Bush: It's Mukasey or Nothing

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, November 2, 2007 1:02 PM

President Bush yesterday asserted that he would never nominate anyone for attorney general who would be willing to state that waterboarding is torture -- so, if the Senate doesn't approve Michael Mukasey, "that would guarantee that America would have no attorney general during this time of war."

There is, of course, no attorney general right now because Bush's last choice spectacularly self-destructed. And many members of Bush's own party are quite comfortable stating that waterboarding is torture. It's not exactly a controversial position, seeing as waterboarding has been an iconic form of torture since the Spanish Inquisition.

But it's not Bush's style to back down, especially when a key element of his radical and unprecedented expansion of executive power is at stake.

Instead, Bush has learned that the higher he ratchets up the rhetoric, especially if he can accuse his critics of being weak on terror, the more likely Congressional Democrats are to fold. He's simply counting on that happening again.

Here's the text of Bush's speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation yesterday.

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush sought to save Michael Mukasey's troubled nomination for attorney general Thursday, defending the retired judge's refusal to say whether he considers waterboarding torture and warning of a leaderless Justice Department if Democrats don't confirm him.

"'If the Senate Judiciary Committee were to block Judge Mukasey on these grounds, they would set a new standard for confirmation that could not be met by any responsible nominee for attorney general,' Bush said."

Donna Leinwand writes in USA Today: "Bush suggested in a speech Thursday to the conservative Heritage Foundation that delaying confirmation of the former federal judge could undermine national security. 'The job of the attorney general is essential to the security of America,' he said.

"He criticized Democrats for making Mukasey's confirmation contingent on his declaring illegal 'waterboarding,' a controversial interrogation technique that simulates drowning. Interrogation methods used by the CIA 'are safe, they are lawful, and they are necessary,' Bush said."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "With Mr. Mukasey's confirmation in doubt over his refusal to state a clear legal position on a classified Central Intelligence Agency program to interrogate terrorism suspects, Mr. Bush took the unusual step of summoning a small group of reporters into the Oval Office to preview remarks he planned to make later in the day at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization here. . . .

"The president's remarks and a separate address on Thursday by Vice President Dick Cheney demonstrate just how much the White House has been caught off guard by the fight over Mr. Mukasey, a retired federal judge whose confirmation until recently seemed like a sure thing. . . .

"But the effort also suggests that the White House believes it can combat criticism of Mr. Mukasey and his views by appealing to public concern about terrorism."

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "As Democratic opposition builds over attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey, no Democratic lawmaker has found himself in a tighter spot than Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who had eagerly recommended the former federal judge as a consensus candidate. . . .

"Republicans privately say that the nominee's prospects hang on a few votes, particularly those of Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has broken ranks with her party in the past."

In a telephone interview yesterday, "Schumer said that his decision will hinge largely on whether he believes Mukasey would be independent of the White House. He said that was 'called into question' by some of Mukasey's views."

Here's relatively new White House Counselor Ed Gillespie trying to muddy the issue on CNN yesterday.

Wolf Blitzer asked: "Why not simply say, you know what, waterboarding is torture and it's never going to be used?"

Gillespie replied: "Well, Wolf, the question that was put to Judge Mukasey is, is waterboarding legal? And the judge rightly said, you know, I don't know if it is or is not used as a technique in a program that is under the supervision of the professionals in the United States government. The government has never confirmed any techniques, have confirmed the existence of an enhanced interrogation program, but never talked about any techniques.

"And so Judge Mukasey doesn't have the benefit of having access to classified information as to what does or does not occur in this program and any legal underpinnings or any analysis of it. And to ask him to render a legal opinion without that kind of information or access to that kind of information is frankly unfair. And I don't think anyone who actually deserves to serve as attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America, would render a legal opinion without access to that kind of information."

Blitzer: "Two senators, both Republicans, who have been briefed on this technique, both say it's torture and should be illegal. . . . Both of those are Republicans, and they don't mince any words."

Gillsepie: "And both of them do have -- have been briefed and read into the program, Wolf, and have a basis by which to make that assessment. Both of them also today came out in support of Judge Mukasey."

Scott Horton blogs for Harpers: "There has been no shortage of litmus tests in the past: abortion, gay marriage, the flag amendment--whatever hot-button issue the G.O.P. cooks up for its next election campaign. But the torture litmus test is new, and it seems to be key for lawyers. It really is an exercise in Kool Aid drinking. If you're prepared to hedge on whether waterboarding is torture, then you might be counted upon to do anything. Indeed, there is no question about it. Waterboarding is torture and has been understood to be torture in a formal sense for over a hundred years. Soldiers who used it were court-martialed, and the attempted defense of military necessity was smacked down by the Army's Judge Advocate General in 1903. There is no shortage of other precedent. This is why Mukasey's dodge on the issue--first a very primitive dodge, and then a more sophisticated one--is so troubling."

