reopen a discussion that both parties have silenced about access to guns."

Bush and the Three Anchors

The president and the first lady gave each of the three major broadcast network anchors five minutes apiece yesterday, after meeting with families.

Here's video of the Bushes talking to CBS's Katie Couric:

Bush: "I cried when they wanted to cry. I hugged when they wanted to hug. I, you know, I just, we just loved them as best as we could."

Here's video of their interview with NBC's Brian Williams:

Williams: "You have all too much experience in dealing with grieving families going back to 9/11 and this nation's two wars. How is this different?"

Bush: "I think what makes this different is that a parent or a loved one thought their child was, you know, learning to enrich their lives, and the next thing they're dead and it's just the shock and the suddenness and the location that makes this a very traumatic experience. Virginia Tech is a viable, strong community and it's gonna require this viable, strong community to help people recover."

Here's the video of their appearance with ABC's Charlie Gibson: "Mr. President, I don't know how you go about finding something to say at a time when words are essentially inadequate."

Bush: "Mm-hmm. You give it your best shot on the words and you hug and cry. And that's what Laura and I have just done with some of the families who lost - students and, or, in one case a - professor, the family of a professor. You know, I, I don't know how adequate I am to help heal a heart. And the only thing you can try do, Charles, is show up and express your love and concern, and convey a sense of assurance - that there will be a better tomorrow."

All three anchors asked Bush about gun control, and all three times he ducked.

Gibson: "After Columbine, there was ignited a national debate on guns."

Bush: "Mm-hmm."

Gibson: "Do you think this is gonna rekindle the national debate?"

Bush: "I do. Yeah. I mean, I think when a, a guy walks in - and shoots 32 people, it's gonna cause there to be a lot of policy debate. Now is not the time to do the debate until we're absolutely certain about what happened. And after we help people get over their grieving, but, yeah, I do think there's gonna be a lot of discussion."

Couric asked Bush: "Is it too easy in your view for unstable people to purchase guns in this country?"

He replied: "On the gun control debate, and there's inevitably going to be a debate, as there should be after an incident like this, you know, I think now, my own view is that I haven't had time to reflect, nor do I know all the facts on what took place."

Couric noted that Bush had attended a forum on school violence after a gunman killed five Amish schoolgirls last year. "Has anything changed? Has anything been accomplished in the last year to make our students safer?"

In his response, Bush seemed to suggest that small schools were safer than large ones.

Bush: "I think so. I think there's an awareness as a result of some of these tragedies. The Columbine tragedy, the Amish school tragedy. There's awareness for the adults in the schools to pay attention to behavior that is unpredictable. This is just a big university. In a smaller campus, there's a lot more awareness. Here, it's just very difficult to protect from a person that became deranged."

Today's Meeting

Bush is meeting at the White House with top Democrats this afternoon to discuss funding of the Iraq war.

AFP reports that "the two camps were to meet behind closed doors at the White House amid few signs that either side will blink.

"'The consequences of failure would be death and destruction in the Middle East and here in America,' Bush warned this week. 'I hope the Democratic leadership will drop their unreasonable demands for a precipitous withdrawal.'

"Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who this week called Bush's war policy 'wrongheaded,' said Tuesday he had not decided what he would tell Bush, but vowed to press for a 'change of policy' in Iraq.

"'He's going to be sitting right next to me,' said Reid. 'Unless he plugs his ears, he's going to have to listen.'"

Immigration Watch

David Rogers writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Hoping to jump-start comprehensive immigration overhaul, the White House and Senate Democrats are embracing a two-step approach aimed at assuring wary conservatives that key border-security provisions will be put in place first.

"Last year, a similar 'trigger' proposal was defeated 55-40 in the Senate for fear it would effectively kill any chance of carrying out the next steps, such as guest-worker programs or adjusting the legal status of millions of undocumented people now in the U.S.

"Since then, its chief supporter, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), has been courted by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has supported reviving the trigger to help broaden support. Democrats, now in control of Congress, say they also are open to the idea in a new immigration bill, if it wins Republican votes. . . .

