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The Biggest Cheney Mystery

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 16, 2007 1:53 PM

Just what is the relationship like between President Bush and Vice President Cheney? Behind closed doors, who defers to whom?

PBS's "Frontline" documentary series tonight chronicles Cheney's relentless, secretive and smashingly successful quest to expand executive power. While the Oval Office is traditionally the center of power, New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer notes on the show, "The strange thing about this administration is all of the most crucial decisions seem to be taking place in the vice president's office, or even the vice president's counsel's office."

In an interview for a Fox News special about Cheney that aired over the weekend, Bush insisted that he's the decider -- but even kindly disposed Fox News reporter Brett Baier noted that Bush was unusually vague in describing his relationship with the vice president.

Bush on Cheney

While neither Cheney nor his enormously influential legal adviser David S. Addington were willing to talk to PBS, the vice president welcomed Fox News's Baier with open arms.

As Baier explained at the opening of his report: "Fox News has been given unprecedented access into the vice president's world. We spoke at length with him, to some of the people that have known him the longest, and to the president himself. We shadowed Cheney in Washington, visited his homes here and in Wyoming and traveled with him on a mission to the Mideast."

And yet the most interesting part of the show was not what Cheney had to say, most of which we'd heard many times before. It was what the president said. I don't think Bush has ever faced so many questions about Cheney before.

Baier: "What is the relationship between you and Vice President Cheney? There's a lot of people here who say it's a mystery."

Bush: "It's not a mystery to me. I've gotten to know him well over seven years -- six and a half as sitting vice president and half a year as a candidate. First, I would classify our relationship as very comfortable with each other. Dick Cheney is an easy guy to be around."

Baier, in a voiceover: "The president even seemed to have a hard time characterizing his relationship with his vice president."

Bush: "I've come to admire him. So I would say it's a very comfortable, close relationship."

Baier persisted.

Baier: "Is he a man of few words inside the White House? What's his style when you meet?"

Bush: "Well, we have several constant meetings. One, when it's just the vice president and me -- which happens on a weekly basis, you know -- he's quite verbose. He comes with things that he wants to talk about, issues that he wants to share concerns about, or things that he's seen or heard."

Baier: "Some critics claim he's pulling the strings in this administration. Others don't go that far, they say he's managed to figure out the angles and present you with certain options that limit your options when it's time to make a decision comes."

Bush: "I think I'm wiser than that -- than to be pigeonholed or, you know, to get cornered by a wily advisor. Look, that's not the way it works. Dick Cheney walks in and I say, 'What's your advice on this subject?' And he gives it to me and I make up my mind based upon a variety of factors including the advice of key advisors and he is one of them."

Baier: "Some people describe him as the most powerful vice president ever. Do you agree with that?"

Bush: "I would say he's very influential. But he was no more influential than a Condi Rice or a Bob Gates or a Steve Hadley. And the thing about Vice President Cheney is that his decision-making -- or his recommendations about my decision-making -- are based upon a core set of principles that are deeply rooted in his very being. He is predictable in many ways because he brings a set of beliefs. And they're firm beliefs."

'Cheney's Law'

The Frontline episode "Cheney's Law" will be on PBS tonight and then online.

Gina Bellafante writes in the New York Times that the documentary "weaves a breathtaking narrative of his campaign to expand executive authority since 9/11. . . .

"Produced by Michael Kirk, who has made nine other documentaries about the Bush White House, the film traces Mr. Cheney's commitment to presidential privilege -- forged and formulated with his friend and lawyer David Addington -- illuminating the ways in which he has seen to it that congressional approval and judicial review are circumnavigated to implement controversial wartime policies on detention, interrogation and torture."

The Boston Globe's Sam Allis writes: "[Cheney] is the soul of this administration's relentless pursuit of greater executive power. He is its architect and commander. George Bush became a willing participant when apprised of the effort."

Mary McNamara writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Famously secretive, often openly contemptuous of those who do not agree with him, [Cheney] has been seen by some to have a Faustian relationship with President Bush, and not in the Faust role. . . .

"There is no breaking news in 'Cheney's Law,' which uses an assortment of journalists and former politicos to narrate the various steps Cheney took to circumvent congressional intervention after 9/11. But having the dots connected so clearly and convincingly is both disturbing and helpful.

"Over and over, the report documents, Cheney and his lawyer, David Addington, acted to secure complete power for the president, leading to the alleged abuses at Guantanamo Bay, the controversy over surveillance of Americans and the recent Justice Department scandal involving the firing of U.S. attorneys that led to the resignation of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. The formation of military tribunals was signed by the president after being seen by no one but Cheney and Addington. The definition of torture was rewritten until, as Jane Mayer of the New Yorker says, it became almost impossible to commit the crime. . . .