The Washington Post editorial board writes that Bush yesterday "bemoaned the imperiled state of Mr. Mukasey's nomination without one iota of self-awareness that the nomination is in trouble because of the president's own warped policies on torture."

And yet, the editorial advises: "Those senators who truly want to bring the nation back from the disgrace of Mr. Bush's interrogation policies should do two things. They should confirm Mr. Mukasey, who is far more independent and qualified than either of Mr. Bush's previous two nominees. And they should do something which, for all the rhetoric, they have so far declined to do: ban torture, by passing the National Security with Justice Act sponsored by Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.)."

But legal blogger Marty Lederman points out that Congress has repeatedly banned torture in the past. In fact, he writes, "if there is any single thing imaginable that the Senate, the Congress, and the world community have not'declined to do,' it is to ban torture categorically."

Lederman adds: "That's not to say it would not also be a good thing to enact the Biden bill, which would specifically require all United States personnel, including the CIA, to use only interrogation techniques authorized by the Army Field Manual. That would be yet another step that would help prevent the Bush Administration from violating the current bans on torture by doing things such as implausibly characterizing its torture as 'not torture.'"

Bush's Hitler Comparison

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush compared Congress' Democratic leaders Thursday to people who ignored the rise of Lenin and Hitler early in the last century, saying 'the world paid a terrible price' then and risks similar consequences for inaction today.

"Bush accused Congress of stalling important pieces of the fight to prevent new terrorist attacks by: dragging out and possibly jeopardizing confirmation of Michael Mukasey as attorney general, a key part of his national security team; failing to act on a bill governing eavesdropping on terrorist suspects; and moving too slowly to approve spending measures for the Iraq war, Pentagon and veterans programs."

Here's precisely what Bush said: "History teaches that underestimating the words of evil, ambitious men is a terrible mistake. In the early 1900s, the world ignored the words of Lenin, as he laid out his plans to launch a Communist revolution in Russia -- and the world paid a terrible price. The Soviet Empire he established killed tens of millions, and brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war.

"In the 1920s, the world ignored the words of Hitler, as he explained his intention to build an Aryan super-state in Germany, take revenge on Europe, and eradicate the Jews -- and the world paid a terrible price. His Nazi regime killed millions in the gas chambers, and set the world aflame in war, before it was finally defeated at a terrible cost in lives and treasure.

"Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. And the question is: Will we listen?"

It's not the first time Bush has made that analogy. In fact, Bush used some of the same exact phrases in a speech he gave shortly before the 2006 mid-term elections: "History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake," he said. "Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen?"

At that time, (see my Sept. 6, 2006, column) several pundits became irate over the comparison. Yesterday on CNN, Jack Cafferty let loose: "Where does he get this stuff? We're talk about confirmation hearing in congressional committee for a cabinet officer and he's babbling about Lenin and Hitler? I mean -- come on! I'm tired of being told to be afraid. The people are tired of being told to be afraid. Just get off of it. Either win the argument on the merits or go away and leave me alone."

The Importance of Osama

As I've raised several times before (see my July 25 column), it's hard to imagine anyone doing better publicity for bin Laden than Bush. Likening him to Lenin and Hitler makes bin Laden sound vastly scarier than he is, which is exactly what he wants.

And then there's the fact that Bush used to be so dismissive of the man. Back in early 2002, on the defensive for not having captured or killed bin Laden yet, Bush famously said: "I truly am not that concerned about him."

Dick Polman, blogging for the Philadelphia Inquirer, notes these two conflicting views and writes: "If Osama bin Laden in the past was 'marginalized' and unimportant and thus not worthy of the president's attention, yet now he is apparently so important that he warrants the president's attention, it can mean only one of two things: either bin Laden is still on the margins and Bush is intentionally lying in order to serve his current political needs -- or bin Laden is indeed resurgent, in which case Bush has fundamentally botched the war on terror."

Blog Bashing

Bush's biggest applause line before his audience of true believers yesterday: "When it comes to funding our troops, some in Washington should spend more time responding to the warnings of terrorists like Osama bin Laden and the requests of our commanders on the ground, and less time responding to the demands of MoveOn.org bloggers and Code Pink protesters."

Faiz Shakir blogs for ThinkProgress: "With his anemic presidency on the rocks, Bush has resorted to battling with bloggers and war protesters for relevance."

