The president was in a reasonable mood. In fact, he couldn't stop pointing out just how reasonable he was being, in discussing the ongoing controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys at a press conference late Tuesday afternoon.
There were concessions, all right. He rightly pointed out that the White House dumped some 3,000 e-mails on Capitol Hill overnight the night before, providing, as the president said, an "extraordinary level of disclosure" of communications between the Justice Department and the White House to aid Congress in getting to the bottom of the matter. Bush admitted that the explanations provided for the firings had been "confusing and incomplete," and said that neither he nor Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had been "satisfied" with those explanations. And he pledged that Gonzales and his top aides would head to Capitol Hill to testify on the firings. In addition, Bush said, White House political adviser Karl Rove and others would agree to be interviewed—albeit off camera and not under oath—to help answer Congress's questions on the chain of events that led to the prosecutors' dismissals.
Reasonable, right? It almost sounded convincing. But wait! Who was it that had provided those confusing and incomplete explanations in the first place? Hadn't it been ... the president and the attorney general? And hadn't previous administrations agreed to let key aides testify before Congress under oath? Meaning, the level of cooperation was perhaps slightly less "extraordinary" than the president presumed. But perhaps the most interesting, um, irony in the president's press conference was his approach to Democrats on Capitol Hill. They'd better not launch off on a partisan fishing expedition, Bush warned. They'd better not "waste time" investigating the firings, or "promote confrontation." There were too many important issues to address. But the firings themselves smack of a partisan fishing expedition in the eyes of the president's critics. After all, one of the criteria in weighing who got canned was whether prosecutors were "loyal Bushies," as Gonzales's former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, wrote in one telling e-mail. And arguably, the firings themselves were what was distracting Congress and the country from more vital matters at hand. In other words, Bush seemed to be saying, it's fine for me to play politics. But it's not OK for the Democrats to do it.
It was not the first time a little inconsistency crept into the White House's efforts to control the damage over the Justice Department firings. In fact, things have been a bit wobbly ever since the story broke.
The White House hopes that Bush's remarks might help quiet the storm that is building over the Justice Department firings, and the possible White House involvement in the matter. But it's no small storm. The Democrats smell blood, and rumors are swirling around Washington about possible successors to Gonzales should he be shown the door.
Bush attempted to belay that talk earlier Tuesday, when, just minutes after arriving at the Oval Office for his usual round of morning briefings, he placed a call to Gonzales, his old friend from Texas, to let the attorney general know that his job was not on the line. But even some alumni of the Bush White House say that call means little for Gonzales's job security. True, Bush is not likely to fire Gonzales. But these former aides say they expect Gonzales to offer up his own resignation, just as former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld did after the GOP lost the midterm elections. (That move, you might recall, followed closely on the heels of a public expression of Bush's support for Rumsfeld.)
The White House press office made sure reporters knew about the president's phone call to Gonzales. "The president reaffirmed his strong backing and support of the attorney general," Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said, calling rumors that the administration is scouting for potential replacements "untrue." Two hours later, Press Secretary Tony Snow reiterated the talking points to reporters traveling with Bush on Air Force One, describing the tenor of Bush's message to Gonzales as "a very strong vote of confidence."
But that was a big change from Monday's talking points on Gonzales. Asked if Gonzales had offered his resignation to the president amid the fallout over the attorneys, Snow answered no. But then he added some unsolicited commentary on the subject. "None of us knows what's going to happen to us over the next 21 months, and that's why it's an impossible question to answer: will somebody stay throughout?" Snow said. "Nobody is prophetic enough to know what the next 21 months hold."
The next day, Snow tried to dial back his answer from the Monday briefing with some bleak talk. He also denied that Bush and Gonzales had talked about how long the attorney general would stay with the administration. "When I answered yesterday, do you know who's going to be [attorney general] at the end of the term—as a cancer survivor, I don't know if I'm going to be alive at the end of this term," Snow said. "So when you try to put together a question about what's going to happen for the two years, you don't know. But does he hope he'll serve through the next two years? Of course."
Not exactly the kind of soothing reassurance the attorney general might be looking for.
Whatever the level of support for Gonzales at the White House, he's clearly losing friends even among Republicans on the Hill. Rep. Adam Putnam, who serves as part of the GOP leadership in his role as chairman of the Republican conference, made it clear on Tuesday that he wanted Gonzales to quit. "His ability to effectively serve the president and lead the Justice Department is greatly compromised, and I think he himself should evaluate his ability to continue to serve as an effective attorney general," Putnam told reporters over lunch.
Putnam compared Gonzales's problems to the last high-profile departure from Bush's cabinet: that of Rumsfeld. Congressional Republicans felt duped by the Defense secretary's departure just days after they had publicly defended his position during the midterm elections. "Clearly some of the reluctance on the part of congressional Republicans to go to the mat for Gonzales is a consequence of having their fingers burnt in the Rumsfeld debacle," said Putnam.
When Republican leaders are drawing analogies to the last days of Donald Rumsfeld, the damage control isn't working.