"'Gonzales is out, Rove is out and Cheney is ready to fight the next battle tomorrow,' says author Ron Suskind toward the end of the program. 'Victory goes not to the swift nor to the strong but to he who endureth until the end. That is a principle that guides this ship of state.'"

From the show's Web site: "In his most extensive television interview since leaving the Justice Department, former Assistant Attorney General Jack L. Goldsmith describes his initial days at the Department of Justice in the fall of 2003 as he learned about the government's most secret and controversial covert operations. Goldsmith was shocked by the administration's secret assertion of unlimited power.

"'There were extravagant and unnecessary claims of presidential power that were wildly overbroad to the tasks at hand,' Goldsmith says. . . .

"As Goldsmith began to question his colleagues' claims that the administration could ignore domestic laws and international treaties, he began to clash with Cheney's office. According to Goldsmith, Addington warned him, 'If you rule that way, the blood of the 100,000 people who die in the next attack will be on your hands.'"

Poll Watch

Not surprisingly, many Americans have reservations about Cheney becoming president, should something happen to Bush.

Fox News, which commissioned a poll in conjunction with its special on Cheney, reports: "When asked how they would feel if Cheney had to take over the presidency, 53 percent of respondents said they would feel uncomfortable, and 44 percent said they would feel comfortable."

In fact, only 18 percent said they would be "very comfortable"; 26 percent said "somewhat comfortable"; 18 percent said "not very comfortable"; and a plurality -- 35 percent -- said "not at all comfortable."

Also: "40 percent of Americans believe Cheney has used his unprecedented influence in the White House to carry out his own policies -- as opposed to policies that President Bush supports."

Make It Stop

Bob Egelko writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that a group of liberals and a handful of prominent conservatives are pressing Bush's would-be successors to renounce his administration's drive to expand executive power.

"Both the liberal American Freedom Campaign and the conservative American Freedom Agenda have adopted platforms complaining of administration muscle-flexing on issues ranging from the treatment of prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the Justice Department's threats to prosecute reporters for espionage.

"The liberal group also has asked all presidential candidates to sign a pledge of limited executive authority, reading, 'We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal remedy, we do not tap people's phones and e-mails without court order, and above all we do not give any president unchecked power. I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from attack by any president.'"

Cheney on Plame

Here's one noteworthy exchange from the Fox News interview with Cheney, in which the vice president again makes it clear he doesn't think he or his convicted aide Scooter Libby have anything to apologize for.

Baier: "In retrospect, do you think that the administration could have come out and said, 'This is Joe Wilson. This is who he is. This is what he's doing and this is why it's wrong.'"

Cheney: "I can't get the details. You're asking good questions but I'm not at liberty to discuss it."

Baier: "Do you have regret about the situation?"

Cheney: "I can't imagine the pain and the agony that Scooter and his family are going through. It should not have happened. He's one of the most able and talented men I've ever met and he's also a man of great personal integrity."

Warrantless Wiretapping Watch

Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "Verizon Communications, the nation's second-largest telecom company, told congressional investigators that it has provided customers' telephone records to federal authorities in emergency cases without court orders hundreds of times since 2005.

"The company said it does not determine the requests' legality or necessity because to do so would slow efforts to save lives in criminal investigations.

"In an Oct. 12 letter replying to Democratic lawmakers, Verizon offered a rare glimpse into the way telecommunications companies cooperate with government requests for information on U.S. citizens.

"Verizon also disclosed that the FBI, using administrative subpoenas, sought information identifying not just a person making a call, but all the people that customer called, as well as the people those people called. Verizon does not keep data on this 'two-generation community of interest' for customers, but the request highlights the broad reach of the government's quest for data."

Bubble Watch

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes for the New York Times from Northwestern Arkansas, where Bush spoke for an hour yesterday: "Out there in the rest of America, polls show that about twice as many people disapprove of President Bush as approve of him. But here in a cavernous convention center hall, Mr. Bush found nothing but admirers Monday when he answered questions during a town-hall-style meeting.

"One man began by commending Mr. Bush 'on your steadfastness and your faith.' Another concluded by saying, 'Thank you for being my president for the last seven years,' with an emphasis on the word 'my.' A third expressed dismay that Mr. Bush could not run for president again. . . .

"The friendly audience in northwest Arkansas -- not a single questioner criticized Mr. Bush -- is typical of such let-Bush-be-Bush events, which the White House is staging with increasing frequency. Mr. Bush's aides like them because the president is much better in an informal setting, especially one where he can get his message across, conversation-style, without pesky reporters asking the questions. . . .