The Pen-and-Pad

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In his campaign to win the public relations battle with the Democratic Congress, Bush has every reason to try something new -- or old. Thursday's effort was one of several recent steps he has taken to amplify his message as he wrestles with his lame-duck status, low approval ratings and increasingly independent congressional Republicans.

"On Monday, the president spent an hour with 14 reporters in an off-the-record session -- meaning what he said could not be reported -- to offer those assigned to the White House a rare look at his thinking on a variety of issues. He did the same in September, speaking aboard Air Force One with reporters while traveling to Sydney, Australia, from Iraq's Anbar Province. . . .

"Among the president's senior staff, reaching back to a 1950s-era communications model was tagged as 'throwback jersey day,' after the occasional sports-team promotions in which the players wear old-time uniforms.

"Close observers of the presidency and presidential communications question whether any of the options -- including the new approach Bush tried Thursday -- will suffice.

"'This is a small tactical step but not something that fundamentally changes the dynamic of the Bush administration and the agenda they are pushing,' said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was chief of staff in the final six months of Ronald Reagan's presidency and part of the team that pulled the White House out of the mire of the Iran-Contra weapons-trading scandal."

At yesterday's press briefing, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino explained the genesis of the session.

Perino: "Well, we're always looking for ways to do additional communication here at the White House, and provide more access for reporters. It was just a new tool we'd like to have in our tool box. I hope we use it again."

Question: "So is it part of sort of a new communications strategy at this point?"

Perino: "I'm going to say it was an additional tool that we added."

Question: "Is there something that sparked this, though? Did the President have something specific in mind that he thought -- was he jumping from what other Presidents might have done in the past? (Laughter.)"

Perino: "Look, President Bush enjoys his time talking with the media, believe it or not."

Question: "He does?"

Perino: "He did say that -- he does. He did say that he had seen a photograph of Dwight Eisenhower having reporters into the Oval Office for a press conference. With our press corps now, it's a little bit -- there would be probably too many people to try to get in there for a full press conference, although I won't rule that out in the future."

Here's the transcript of the session.

Question: "Do you think the Congress has forgotten we're at war, Mr. President?"

Bush: "Well, I think there is a tendency for people to say, well, maybe -- let me just say, there are some who say, don't call this a war on terror. And there are some who have accused me of using the words 'war on terror' as a way to frighten people into voting booths. And I emphasize the word 'some.' As I'll say in this speech, those who say we're not in a war on terror are either disingenuous or naive. Either way, the attitude is dangerous because I will have quoted the words of the enemy in the speech, an enemy that said, we're going to come and kill you.

"And I think -- I'm not going to -- this speech doesn't intend -- this is a comprehensive speech about what Congress needs to do to make sure that we have the tools necessary and the people necessary to protect America. I will not in any way personalize this speech. I'm not going to say that an individual member that may disagree with me is not a patriotic person. I am going to remind people, though, of the dangers that we face."

First Override Likely

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "An increasingly confrontational President Bush on Friday vetoed a bill authorizing hundreds of popular water projects even though lawmakers can count enough votes to override him."

Said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "When we override this irresponsible veto, perhaps the President will finally recognize that Congress is an equal branch of government and reconsider his many other reckless veto threats."

Turkish Tensions

Matthew Schofield writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "With public pressure building for a military intervention against Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, the United States and Turkey are to begin four days of crisis talks Friday that will help to define America's relationship with Turkey and possibly the future of Iraq as well.

"The process opens when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls on Turkish officials here Friday and ends Monday when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls on President Bush. The meeting Monday will 'determine the steps Turkey will take,' Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said Thursday. He said that if Turkish troops crossed the border, it 'would be aimed at hitting terrorist bases and would not be an invasion.'"

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The retired general who served as President Bush's special envoy to deal with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) said the United States has failed to keep its promises to Turkey to confront the Kurdish terrorist group, and Turkey may feel that it has no choice but to attack the PKK's sanctuary in northern Iraq.

"Retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, in a brief interview, declined to say why he stepped down several weeks ago. But published reports have said that he was frustrated by the Bush administration's failure to act against the PKK.

"In his first extended comments since his departure, Ralston told McClatchy Newspapers that the United States is unwittingly 'driving, strategically, the Turks and the Iranians together' because both nations share concerns about violent Kurdish separatist groups."

Iraq Watch

Ned Parker writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Iraq's civilian body count in October was less than half that at its height in January. . . .

"October also marked the lowest monthly death toll for American troops, 36 fatalities, since March 2006, when 31 were killed, according to icasualties.org. . . .

"American commanders . . . say the decision to send 28,500 more troops to Iraq has made a difference by allowing them to send soldiers to live on the fault lines between Sunni Arab and Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, and to conduct sweeping offensives in provinces east and south of the capital against strongholds of Shiite Muslim militias and Sunni militants linked to foreign insurgents.

"But others say that the picture is more complicated than that because those seeking to cleanse their neighborhoods of rival religious sects have largely succeeded. . . .

"Moreover, American forces have felt it necessary to make tacit deals with groups that have been involved in the sectarian cleansing, and many Baghdad residents who have not been killed have fled. The number of people displaced internally in Iraq has risen to 2.25 million, and an additional 2 million have left the country."

Joshua Partlow and Naseer Nouri write in The Washington Post: "Both Iraqis and U.S. soldiers are wrestling with a basic question: Is the declining violence a lull in the war or the beginning of a long road to peace?"

Meanwhile, Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister of Iraq, writes in a New York Times op-ed that his country's political problems are a result of Bush's decision to hold elections prematurely: "The paralysis that has afflicted the government in Baghdad, the sectarian disputes across the country and the failure to move toward reconciliation were all predictable outcomes of the senseless rush to hold national elections and put the Constitution in place."

Iran Watch

AFP reports: "Thirty US senators wrote to President George W. Bush Thursday, warning he had no authority to launch military action against Iran, and expressing concern about the administration's 'provocative' rhetoric.

"The senators, 29 Democrats and one independent, urged the resolution of disputes with the Islamic Republic through diplomacy.

"'We wish to emphasize that no congressional authority exists for unilateral military action against Iran,' the letter signed by senators including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden said.

"The letter warned that a resolution passed by the Senate in September, calling for the designation of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group, should not be used as a pretext for war."

Sen. Barack Obama yesterday introduced a Senate resolution to the same effect.

Cheney Needs a New Lawyer

Emma Schwartz writes for U.S. News: "Cheney's office confirmed late today to U.S. News that counsel Shannen Coffin is leaving government tomorrow and will head back into private practice at his former law firm Steptoe & Johnson. . . .

"Coffin joined Cheney's staff in 2005 to fill the position once held by David Addington, who replaced Lewis 'Scooter' Libby as chief of staff after his indictment. In that capacity, Coffin has served as the top legal adviser to the vice president."

Bush and Secrecy

Tom Teepen writes in his Cox News Service column: "Was any administration before George W. Bush's ever as panoramic in its contempt for the public's curiosity about how its business is being conducted?

"Whether from malice or misadventure -- and both have been present in large dollops -- this president and his crowd have relentlessly buried government deeply in secrecy and dark corners."

Washed Up

The Daily Telegraph's U.S. editor, Toby Harnden, blogs: "So why isn't George W. Bush, president of the most powerful nation in the world, wartime commander-in chief and leader of the Republican party not even in the top 20 of the Telegraph's list of influential American conservatives? That's a fair question. The short answer: the list is about the future rather than the past. . . .

"[W]hereas Mr Clinton has remained a power in the liberal world (watch for where he is in our liberal Top 20 tomorrow), we believe Bush will fade into relative obscurity after 2009."

The top three names on the Telegraph's list are Rudy Giuliani, Gen. David Petraeus and Matt Drudge.

The Problem With Analogies

I noted yesterday that Cheney, his wife, his boss and even his dog have embraced the Cheney-as-Darth-Vader metaphor.

But the AFP's Olivier Knox points out a problem with the analogy: "It was unclear whether Bush or Cheney's pop-culture knowledge included the fact that, at the end of the saga, Vader redeems himself and saves his son by hurling the evil emperor Palpatine to his death, at the cost of his own life."

White House Watch reader Francis Norton asks: "When the President is on a USAF aircraft, it is called Air Force One. Is it true that when the Vice President is on a USAF aircraft, it is now called Death Star One?"

I Wouldn't Bring It Up If I Were Him

Karen Dandurant of the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald covers former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.'s talk with a New Hampshire Republican group yesterday: "Card was with the president at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., on Sept. 11, 2001. He said that when he told Bush the news of the terrorist attacks, he handled himself as a president should.

"'He did not impart fear to the children, to the press assembled there,' said Card."

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on Karen Hughes; Mike Luckovich on Mukasey and torture.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "And tensions are very high between Iraq and Turkey. You see, this is where President Bush, I don't think he understands these issues, you know? Like today, he warned the American people we could be in for a rough Thanksgiving."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive