Abramoff's in the House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 1, 2007 1:52 PM

How closely did lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff work with the White House? New information indicates the relationship was closer than White House officials would have us believe.

Abramoff, of course, is the central character in a public corruption and influence-peddling scandal and pled guilty in January 2006 to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy. His own records show his company had hundreds of lobbying contacts with White House officials, billed clients more than $24,000 for meals and drinks with those officials, and provided them with high-priced tickets to sporting and entertainment events.

Administration spokesmen, however, have described Abramoff as a relative stranger. "There were only a couple of holiday receptions that he attended, and then a few staff-level meetings on top of that. And that's the way I would describe it," said former press secretary Scott McClellan at a January 2006 briefing.

"You know, I, frankly, don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy. I don't know him," President Bush said at a news conference a few days later.

After a 2006 House Oversight Committee report disclosed Abramoff's internal records, then-press secretary Tony Snow suggested at a briefing that they were not reliable, saying: "Jack Abramoff was an exuberant practitioner of sleaze, to the point where it's very difficult within the report itself to figure out how many actual contacts there are."

But now Henry Waxman, the committee's indefatigable Democratic chairman, is back with more information -- this time gleaned from a former senior White House official -- and more questions.

In a letter to White House counsel Fred Fielding yesterday, Waxman wrote: "Despite the refusal of key witnesses to provide testimony, the Committee has learned that some senior White House officials had regular contact with Mr. Abramoff. Former White House political director Matt Schlapp cooperated with the Committee's investigation and provided voluntary testimony in a deposition. Mr. Schlapp estimated that he had 'monthly' contact with Jack Abramoff on subjects that often involved official government business. He also told the Committee that Mr. Abramoff and his associates 'had many friends in the administration'; that Mr. Abramoff was regarded as a 'point of information' because of 'his knowledge and his experience and his judgment on issues surrounding politics and policy and how the town works'; and that Mr. Abramoff's lobbying team was 'viewed by many as a very respected lobbying team.'"

And to wrap up his investigation, Waxman said, he needs a few more documents.

Susan Schmidt writes in The Washington Post: "Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House oversight committee, called on the White House yesterday to turn over all documents in its files that relate to lobbying efforts by Jack Abramoff.

"Waxman (D-Calif.) said in a letter to White House counsel Fred F. Fielding that unless the White House plans to assert executive privilege, it should produce 600 pages it has withheld from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee's continuing investigation of the disgraced lobbyist's contacts with executive branch officials. Waxman asked for the documents by Nov. 6. . . .

"The White House has produced 3,700 documents to the panel in recent months, withholding those it told the committee contain 'internal deliberations among White House employees, or that otherwise implicate Executive Branch prerogatives.'

"'The White House has said that Jack Abramoff had very little contact with the President's staff and that it wanted all the relevant facts to be public. The 600 pages of documents it is withholding are directly relevant and should be produced,' Waxman's office said in a statement. 'If the White House cooperates we will be able to conclude our work.'"

Wrote Waxman: "When Mr. Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges in January 2006, White House officials stated emphatically that Mr. Abramoff was a virtual stranger to the White House." He added, archly: "Given the prior statements by White House officials, it is surprising that there would be this volume of documents of internal deliberations involving Mr. Abramoff."

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "White House press secretary Dana Perino said the administration probably will resist the demand. But in a formal response, Fielding indicated that his office would continue to work with lawmakers. In a letter to Waxman, Fielding said he had directed his deputy contact the committee's staff on Thursday to arrange a discussion. . . .

"Schlapp, who worked for White House political adviser Karl Rove, cooperated voluntarily with the committee and there has been no suggestion that he received tickets or meals from Abramoff or his team. Schlapp was a regional coordinator for President Bush's 2000 campaign and joined the White House as deputy to Ken Mehlman, replacing him when Mehlman left the White House to manage Bush's re-election campaign.

"Abramoff is serving six years in prison on a criminal case out of Florida. He has not yet been sentenced on charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion stemming from the influence-peddling scandal in Washington."