"About 300 people attended the session, for which the local chamber of commerce and the Arkansas Republican Party distributed tickets. The chamber's president, Raymond Burns, said he had hoped to draw an audience that represented 'a diversity of businesses,' not a diversity of political points of view, and that had 'people who are respectful.'

"They were."

Bush's last question came from a little girl who asked: "Mr. President, when do you think there will be a girl President for the Republican Party?"

Bush's response: "Well -- (laughter) -- I do think -- you took my line. (Laughter.) I think a lady will be President, yes, and she'll be a Republican. (Laughter.)"

Budget Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The White House and Congress are heading for what President Bush predicts will be a 'fiscal showdown' at a time when the nation's financial health has actually improved for the moment.

"After years of record-high deficits, both parties are now projecting that the budget can be balanced by 2012. But as each side seeks to outmaneuver the other politically heading into next year's elections, the rhetorical battle between Bush and lawmakers over spending has never been more heated. . . .

"Stanley Collender, managing director of Qorvis Communications and a federal budget specialist, said the debate is disconnected from the improving deficit numbers. 'It's purely a power play by the White House,' he said. 'If these spending bills were coming from a Republican-controlled Congress, the president would be signing them and applauding the House and Senate for their fiscal responsibility.' . . .

"Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) argues that the shrinking of the deficit is not terribly significant because Bush has increased the overall debt so much and because the true size of the deficit is masked by revenue borrowed from Social Security. The national debt has shot up to $5 trillion, or $9 trillion if the diverted Social Security funds are counted."

I'd love to know how many taxpayer dollars went into creating the two giant banners declaring "Fiscal Responsibility" that White House staffers hung behind the president.

SCHIP Watch

Lou Dubose writes in the Washington Spectator: "'I have strongly supported the S-CHIP as a governor, and I have done so as president,' said President Bush at the beginning of a hastily called press conference on September 20.

"He was lying.

"Most elected officials lie. . . . Yet the lie President Bush told about his position on the children's health insurance program while he was governor of Texas is newsworthy. It was intended to mask an ideological rigidity that will adversely affect the lives of millions of children, just as Bush's ideological rigidity in 1999 would have affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in Texas if the legislature hadn't forced him to implement S-CHIP."

Dubose writes that "as governor of Texas, Bush used the legislative calendar to stall two years before implementing the program, then fought to limit the number of children covered. . . . When the legislature convened in 1999, Bush recommended implementing the S-CHIP, but with enrollment requirements so stringent that hundreds of thousands of qualified children would have been locked out of the program. . . .

"At first, Bush was unyielding. But he was running for president, watching polls. In the end, he capitulated, agreeing to the Democrats' plan, with its enrollment of 500,000 children in the program. I was standing in the House chamber when Bush walked over to the Democratic legislator who had led the fight.

"'Congratulations,' Bush said to him. 'You shoved it down our throat.'"

USA Today and Gallup today demonstrate that if you phrase questions the way the White House would, then more people agree with Bush.

Richard Wolf writes in USA Today: "A majority of Americans trust Democrats to handle the issue of children's health insurance more than President Bush, but they agree with the president that government aid should be targeted to low-income families, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows.

"* 52% agree with Bush that most benefits should go to children in families earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level -- about $41,000 for a family of four. Only 40% say benefits should go to families earning up to $62,000, as the bill written by Democrats and some Republicans would allow.

"* 55% are very or somewhat concerned that the program would create an incentive for families to drop private insurance. Bush and Republican opponents have called that a step toward government-run health care."

The two Gallup questions: "As you may know, the Democrats want to allow a family of four earning about $62,000 to qualify for the program. President Bush wants most of the increases to go to families earning less than $41,000. Whose side do you favor?" and "How concerned are you that expanding this program would create an incentive for middle class Americans to drop private health insurance for a public program?"

But as the New York Times editorial board writes today: "The president's own budget proposal for maintaining the current S-chip program is so stingy that it would not even cover the number of children currently enrolled -- and would probably increase the number of children forced to go without health coverage by hundreds of thousands."

And "nobody who enrolls in S-chip would be living on government handouts. The families would all be paying appropriate premiums and co-payments. It is also highly unlikely that a lot of people would drop private coverage to enroll in S-chip."

Indian Nuclear Deal Watch

Robin Wright and Rama Lakshmi write in The Washington Post: "A controversial nuclear deal between the United States and India appears close to collapse after the Indian prime minister told President Bush yesterday that 'certain difficulties' will prevent India from moving forward on the pact for the foreseeable future.

