How Bush is Handling the U.S. Attorneys' Mess

Back in 2000, George W. Bush campaigned on a promise to restore what he called "the responsibility era" in American politics. As he crisscrossed the country, he pledged to ring down the curtain on the moral vagaries of the Clinton years—a time when the reigning philosophy was, as he described it, "If it feels good, do it. And if you've got a problem, blame somebody else."

But now, in the seventh year of his presidency, President Bush seems to be having trouble taking responsibility for his own conversations with his cabinet officials. At a press conference with the Mexican president Wednesday, Bush was asked about his talks with his old friend Alberto Gonzales about the U.S. attorneys who were fired. The president suggested he was merely a go-between, passing messages from members of Congress to the attorney general.

"I get complaints all the time from members of Congress on a variety of subjects," he explained, before telling how he had passed on senators' concerns to Gonzales. "But I never brought up a specific case nor gave him specific instructions," he insisted.

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell wondered whether Gonzales might have taken the president's questions as a call to action. But Bush said he had no idea about the impact of his own discussions. "You're going to have to ask Al that question," he said. In other words, the president—who has the power to fire U.S. attorneys at will—doesn't know if his words carry weight inside his own cabinet.

The White House is attempting to defend a single talking point: there were no specifics involved in their conversations with Justice Department officials. But that, too, strains credibility. Bush's aides may not have written the list of U.S. attorneys to be canned. But according to the slew of White House and Justice Department e-mails released by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Bush's aides were intimately involved—following up repeatedly on conversations about individual attorneys, their replacements and the overall handling of the plan.

The administration's response to the U.S. attorneys' story has been plagued by these kinds of contradictions. Bush said Wednesday that he was displeased with the issue. "I'm, frankly, not happy about it," he said. A few minutes later, he made it clear that his unhappiness was simply related to some confusion with Congress. "What was mishandled was the explanation of the cases to the Congress," he said.

Gonzales himself sought to play down the issue, even as he insisted he was in charge. "Like every CEO of a major organization, I am responsible for what happens at the Department of Justice. I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility," he told reporters Tuesday. Just a few seconds later, he qualified almost every one of those comments. "As we can all imagine, in an organization of 110,000 people, I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls of the Department of Justice, nor am I aware of all decisions," he explained. By the end of the press conference, he made it clear he wasn't apologizing for anything substantive about the firings. "All political appointees can be removed by the president of the United States for any reason," he said. "I stand by the decision, and I think it was a right decision."

Gonzales is only following the lead of his own boss. Bush often likes to portray himself both as the decider and as a hapless staffer, whose life is controlled by a faceless scheduler. When asked in Guatemala on Monday about the timing of immigration reform, he said this: "I'm not the person that sets the calendar. I'm just a simple member of the executive branch."

He's not the only member of the White House who found it difficult to define his job in Latin America. One of the running jokes among reporters traveling with Bush this week is the MIA status of White House Press Secretary Tony Snow.

Until yesterday, Snow had not even been seen in the White House press filing center, where the majority of reporters traveling with Bush work while on the road. No administration officials had shown up to brief the full press corps about the president's meetings with foreign leaders, not to mention on the political events happening back home. Perturbed, a Washington Post reporter jokingly posted an all-points-bulletin on the newspaper's political blogseeking information on Snow's whereabouts.

Indeed, the only confirmation to most reporters that Snow was even on the trip was a transcript of comments he made over the weekend to the small crew of journalists traveling with Bush aboard Air Force One. When the White House finally decided to return to the briefing business on Tuesday, it was White House counselor Dan Bartlett who took the job. Reporters traveling with Bush were summoned to a late-afternoon session with Bartlett, who rarely briefs the full press corps beyond major speeches like the State of the Union or significant policy addresses.

Before he showed up at the press filing center in Merida, Mexico, White House aides (perhaps cognizant that Bartlett's remarks would likely make the evening news) decided to spruce the place up a bit—to make it look like the kind of place where a White House staffer might be seen. Reporters on the trip were housed at a dingy Holiday Inn in Merida—just down the street from the hotel where Bush is staying. A rickety wooden podium with the hotel logo had already been set up for administration officials to talk to reporters.

But just before Bartlett showed up, Bush's staff decided this wouldn't work. Wheeling in a massive steel box, they unpacked one of the fancy blue lecterns that Bush uses while on the road and wheeled it on stage—removing the presidential seal. A few feet away, a staffer repositioned the U.S. and Mexican flags, moving them slightly closer together.

It was a big show for a briefing that didn't do much to clear up the many mysteries about the White House's role in the firings. There was no mention of the initial (and false) White House position on the story: that Karl Rove was not involved. Instead, Bartlett portrayed the story as a failure of Justice officials to keep their superiors, and Congress, in the loop. In Bush's responsibility era, the concept of blame is as movable as a presidential podium.