Critics seek a shake-up of White House staff

Posted in United States | 31-Oct-05 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

White House political advisor Karl Rove.
WASHINGTON Senior lawmakers called Sunday for a White House shake-up because of the CIA leak scandal, perhaps including the resignation of the senior presidential adviser Karl Rove, and they recommended an internal investigation of the involvement of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Some Democrats called on both President George W. Bush and Cheney to apologize to the American people.

Bush and Cheney "should come clean with the American public," said the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. "The president, I guess, is still being driven by Karl Rove," he told ABC-TV. Later, on CNN, he added, "He should be let go."

Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, the former Republican majority leader, urged Bush to bring "new blood" into the White House.

Asked whether he expected Bush to forcefully address his problems, Lott replied: "I think he is a man that knows when there's a time to make moves and take actions. He will do that."

Cheney's top adviser, I. Lewis Libby Jr., resigned Friday following his indictment on five counts, including perjury before a grand jury, making false statements to FBI investigators and obstruction of justice.

As the White House digested the loss of Libby and sought to map a recovery from recent serious setbacks - Bush met with advisers at his Camp David retreat, and senior officials stayed away from the Sunday morning news programs - Republicans appeared eager to give the Libby matter the narrowest possible focus and to turn the page quickly.

"This is a serious matter," said Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, speaking on CNN, "but I think you go on with the agenda."

Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said that anyone trying to turn the scandal to Bush's political disadvantage is "going to be disappointed by the fact that this appears to be limited to a single individual."

Most immediate among the issues facing Bush is his next nominee to the Supreme Court.

Harriet Miers, the White House counsel, withdrew Thursday under heavy bipartisan criticism. Bush was expected to announce a new nominee as early as Monday.

Rove, the president's deputy chief of staff, was not indicted Friday, although he, too, had spoken to reporters about Valerie Plame, who is also called Valerie Wilson.

Their subsequent reports, identifying her as an undercover CIA operative, were seen by some as retribution for the vocal criticism of the Iraq war of her husband, the former ambassador Joseph Wilson.

In announcing the indictments, the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, said that Rove remained under investigation. But he provided scant elaboration, leaving unclear the degree of Rove's continuing legal exposure.

Several analysts said they believed that if Fitzgerald had had a solid case against Rove, he would have pressed for an indictment Friday.

One senior Republican senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, himself a former prosecutor, went so far Sunday as to say, "I think the likelihood of Karl Rove being indicted in the future is virtually zero."

He did recommend that Bush initiate an internal investigation of any involvement by the vice president's office in the leak of Plame's name.

Politically, however, Rove appears vulnerable. Lott, the former Senate majority leader, suggested that Rove's future in the White House remained unsure.

"If this is going to be ongoing, if he has a problem, he's got to step up and acknowledge it and deal with it," Lott said on Fox-TV.

Asked if he were urging a wider shake-up, Lott said, "You should always be looking for new blood, new energy," but added, "I'm not talking about wholesale changes."

Time magazine, citing an unidentified White House adviser, reported Sunday that Bush had "lost some of his confidence in the three people he listens to most" - meaning Rove, Cheney and Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card.

The source added, "All relationships with the president, except for his relationship with Laura" - the first lady - "have been damaged recently."

As he faces extraordinarily difficult challenges - from the Iraq war, to high petroleum prices, to rising federal budget deficits to the leak case and Miers controversy - the president's approval ratings have continued to slip.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll puts Bush's approval at a new low, 39 percent, down from 42 percent in mid-September. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed disapproved of Bush's handling of his job.

After the indictment of Libby, Bush appears to see little need for the wholesale housecleaning, or any firing of top aides, that previous administrations tried in times of upheaval to rebuild credibility, White House and Republican officials said.

The administration's goal, they said, is to reassure its divided and demoralized conservative base, chalk up a few victories on Capitol Hill and set the stage for a more robust comeback next year after months of experiencing one misstep and setback after another.

But some supporters of the administration acknowledged that it was harder to get out of political trouble than into it and that with the leak investigation continuing, American troops still dying in Iraq and the Republican Party divided over a number of issues, the Bush strategy faces extraordinary challenges.

Democrats again sought Sunday to frame the leak scandal as reaching beyond Libby and implicating Cheney, and therefore affecting the broader debate over how the administration moved the nation toward war.

"The vice president was the leader of the effort here to get us into this war in Iraq," said Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut.

To suggest that the Plame leak had nothing to do with the war "is to be terribly naïve," he said on Fox-TV.

But Lott rejected this approach. Those who try to tie the vice president to the leaks, he said, were bound to "fail miserably."

Conservative commentators Sunday emphasized that Fitzgerald had not found evidence to indict anyone on the underlying charge of knowingly disclosing the identity of a covert CIA agent.

"This was a cover-up of a noncrime," a longtime New York Times columnist, William Safire, said on NBC-TV.

David Brooks, also of The Times, said that the leak scandal would be largely forgotten within six months.

"The White House has to be breathing a sigh of relief, and the American people have to know that the wave of hysteria, the wave of paranoia, the wave of charges and allegations about Karl Rove and everybody else so far is unsupported by facts," Brooks said.

But Dodd suggested that Bush would make a mistake to assume that the leak problem would simply be forgotten with time.

"I think he makes a mistake if he minimizes it," he said. "Do not minimize this. This is very serious, and it's not going to go away."

Richard Stevenson and Robin Toner of The New York Times contributed to this story.