"The main obstacle does not involve the specific terms of the agreement but rather India's internal politics, including fears from leftist parties that India is moving too close to the United States, according to officials and experts familiar with the deal. Besieged over the past two months by growing opposition to nuclear energy cooperation with the United States, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicated over the weekend that he would rather save his coalition government than the nuclear pact."

The deal "had been billed as one of the Bush administration's biggest foreign policy achievements," Wright and Lakshmi write, but "has also encountered resistance in the United States, where many in Congress considered it a sweetheart deal for India and threatened to try to scuttle it. Critics said the agreement sets a bad example because India would win access to U.S. technology without complying with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which permits cooperation on nuclear energy only when countries pledge not to develop nuclear weapons."

Iraq Opinion Watch

Twelve former army captains write in a Washington Post op-ed: "Five years on, the Iraq war is as undermanned and under-resourced as it was from the start. And, five years on, Iraq is in shambles.

"As Army captains who served in Baghdad and beyond, we've seen the corruption and the sectarian division. We understand what it's like to be stretched too thin. And we know when it's time to get out. . . .

"Though temporary reinforcing operations in places like Fallujah, An Najaf, Tal Afar, and now Baghdad may brief well on PowerPoint presentations, in practice they just push insurgents to another spot on the map and often strengthen the insurgents' cause by harassing locals to a point of swayed allegiances. Millions of Iraqis correctly recognize these actions for what they are and vote with their feet -- moving within Iraq or leaving the country entirely. Still, our colonels and generals keep holding on to flawed concepts. . . .

"There is one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition."

Middle East Watch

The United States's credibility in the Middle East still isn't on the mend.

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Israelis and Palestinians on Monday to compromise on a plan to jump-start peace negotiations, describing the ending of their long conflict as one of the top goals of President Bush in the 15 months he has left in office. . . .

"'Frankly, we have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op,' Rice said, officially confirming for the first time the badly kept secret that the conference is to be held in Maryland. 'I hope you understand,' she added, 'that the president has decided to make this one of the highest priorities of his administration and of his time in office. It means that he is absolutely serious about moving this issue forward and moving it as rapidly as possible to conclusion.'

"Rice arrived this week facing deep skepticism among Arabs and Israelis about such lofty statements, especially given what many here regard as the administration's past disengagement from the issue -- a position Rice flatly rejected today."

Dalai Lama Watch

Foster Klug writes for the Associated Press: "The White House vigorously defended President Bush's plan to meet with the Dalai Lama Tuesday, brushing aside China's warning that it would damage relations between Washington and Beijing.

"Both Bush and members of Congress -- who are presenting him with the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday -- are stirring anger in China by honoring the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists. . . .

"At the White House, presidential spokesman Tony Fratto said: 'We understand the concerns of the Chinese.' But he also said Bush always has attended congressional award presentation ceremonies, has met with the Dalai Lama several times before and had no reason not to meet with him again."

Jon Stewart Watch

Jon Stewart warmly welcomed former White House press secretary Tony Snow to his show yesterday. Here is the video, parts one and two.

Snow made what I consider a startling admission when he acknowledged that he approached his job much like Stewart approaches his: "It was so much fun. You know this -- you get people on, you spar. I loved it."

Snow explained his rapport with reporters: "When they were jerking me around, I jerked back. But on the other hand, when they had legitimate needs, you also tried to make sure to stand up for them."

Snow then put forth a particularly jaundiced view of the job of the modern White House press corps: "There are a couple of kinds of stories that reporters now do. One is a process story, which are really boring. It's like: 'What color tie is the president wearing?' Woo-hoo. . . . And the second is to try to pick fights. 'Nancy Pelosi said this about the president, what does he say.' And it ends up being kind of kindergarten stuff a lot of times."

Stewart, who in the past frequently mocked Snow and even accused him of lying, last night told Snow he was "great at" his job.

He also noted that, as the Bush White House slides downhill, the press secretaries are getting more attractive.

But Stewart did share his basic assessment of the Bush administration with Snow: "To me, the things that he says, for instance that he is, seem to be the opposite. Like he would say, 'I don't like the partisanship in Washington, I don't like the tone.' And then he would politicize the administration in a way that's very unusual. . . ."

Snow's response: "But I defy you to go back and find a time when he's actually been the one throwing the mud or calling the names."

Stewart shot back that Bush sometimes refers to the "Democrat Party" instead of "Democratic Party" -- a clipped, derogatory locution that Stewart called "a real poke in the side that seems unnecessary."

Snow replied lamely: "It's the way he talks."

Cartoon Watch

Ben Sargent on Bush's Nobel hopes.

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