"With Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Mr. Chertoff has participated in weeks of meetings, first with Senate Republicans and now members of both parties. Senior White House aides are part of the talks, which sometimes resemble political focus groups, as the administration tries to find the right formula to bring in Republican support."

Shooting at the White House

The Associated Press reports: "Two Secret Service officers were injured in an accidental shooting Tuesday at the White House.

"The incident occurred in a security booth at the southwest gate."

A (Former) Prosecutor's View

I called attention yesterday to a Chicago Tribune op-ed by Patrick M. Collins about the U.S. attorney scandal, noting how unusual it was for a federal prosecutor to express an opinion so publicly. The Tribune, which identified Collings as an assistant U.S. attorney, has since corrected itself. Collins left the U.S. attorney's office earlier this month, and is now in private practice.

Cooper's Tale

Former Time reporter Matthew Cooper writes in his new magazine about his own personal travails as a witness in the Scooter Libby case.

He evidently sees himself as quite the martyr. (At one point, describing his thinking about the possibility of going to jail to protect sources Libby and Rove, he writes: "I could do the full Mandela.")

Cooper describes all sorts of tensions involved in being a celebrity reporter for a corporate behemoth, caught between a special prosecutor and promises of confidentiality to top presidential aides.

But he doesn't seem to have been the least bit troubled by his failure to do his job -- if you consider the job of a journalist to inform the public, or at the very least not willfully misinform the public.

There is no sense in this piece that Cooper ever felt the urge to report his way out of his bind -- and find some way to tell the public what really happened. By contrast, in this October 2003 story, for instance, his magazine reported: "White House spokesman Scott McClellan said accusations of Rove's peddling information are 'ridiculous.' Says McClellan: 'There is simply no truth to that suggestion.'"

Cooper (along with at least two of his fellow contributors to that story) knew that to be an utter falsehood. But they printed it anyway, without any context or -- as far as I know -- any qualms.

For more, see the last item in my February 8, 2006 column, and also the liberal Media Matters Web site.

Yuck Yuk

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "In hiring an impersonator practiced in an old-school approach to comedy, meant to entertain but not offend, the White House Correspondents' Association has . . . provoked left-leaning political activists, who see his assignment as a retreat from last year's dinner. Then, the television satirist Stephen Colbert delivered a stinging roast of President Bush and, to a lesser extent, the White House press corps.

"Mr. Little has said he would deliver no such performance this year. And his selection has become something of a symbol in the liberal blogosphere for what its members consider the proclivity of Washington reporters to give Mr. Bush and his administration a pass.

"'It represents that the White House press corps is more interested in playing friendly and cozying up to the Bush administration than it is in providing the sort of oversight that a free press should provide in a democracy,' said Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga, founder of the Daily Kos. 'They shouldn't be yukking it up together as if they're pals and friends, and that's why we've had so much terrible coverage.'

"Conservatives, of course, hoot at the idea that reporters are too cozy with the White House, saying that by and large the news media is implacably hostile to the administration and ideologically left-leaning. And association officials say they are in no way seeking to protect their relationships, to the extent they have any, with Mr. Bush and his aides -- and that whatever relationships they do have are neither cozy nor friendly."

Rutenberg complains that the blogosphere "is populated by people who 'feel that the press was run over, and kind of told itself some story to avoid confrontation and lapsed into a phony kind of balance,' said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University.

"It is enough to make some reporters bristle. 'Some of them seem to want us to hate the people we cover,' said Ken Herman, a White House correspondent for Cox Newspapers and an association board member. 'They don't seem to understand that you can have a professional relationship with them where you don't hate them, and you can sometimes talk to them, and maybe have dinner with them.'"

But Rutenberg creates a false conflict. Rosen and Herman are both largely correct. The press has been played by this White House -- but that doesn't mean reporters have to be jerks. They just need to be tougher, more aggressive journalists.

The White House Correspondents dinner is not the problem in and of itself. But the pandering selection of Rich Little this year makes the occasion a particularly potent metaphor for a relationship that in recent years has not served the public as well as it could.

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