The Tragedy of Karen Hughes

The tragedy of Karen Hughes's brief tenure as head of public diplomacy was not that she failed to improve the U.S. image abroad -- in the current circumstances, that was beyond anyone's ability -- but that she failed to use her close relationship with Bush to get him to stop doing the things that made her job so impossible.

Hughes announced her resignation as undersecretary of state yesterday.

Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post that her departure comes "after two bumpy years in which she overhauled the U.S. approach to public diplomacy but did not make major progress in improving America's image abroad, according to current and former U.S. officials and Middle East experts.

"Hughes, 50, one of the last of Bush's Texas inner circle to leave the administration, was a key White House aide early in Bush's presidency. She returned to Washington in mid-2005 with a mission to reach out to a world increasingly suspicious of, or angry with, the United States over its invasion of Iraq.

"Public opinion polls show that the image of the United States has declined dramatically in the Muslim world, and elsewhere overseas, during Bush's presidency. The numbers have not improved during Hughes's two-year stint -- and in some cases have gotten worse. . . .

"Al-Jazeera labeled Hughes 'the marquee clown [in] America's circus diplomacy.'"

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "A recent global survey by the Pew Research Center concluded that the American image 'remains abysmal in most Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia.'

"The poll found that in five predominantly Muslim countries, fewer than 33 percent of the population had a favorable image of the United States. Even in Turkey, one of America's closest allies in the Muslim world, only 9 percent of the public had favorable views of the United States, down from 52 percent in 2000."

The source of the decline: Anger over not just the Iraq war and detainee abuse -- but Bush's position on global warming.

Cooper writes that "even within the State Department, some career Foreign Service officials have become disenchanted with the task of trying to sell America's image abroad.

"'This is the conundrum that I faced every day,' Price Floyd, a former State Department public affairs official, wrote in an op-ed article in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in May, after he left the department. 'I tried through the traditional domestic media, and, for the first time, through the pan-Arab TV and print media -- Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Al Hayat -- to reach people in the U.S. and abroad and to convince them that we should not be judged by our actions, only by our words.' "

Here's Perino on Hughes at yesterday's briefing: "I think it's preposterous to think that you could question Karen Hughes' achievements in terms of being responsible for the numbers in a particular poll. That's ridiculous," she said.

"Q So in your view, the U.S. image in the Arab world has improved under Karen Hughes?

"MS. PERINO: We are making progress. I know that we have a long way to go."

Revolt of the Foreign Service

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Uneasy U.S. diplomats yesterday challenged senior State Department officials in unusually blunt terms over a decision to order some of them to serve at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or risk losing their jobs.

"At a town hall meeting in the department's main auditorium attended by hundreds of Foreign Service officers, some of them criticized fundamental aspects of State's personnel policies in Iraq. . . .

"Some participants asked how diplomacy could be practiced when the embassy itself, inside the fortified Green Zone, is under frequent fire and officials can travel outside only under heavy guard.

"Service in Iraq is 'a potential death sentence,' said one man who identified himself as a 46-year Foreign Service veteran. 'Any other embassy in the world would be closed by now,' he said to sustained applause.

"Harry K. Thomas Jr., the director general of the Foreign Service, who called the meeting, responded curtly. 'Okay, thanks for your comment,' he said, declaring the town hall meeting over."

Bush's Preview

Bush took what pool reporter Jon Ward of the Washington Times calls the "unprecedented step this morning of inviting the pool reporters, sans TV cameras, into the Oval Office for a preview of the speech he will give at the Heritage Foundation this afternoon. This was the first time he has invited reporters into the Oval Office for a small pen and pad like this."

Here's the transcript. It sounds awfully familiar: "I'm concerned that there are some who have lost sight of the fact that we're at war with extremists and radicals who want to attack us again. Part of the speech is to remind people that even though we haven't been attacked since September the 11th, there's still an enemy out there that would like to attack us."

According to Ward, Bush was "particularly exercised" about the growing controversy over his attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey because of his refusal to declare that waterboarding is torture. Said Bush: "I believe that the questions he's been asked are unfair; he's not been read into a program -- he has been asked to give opinions of a program or techniques of a program on which he has not been briefed. I will make the case -- and I strongly believe this is true -- that Judge Mukasey is not being treated fairly."

