Inside the White House there was an almost audible sigh of relief at the end of the trial of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. Not because administration officials are happy with the verdict. Libby was seen as one of the more personable and talkative officials in the vice president's closed circle. The relief is that the trial's end also brings an end to a miserable period of personal uncertainty for White House employees, during which they had to worry if they would face indictment, or at least cross-examination as a witness.
But that sense of relief doesn't mean the president or his staff speak any more freely about the Libby case than they have since its inception. Following the verdict, the White House made it clear it was sticking to its official policy of keeping quiet: they claim they cannot comment because there are ongoing legal proceedings.
There was a time when the president's staff would challenge all criticism and dispute every negative story. Now they see a greater political threat in the Walter Reed scandal than in the enduring controversy around the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The contrast in how they have handled the two stories underscores the scaled-back ambitions of a White House that is firmly in its lame-duck phase.
Behind the scenes, White House officials talk about the Libby trial in much the same way they talk about events on the ground in Iraq: with a deep sense of resignation, admitting there's nothing they can say to change public perceptions. They are also strangely passive when it comes to defending the rationale for a war they are still fighting. Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary, cannot understand the lack of comment about the Libby trial. "I would be advising the White House to get out there and find some way to talk about this," McClellan told CNN's Larry King on Tuesday. "Of course, the lawyer is always the first to say, 'It's a legal matter, we're not going to talk about it.' But that's not always the best advice from a communications standpoint."
In fact, current White House officials (none of whom would speak on the record) understand that their claim that they can't comment for legal reasons is weak. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald initially warned White House officials not to speak publicly or privately about the investigation because it might serve as evidence of a conspiracy to obstruct justice. But that was before he indicted Libby. Once the wheels of the trial began to move, officials heard from their own defense lawyers that they should avoid commenting on the issue. Several White House officials (current and former) feared they could get sucked into the trial right up to the moment that Libby's defense rested. But all those legal cautions have now passed their expiration date. Fitzgerald says he's going back to his day job; the private lawyers can stop charging by the hour. Since there's only an appeals court judge to worry about (rather than a jury), there's not much plausible concern that the White House might prejudice any legal proceedings.
So why the stonewall? According to one former White House official with close ties to the current staff, there's a sense that Libby deserved his fate—and nobody wants to look like they are defending him. "What you saw was a vice president's office that was out of control," said the official, who declined to be named while talking about the case. "I felt that way as somebody inside the White House. I think Karl [Rove] and Ari [Fleischer] weren't guilty. They went up to the line and didn't cross it. But the vice president's office crossed it."
Contrast that official silence with the swift reaction to the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Bush expected—and received—relatively quick firings inside the Department of Defense, especially for those who downplayed the revelations about the now-notorious Building 18. Having campaigned so many times in front of the troops, Bush and his staff dropped their usual playbook. There was a period when White House staff pooh-poohed the creation of outside commissions. Not this time. Bush met with former senator Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala on Wednesday to underscore how he would move quickly on care for military personnel. "I am concerned that our soldiers and their families are not getting the treatment that they deserve, having volunteered to defend our country," he said. "Any report of medical neglect will be taken seriously by this administration."
What a difference two years make. Back in 2004, John Kerry repeatedly raised the issue of poor care for veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Bush's response was dismissive. In their last televised debate, Kerry said Bush "hasn't fully funded the VA and the VA hospital [sic] is having trouble and veterans are complaining."
Bush's response? "Of course we're meeting our obligation to our veterans, and the veterans know that. We're expanding veterans' health care throughout the country. We're aligning facilities where the veterans live now. Veterans are getting very good health care under my administration, and they will continue to do so during the next four years."
Now Bush's aides say the president is not just deeply troubled by the problems at Walter Reed, but worried about troops transitioning from military care to the VA system, where there may be yet more unreported horror stories. "This commission is broader than Walter Reed," says a senior Bush aide who declined to be named while talking about conversations with the president. "The president is particularly concerned about the gap between the Department of Defense and the VA. He will be interested in hearing about that. This is very focused on guys coming off the battlefield."
What has changed in the last two years? In political terms, everything. Bush's base is deeply split on the war in Iraq, where it used to be unified. And Bush's leadership of the war is now under direct challenge from a Congress controlled by his opposition. The issue of veterans' care is one that Bush cannot take for granted, as he once did in 2004. Compared to the complexities of the Libby trial, this is a simple debate the White House cannot afford to lose.