The Gathering Storm

The White House counsel's office is home to some of the best, brightest and busiest conservative lawyers in the country. Among their duties: vetting the responses of Supreme Court nominees as the hopefuls navigate their way through the Senate. But the president's lawyers were stretched a bit thin this month as they double-checked the answers of the latest nominee, who just happens to be their boss, Harriet Miers. Why? Partly because so much of Miers's record is shrouded in the secrecy of her private legal advice, especially for clients like George W. Bush. And partly because they're working on other pressing matters--like digging up documents in response to multiple inquiries into Hurricane Katrina. "It's absurd," said one former administration official, who declined to be named because of the fragile state of the Miers nomination. "They really should have just said, 'We have too much on our plate'."

The tale of how Katrina hurt Harriet is just one glimpse inside a White House that seems overwhelmed by crisis and in desperate need of some kind of relief. It helps explain how a lawyer known for her hard work and meticulous attention to detail could have delivered a questionnaire that was so full of holes even GOP senators sent it back for a do-over. Bush's aides, who say the White House Counsel's Office is getting plenty of backup from the Justice Department, maintain that they've got the votes necessary to see Miers through. The president himself brushed off the unrest with an easy smile, telling reporters in the Rose Garden it was nothing more than "a lot of chatter."

Behind the scenes, however, the comfort level is very low. Some White House officials are already worried that Miers's rehearsals for her hearings are not proceeding smoothly, according to current and former administration sources who declined to be named because the sessions are secret. Whether the White House now prevails with its nominee says as much about its qualities under fire as those of Harriet Ellan Miers.

Last week was supposed to mark a retooled rollout, concentrating on Miers's intellect and credentials rather than her Christian faith. Instead there were new questions about her competence and conservatism that left loyal supporters in despair. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who will lead Miers's Senate hearings, has assured the White House he will move her successfully out of the Judiciary Committee. Still, he was stunned by her incomplete questionnaire. Her sparse answers undercut some Judiciary staffers who had been defending Miers against conservative attacks; hours after receiving the questionnaire, the aides were Googling for names and dates of cases that Miers had failed to provide. "We wanted to help them and it seemed like they didn't want to be helped," said one Republican Judiciary staffer who requested anonymity because his boss had not formally decided how to vote.

The task of answering those Senate questions is vastly complicated by the confidential nature of her career with George W. Bush. On one line of Miers's questionnaire, she wrote that she had simply worked for the "George W. Bush Committee" in the 1990s. In fact Miers's firm was paid nearly $160,000 in connection with Bush's re-election campaign for governor in 1998. The White House confirmed that her work for the campaign included coordinating research and collecting public records relating to Bush's National Guard service during the Vietnam War--the same records that proved so controversial during last year's presidential campaign.

White House aides say that even the supersmooth John Roberts had to supply additional information about his answers. And they point out that Miers told Specter in their first meeting that, because of her years of private work in Texas, the process would be a "rolling production." Now one senior Bush aide, who declined to be named in keeping with White House policy, said the administration is trying to "do a better job" of describing her job and responsibilities both in Washington and in her private practice in Dallas. But they also insist they will turn over no documents that reveal her advice to the president.

That has left many outside supporters worrying about what might seep out. Last week alone brought news of her support for the hiring of minorities, which some conservatives liken to racial quotas, as well as unpaid bar dues in Texas and D.C. Pep talks among friendly legal strategists have increasingly turned into group griping sessions. One cluster has been assembled by Leonard Leo, who took a leave as a top official at the conservative Federalist Society to help the White House sell the nomination. But by last week some participants openly talked about whether the president should withdraw his nominee; others suggested asking some senators to persuade the White House to pull the plug. "I can't stand this anymore," said one dispirited member of Leo's group who requested anonymity to avoid alienating the White House. "It's like sitting around in a bull session where everybody's out of ideas."

Some of President Bush's most loyal supporters suggest that Bush's senior aides--especially Karl Rove, the man who built the Bush machine--are too distracted by talk of grand juries and CIA leaks to focus on Miers's nomination. The White House rejects that outright. "It's ridiculous," said one senior Bush aide, who refused to be named when talking about the CIA leak case. "Karl will have to be inhaling his last breath of life before he's distracted from anything. He has a remarkable capacity to handle an incredible amount of issues, regardless of any investigation."

Rove may be able to cope, but it's not clear that the small team of White House lawyers can. The prospect of the CIA leak investigation's coming to an end this week means more work for Miers's office. Nev-er mind the Katrina papers. With their West Wing co-workers facing the possibility of indictment, the White House Counsel's Office may need an airlift of its own.