Bush ducked a question about whether legal liability in U.S. or foreign courts is an issue when it comes to waterboarding.

Mukasey Watch

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "Democratic support for attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey dwindled further yesterday over his refusal to comment on the legality of a harsh CIA interrogation technique, setting the stage for an unexpectedly close vote next week by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) announced that they will join Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) in voting against Mukasey on the Judiciary panel, after the nominee said in a four-page letter to Senate Democrats that he does not know whether a type of simulated drowning called waterboarding constitutes illegal torture under U.S. law. . . .

"Human Rights Watch, which announced its opposition to the nomination yesterday, criticized Mukasey for saying he did not have enough information to reach a conclusion. 'If Mukasey had been asked about the rack and thumbscrew, would he have said that it depends on the circumstances?' said Kenneth Roth, the group's executive director. 'The only reason to equivocate on waterboarding is to protect administration officials who authorized it from possible prosecution.'"

Here are Mukasey's extensive responses to more written questions from the Judiciary Committee.

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "One concern among Democrats is the possibility that no nominee Bush puts forward would answer the torture question in the way they want. That could leave the Justice Department without the permanent leadership that Democrats have said has been so lacking.

"Durbin and Whitehouse said there were more transcendent issues at stake, however, and that the Congress needed to send a message that it would not equivocate on the issue of torture.

"'Will we join that gloomy historical line leading from the Inquisition, through the prisons of tyrant regimes, through gulags and dark cells, and through Saddam Hussein's torture chambers? Will that be the path we choose?' Whitehouse said in remarks on the Senate floor."

Marisa Taylor writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Senate Democratic aides predicted that a majority of the 19-member committee would vote in favor of Mukasey's confirmation. Only one Democratic vote is needed to get the confirmation to the full Senate."

Counselor to the president Ed Gillespie, on CNN yesterday morning, suggested that because the government has never publicly admitted waterboarding, we shouldn't even be talking about it: "This technique, we don't know that it's used by the government or is used by the government. That's never been confirmed by the U.S. government," he said.

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "In adamantly refusing to declare waterboarding illegal, Michael B. Mukasey, the nominee for attorney general, is steering clear of a potential legal quagmire for the Bush administration: criminal prosecution or lawsuits against Central Intelligence Agency officers who used the harsh interrogation practice and those who authorized it, legal experts said Wednesday. . . .

"Some legal experts suggested that liability could go all the way to President Bush if he explicitly authorized waterboarding. . . .

"Jack L. Goldsmith, who served in the Justice Department in 2003 and 2004, wrote in his recent memoir, 'The Terror Presidency,' that the possibility of future prosecution for aggressive actions against terrorism was a constant worry inside the Bush administration.

"'I witnessed top officials and bureaucrats in the White House and throughout the administration openly worrying that investigators, acting with the benefit of hindsight in a different political environment, would impose criminal penalties on heat-of-battle judgment calls,' Mr. Goldsmith wrote."

But legal blogger Jack Balkin writes that Mukasey's purported concern that a definitive statement by him on waterboarding would lead to criminal prosecutions and civil suits against CIA operatives is not credible.

"The Congress twice bestowed immunity in the Detainee Treatment Act and the Military Commissions Act. And if CIA operatives acted in good faith on OLC opinions, which are binding law in the executive branch, they are immune from prosecution. Even if these immunities do not extend to civil lawsuits, such lawsuits are likely barred by a combination of immunities created for government (and military) personnel. The Administration has been quite careful to ensure that its members -- and those obeying its orders -- will never be held to account in any American court of law.

"To be sure, if Bush Administration officials travel abroad, they may be indicted and tried for war crimes. But if so, that is already true, and Judge Mukasey's statement would not trigger liability: it would merely be additional evidence -- if any were needed -- that waterboarding is a war crime.

"The real reason why Judge Mukasey cannot say that waterboarding is illegal is that Administration officials have repeatedly insisted that they do not torture, and that they have acted both legally and honorably. If Judge Mukasey said that waterboarding is illegal, it would require the Bush Administration to admit that it repeatedly lied to the American people and brought shame and dishonor on the United States of America. If Judge Mukasey were to say waterboarding is illegal and not just 'a dunk in the water' in Vice President Cheney's terminology, he would have announced that, as incoming Attorney General, he is entering an Administration of liars and torturers."

