Rough Political Winds Buffet White House

President Bush has had a rough week. He saw his nominee for the Supreme Court withdraw from consideration, and the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney resigned after being indicted. Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus discusses the news with Liane Hansen.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Following a week of attacks from the right and indictments from a federal prosecutor, President Bush this weekend is searching for a new nominee to sit on the Supreme Court and Vice President Dick Cheney needs a new chief of staff. Mr. Bush's choice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the high court, Harriet Miers, moved from being a prospective associate justice back to the routine of being the president's legal counsel. She spent this weekend with Mr. Bush at Camp David reviewing possible nominees for the job that conservative Republicans did not want her to have. The vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, resigned from his position of power and is preparing a defense on charges that he lied to and misled a federal grand jury as it investigated whether any laws were broken in the leak of the name of a CIA agent. Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus joins us in the studio.

Welcome back, Doyle.

Mr. DOYLE McMANUS (Los Angeles Times): Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Lots to talk about this morning. Let's start with the indictment of Scooter Libby. He took the brunt of the charges from the grand jury, but Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Mr. Bush's closest political adviser, is still being investigated. The White House is saying it's going about business as usual. What exactly is business as usual at the White House these days?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, Liane, it's hard to describe anything as business as usual when even aside from these legal problems, this White House, this president is in the deepest political trough of his time in office. They are looking at Iraq. They're looking at pessimism on the economy, high energy prices. They messed up the response to Hurricane Katrina. They messed up the nomination of Harriet Miers. So at this point business as usual is coming up with a new strategy to get this second term back on track. So ironically that makes Karl Rove even more important than he was before. But, you know, as you point out, he still has legal problems over his head.

HANSEN: Well, he wasn't indicted, but as you say, he's not off the hook. Can he continue to function effectively in the White House?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, the word from the White House and from Mr. Rove's office, of course, is, `Yes, that's our story and we're sticking to it.' Actually I think the answer to this one will become clear probably in a matter of weeks because what we hear from the lawyers around that case is that the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, was seriously considering indicting Karl Rove and pulled back from the brink last week when Mr. Rove's attorneys came in with what they described as new evidence. So he is still deliberating that. He hasn't made a decision, but every indication we get is that he will make a decision within only a few weeks, and at that point, Karl Rove will either be essentially in the clear or out the door.

HANSEN: Scooter Libby says he'll be exonerated. The prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, doesn't sound like he wants to make any kind of deal. So what can the administration expect if this goes to trial?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, what the administration will want to do if this goes to trial is make it into an obscure story about a second-level aide and something to do with false statements to the FBI and a lot of legal technicalities. I don't think that's going to work because there still is the mystery of who leaked the name of Valerie Wilson, the CIA agent, to Robert Novak, the columnist. That may come out at a trial, and the trial is inherently going to be dramatic because it may have star witnesses--not only some of the reporters who were involved in this case, like Tim Russert of NBC, but also Karl Rove, and, perhaps, even the vice president himself, Dick Cheney. It's going to be hard for people not to want to pay attention to that and that'll be a distraction from the business the White House wants to do.

HANSEN: Go back to the reporters because a lot of the case has revolved around reporters and confidential sources. Is anything going to change in the way news is reported in Washington as a result of this?

Mr. McMANUS: You know, I thought it would at first, but the remarkable thing in the short run is not at all. Look, here's a case about leaks and a case about who said what to reporters and what the reporters did with that information. And over the past three or four weeks, we've had a deluge of leaks about the leaks. We've had leaks from at least four of the lawyers involved in this case in a case where the prosecutor has actually asked them to please be discreet. So, no, leaking is clearly our local sport here in Washington and it's impossible to stamp that out.

But what may happen as a result of the trial is that if the public and if all of our sources in Washington see Tim Russert of NBC, Matt Cooper of Time magazine, Judy Miller of The New York Times up there on the stand compelled to testify under oath about conversations they had that were confidential at the time, sources will understand and reporters will understand that that privilege, that privilege of confidentiality has its limits when it runs up against a determined prosecutor.

HANSEN: Names are already leaking out about a new nominee for the Supreme Court from President Bush. He needs to send a name to the Senate. It's not going to be easy because if he comes up with someone who satisfies the right wing of his party, the Republican Party, he's going to raise the backs of many of the Senate Democrats who were passive when they considered John Roberts to be chief justice a little more than a month ago. Do you think the president can actually pull off that kind of balancing act again?

Mr. McMANUS: It's probably impossible to pull off that miraculous balancing act that he hit with John Roberts. So the names that have been floating around--and they appear to have floated out of the White House--suggest the president is going to look toward a more conservative figure and that makes political sense because the first thing he has to do at this point is shore up his conservative base. If they disappear on him, he's got bigger problems. So that's why we're hearing names like Samuel Alito, the Philadelphia appeals court judge, who some lawyers call Scalito because he's a lot like Antonin Scalia, and Michael Luttig in Richmond, Virginia, two very deep legal scholars. They won't have the kind of background, a competence question over their heads that Harriet Miers did, but they will set up a tougher, more classic battle between conservatives and liberals.

HANSEN: There's a lot going on, too, particularly with regard to internal Senate politics. A lot has changed. Remember last May, the Democrats had to make a deal, called for them to largely give up this idea of a filibuster to stop federal court nominees they didn't like, but since then, the Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist, has been hit hard by these ethical questions. The president has all the troubles that you've been talking about. Do you think the Democrats could actually put together an effective filibuster now?

Mr. McMANUS: That's a terrific question because, as you say, when in the spring when that deal was made the Democrats felt weak, the Republicans felt strong. There was a lot of controversy among liberal Democrats, saying, `Well, why did our leaders, why did Senator Reid, the Democratic leader, compromise so much?' Well, he didn't have a lot of cards in his hand. Now the Democrats are feeling that maybe they want to pick a fight and the conservative Republicans are feeling that they may want to pick a fight. So the real question here is--remember, back then, there was a compromise. There was the Gang of 14, seven moderate Republicans, Senator John McCain among them, seven moderate Democrats. Some people called them the Mod Squad, as moderates. They said, `No, we're going to make sure there's not a filibuster. We don't want to blow up the process.' I'm not sure they can hold together.

HANSEN: And finally and briefly, Doyle, of course, this past week we saw the 2,000th American to die in Iraq since the invasion in early 2003. Tens of thousands of others have died. Expect any kind of action on this front?

Mr. McMANUS: You know, that is the cloud. Iraq is the cloud that is hanging over both parties in American politics right now. That number 2,000 was an artificial landmark, but it was a very sober one. Republicans can campaign on the economy but they can't fix this. Democrats admit they don't have a great new answer either.

HANSEN: Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus. Doyle, thanks a lot.

Mr. McMANUS: Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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