White House Distracted by Foley Scandal

The White House backed House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) this week as he suffers criticism from the Mark Foley scandal. The week has also seen the administration addressing school violence and the proposed U.S.-Mexico border fence.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

There were more developments yesterday in the scandal surrounding former Congressman Mark Foley. The Florida Republican is believed to have sent sexually explicit e-mail and text messages to a former congressional page. Yesterday, a senior congressional aide told the Associated Press that he alerted House Speaker Dennis Hastert's office more than three years ago to Foley's inappropriate behavior and asked senior Republicans to intervene.

AMOS: This morning, Republicans are wondering where the scandal may be heading next and what impact it could have on the future of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Earlier this week, President Bush said he had confidence in the speaker. He also called for an investigation of the entire incident.

NPR's White House reporter David Greene has been traveling with the president this week, and he joins us now. Good morning, David.

DAVID GREENE: Good morning, Deb.

AMOS: This was the president's first trip since the Foley scandal broke, so what was the mood on Air Force One this week?

GREENE: Well, there seemed to be a real sense among the president's staff that the Foley affair was just consuming Washington for the duration of Mr. Bush's trip. He was in Nevada, he was in California, Arizona, Colorado, and most of the questions reporters were asking on the trip were about Foley.

I think there was some frustration that Mr. Bush's message, talking tough on terrorism and accusing Democrats of being weak on national security, just wasn't making it into the news at all.

Still, I think the White House was being careful not to overreact, and they were hoping that they could weather this. The White House has made it through political storms before. And the truth, Deb, the Democrats were sending all these e-mails out about how Republicans are imploding over this. And Hastert and Republicans were defending themselves.

I think everybody, including the White House, is sort of in suspended animation waiting for the real jury, which is the American people, and waiting for some polls or any indication about whether this will really matter long-term to voters or not.

AMOS: Yeah, because at first the president seemed reluctant to talk about the Foley matter at all. And when he did talk, it was really kind of brief.

GREENE: It was. I think the president knows the potential for questions like this about a Republican lawmakers behavior to have an impact on his party. But the White House seemed to be careful to find the right moment for Mr. Bush to speak about it without stepping on his own message. And what the president really wanted to be talking about was Democrats and votes that he believed show that they're weak on fighting terrorism.

I think we have some tape from a fundraiser in Arizona yesterday, Mr. Bush trying to really paint them as weak on national security.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: They view this election - they view the threats we face like law enforcement, and that is we respond after we're attacked. And it's a fundamental difference. And I will travel this country for the next five weeks, making it clear the difference of opinion.

GREENE: Now Mr. Bush has his own problems with that issue. Polls show more Americans believe the war in Iraq has actually hurt the fight against terrorism more than it's helped.

But Mr. Bush did briefly bring up the Foley affair. It was a real interruption. He was visiting an elementary school in Stockton, California, that was named after him: George W. Bush Elementary. He seemed really moved as he mingled with some of the kids who go to Bush Elementary School. The principal was crying, because she thought this visit was so special.

But when the president came out with the principal to the microphones, here he had to bring up these questions about a lawmaker sending suggestive e-mails to minors.

AMOS: Well, his schedule has consisted largely of rallies and fundraisers for Republican candidates, but he did take some time yesterday to sign a funding bill into law.

GREENE: He did. It was a $34 billion homeland security funding bill that has money for port security, for money to improve the country's response to disasters and a lot of border security money; including to begin building a fence along the border with Mexico, an idea that Mexican President Vicente Fox has strongly opposed.

AMOS: And quickly, that 700-mile fence, that was not really part of his program for immigration, was it?

GREENE: It wasn't, and because of that this was a very carefully choreographed event. The president didn't get what he wanted this year on immigration; he wanted a plan to allow undocumented immigrants a shot at legal working status, and he was blocked by conservatives who just wanted to get tough on security. So here was a way for the president to not sign an immigration bill itself that he didn't like, but at least to sign a funding bill in Arizona so conservative lawmakers out there could go out and say, here's the president in town to give money for a new fence.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

GREENE: Thank you, Deb.

AMOS: NPR's White House reporter David Greene.

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