Former White House aide Karen P. Hughes, now a $15,000-a-month consultant to the Republican National Committee, has been playing a key role in advising President Bush and the administration on a communications strategy for the Iraq war.
Hughes flew with Bush on Air Force One to the Azores on Sunday and helped to draft his speech to the nation delivered Monday night. Hughes briefed reporters in the White House on Monday in advance of Bush's speech, saying he would offer exile as the only option to avoid an attack. And Hughes, who officials say has worked from the White House for the past week, has played a key role in developing the administration's plan for a coordinated communications strategy during the Iraq war.
The arrangement has prompted accusations from Democrats and government watchdog groups that the role of Hughes improperly blends politics and government business. Democrats complain that the presence of Hughes gives an inherently political tinge to the war effort. "George Bush should be focused on winning this war and making sure our troops are safe, not on how his partisan campaign hacks are going to score political points in the aftermath," said David Sirota, spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.
Government watchdog groups said the arrangement essentially allows Hughes to serve as White House official without being subject to its ethics rules, such as disclosure of income sources. Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said that "in effect they're having the RNC paying her salary so she isn't paid by the White House and doesn't come under the ethics rules of the White House." Noble said the arrangement "is a way to avoid disclosing outside income."
Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, said the matter is an ethical "gray area" because Hughes is not under disclosure requirements.
A spokesman for the RNC, Jim Dyke, said Hughes's presence at the White House did not politicize the situation or present a conflict of interest. "She has been providing advice to the president since before he was president based on their relationship, and I don't think that would change regardless of who happens to be paying her," he said. He added that Hughes is "providing communications advice, not making policy decisions." Hughes, who has been receiving $15,000 monthly plus expenses since July, will have her pay cut to $5,000 monthly because of restrictions forced by campaign finance laws, Dyke said.
Hughes did not return messages left at the White House and at her office in Austin. A White House official said he was not aware whether Hughes has filed or would file disclosures.
Hughes is one of Bush's most trusted, longtime confidantes, serving as an aide while he was Texas governor and during the first 18 months of his presidency. She directed the White House communications apparatus, including the global message operation during the war in Afghanistan. Since she left in the middle of last year because of her family's desire to return to Texas, Hughes has continued to advise Bush and has campaigned for GOP candidates. She is writing a book about her White House experiences.
A decade ago, a similar White House consulting arrangement caused an uproar among congressional Republicans, who were infuriated that Democratic National Committee consultants were given access to the 1993 deliberations on President Bill Clinton's first budget and economic plan. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) attempted to pass legislation requiring the consultants to file the same financial disclosure statements as White House aides did. The legislation failed, but the White House directed the four consultants -- James Carville, Paul Begala, Mandy Grunwald and Stan Greenberg -- to make the disclosures.
"This issue is not a partisan maneuver, but a responsible, good government action," Wolf wrote at the time. "We are trying to make public policy to ensure public accountability for this White House and any White House in the future, whether occupied by a Democrat or a Republican." Wolf argued that the four could be considered government employees under some readings of the law and therefore subject to conflict-of-interest restrictions.
A spokesman for Wolf, Dan Scandling, said the issue with the Clinton advisers was more about security clearances and White House passes. But on the disclosure matter, Scandling said: "That's where he is and what he believes."
Begala said Hughes's role at the White House is a vindication of his view. "I couldn't be happier," he said. "I think it's terrific the president has turned to people he's comfortable with who can tell him 'no.' You never have to worry with Karen Hughes about divided loyalty."
Begala said "it's not for me to say" whether Hughes should disclose her finances. He said that after Wolf demanded the disclosures a decade ago, Clinton told him: "You do have great access. Why not do it?"