Sidney Blumenthal writes for Salon that just like Alberto Gonzales, "Mukasey has proved he will dance as the strings are pulled. . . .

"Mukasey is not a free agent. He had been strictly briefed and in his testimony was following orders. He has avoided calling waterboarding torture because that is consistent with the administration's position and past practice. Mukasey's refusal to disavow waterboarding reveals his acceptance of his assignment to a secondary role as attorney general, an inferior agent, not a constitutional officer, to certain political appointees in the White House.

"Those who are responsible for waterboarding have defined and dictated Mukasey's evasions."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "There seems to be little chance that Mr. Bush will appoint the sort of attorney general that the nation needs, a job that includes enforcing voting rights laws and civil rights laws and ensuring that criminal prosecutions are done fairly. Still, senators with a conscience that can be shocked should insist that Mr. Bush meet a higher standard than this nomination."

And Another Thing

Federal District Court Judge John C. Coughenour, writing in a New York Times op-ed, criticizes Mukasey for his argument that traditional American courts are not capable of trying terror suspects.

"It is regrettable that so often when our courts are evaluated for their ability to handle terrorism cases, the Constitution is conceived as mere solicitude for criminals. Implicit in this misguided notion is that society's somehow charitable view toward 'ordinary' crimes of murder or rape ought not to extend to terrorists. In fact, the criminal procedure required under our Constitution reflects the reality that law enforcement is not perfect, and that questions of guilt necessarily precede questions of mercy.

"Consider the fact that of the 598 people initially detained at Guant¿namo Bay in 2002, 267 have been released. It is likely that for a number of the former detainees, there was simply no basis for detention. . . .

"Our courts ensure an independent process; they do not enforce the prerogatives of law enforcement. Any proposal that would blur this distinction would compromise a bedrock principle of government that has defined this country from its inception. This is a price too high to pay."

FISA Watch

Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "In a blow to the Bush administration, the Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat and Republican expressed reluctance yesterday to granting blanket immunity to telecommunications carriers sued for assisting the government's warrantless surveillance program."

Rumsfeld's 'Snowflakes'

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "In a series of internal musings and memos to his staff, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld argued that Muslims avoid 'physical labor' and wrote of the need to 'keep elevating the threat,' 'link Iraq to Iran' and develop 'bumper sticker statements' to rally public support for an increasingly unpopular war.....

"Spanning from 2002 to shortly after his resignation following the 2006 congressional elections, a sampling of his trademark missives obtained yesterday reveals a defense secretary disdainful of media criticism and driven to reshape public opinion of the Iraq war."

Remember the War Czar?

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "As the White House point man on Iraq and Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Doug Lute keeps an eye on three clocks: Baghdad time, Kabul time and the time running out on his boss' presidency.

"Knowing the wars will outlast his administration, Bush gave Lute the job of fast-tracking everything from equipping Iraq's army to getting ready for next year's local Iraqi elections, from stopping the flow of foreign fighters through Syria to keeping NATO allies in the fight in Afghanistan.

"Lute also advises the president on how to stabilize Iraq in a way that won't prompt Bush's successor -- Democrat or Republican -- to take the oath of office in one breath and abruptly order U.S. troops home in the next."

On Lute's to-do list: "There's the question of what to do about the 25,000 detainees being held in Iraqi and in U.S.-run detention facilities. There's the issue of getting the Iraqi government to disburse its money equitably to Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in the provinces. And Lute's team is trying to figure out the best way to slow Afghan opium poppy cultivation, which hit a record high this year, generating billions of dollars to help finance the Taliban militants and corrupt government officials.

"There's the problem with Turkey and Kurdish rebels." And so on.

Iran Watch

Joseph L. Galloway writes in his McClatchy Newspapers column: "There were some things far more frightening this week than Halloween's small ghouls and goblins -- and the scariest of all is the Bush administration's seemingly inexorable march toward military confrontation with Iran.

"What ARE they smoking back there at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? The very idea is dumb as a fencepost and best left to the biggest pied piper of what passes for neo-conservative thought, Norman Podhoretz. Yet both President George W. Bush and his able assistant, Vice President Darth Cheney, are marching to that tune and humming along lustily.

"There is no crisis here, and no earthly reason to manufacture one on short notice, except for the fact that in under 15 months the Bush administration will pass ignominiously into history. Then a new chief executive can begin dealing with two ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a national debt nearing $10 trillion, a terrorist threat to America only made stronger by eight years of Bush and Cheney, and a national economy trembling on the brink of recession.

"As though that weren't a big enough mess to leave behind, like so much trash in an abandoned trailer home, these brilliant thinkers want to bequeath a third and far more dangerous war to whoever is unlucky enough to win the ongoing tussle of midgets that passes for a presidential contest."

Washington Note blogger Steven C. Clemons discloses a letter from Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel to Bush: "I write to urge you to consider pursuing direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran."

Agriculture Watch

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday nominated Edward T. Schafer, who served two terms as governor of North Dakota, to head the Department of Agriculture, an agency with a broad mandate including administration of the federal food stamp program, aiding economic development in rural America and enhancing food safety."

Angry President Watch

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush ratcheted up his confrontation with Democratic leaders Wednesday, laying out what he said is a stark ideological divide between a fiscally prudent, free market-loving GOP president and a Congress that aims to raise taxes and nationalize health care.

"His remarks were part of a broader effort to seize the offensive against the Democratic-led Congress in a series of legislative battles involving budgetary matters and health care policy. But, particularly aggressive in tone, the speech also had the appearance of throwing down a political gauntlet."

Card Admits the Obvious

Abe J. Reisman writes in the Harvard Crimson: "Former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card, Jr. said for the first time yesterday that he resigned from the Bush administration last year in part because 'the president needed for me to leave, and the administration needed to have me leave.'

"'I think they needed to demonstrate change, and I don't think you can have a change without it being personified,' Card said in an interview with The Crimson.

"Card's remarks appear to contradict the official explanation given by President George W. Bush for Card's departure on March 28, 2006. When his chief of staff announced his resignation, Bush said that Card had taken the initiative to leave his post, and that the departure was not motivated by politics. . . .

"Card, who was in Cambridge for a dinner at the Institute of Politics, emphasized that he did not want to leave his post at the time.

"'I miss it, I really miss the White House,' he said. 'Anybody who claims that they want to leave the White House is lying.' . . .

"Card also recalled times when he had to refocus President Bush on political priorities.

"'Like, if the Texas Rangers were in town to play the Baltimore Orioles or something, [the president would ask], "Yeah, I'd love to see the Texas Rangers today. Can we get them in?"' said Card, imitating the president's manner of speech.

"'I said, "No, the schedule is jam-packed. You've got the president of Egypt, and the prime minister of this place, and six members of Congress,"' he recalled. '"I know you really want to do this, but you can't do it today."'"

Embracing the Dark Side

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press about how the White House has embraced the dark side -- or at least the perception that Cheney is like Darth Vader.

"As he launched into a health-care speech Wednesday, President Bush warmed up his audience with a nod to Halloween, at Cheney's expense.

"'This morning I was with the vice president,' Bush told a gathering of grocery manufacturers. 'I was asking him what costume he was planning. He said, 'Well, I'm already wearing it.' Then he mumbled something about the dark side of the force.' . . .

"'Most of you knew me long before anyone called me Darth Vader,' Cheney said in a speech at The Washington Institute last week. 'I've been asked if that nickname bothers me, and the answer is, no. After all, Darth Vader is one of the nicer things I've been called recently.' . . .

"Cheney's wife, Lynne, went even further in her appearance on 'The Daily Show' earlier in October. She showed up with a Darth Vader doll.

"'It's a special present for you,' she told the show's host, Jon Stewart, who has been known to skewer the vice president. 'It's an old family heirloom.'"

Here's a White House photo of Cheney's two dogs, dressed up for Halloween -- one of them as Darth Vader, the other as Superman.

Bush's pets, India, Miss Beazley and Barney, were dressed up as a wizard, a cowboy and a strawberry.

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth and John Sherffius on Mukasey's non-answer; Tom Toles on Bush's epiphany.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive