Bush's No. 2 gives no quarter and plays for all the marbles
Far from being chastened by recent setbacks, including the indictment of his chief of staff, Vice President Dick Cheney is thumbing his nose at his critics--and encouraging President Bush to do the same. "Bush and Cheney are standing as one," says a prominent Republican who regularly advises the White House. "Their strategy is to get the conservative base solidified again, and Cheney is key because he is the administration's main link to the right."
Cheney is described by White House insiders as combative and eager to rally the GOP faithful. As part of that effort, he will continue to ride the Republican fundraising circuit in advance of next year's midterm elections, as he did last Friday, headlining events in Cincinnati and Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Behind the scenes, Cheney is feeding Bush's instinct never to give ground when under attack, White House advisers say, despite rising concern among Republicans that the president doesn't realize the depth of his political trouble. With Bush's job-approval ratings at historic lows, 52 percent of Americans think the indictment of Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby reflects broader ethics problems in the administration, according to a Washington Post/ABC News Poll.
Bush's decision to nominate Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court is just the latest manifestation of the White House's hang-tough stance, along with Cheney's selection of hard-liner aides John Hannah and David Addington to replace Libby, who held the dual posts of vice presidential chief of staff and national security adviser. A senior adviser to Cheney describes Addington and Hannah as "two people with very long and distinguished careers serving the American people." But they have many critics. Hannah, newly promoted to Cheney's national security adviser, had been Libby's deputy and was instrumental in making exaggerated or questionable prewar arguments that Saddam Hussein's regime had specific links to terrorism. Addington, a longtime Cheney confidant who is now his chief of staff, has advocated limiting the rights of suspected terrorists, argued that torture of suspects might be justified in some cases, and pressed for expanding presidential power. Says a former adviser to a Republican president: "In some ways, Cheney is closing a wall around himself."
The CIA case has Bush aides deeply worried because it has the potential to do far more damage to the White House. The president's top aide, Karl Rove, remains under investigation, and his fate is uncertain. Libby's indictment states that he had multiple conversations with government officials, including people at the White House and the CIA, about Valerie Plame, the CIA operative at the center of the leak investigation. If the case proceeds to trial, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald will try to show that Libby knew Plame was a CIA operative, and to do that, he will have to call as witnesses officials at the White House, the CIA, and presumably the State Department.
According to the indictment, Libby told the grand jury that when he spoke with reporters, he didn't know Plame was a CIA operative. He testified that reporters told him about her CIA ties. Fitzgerald says Libby had confirmed her CIA employment earlier. This brings Cheney into the case. In the event of a trial, Cheney will almost certainly have to testify in some way, assuming the grand jury is correct that Cheney was one of the senior officials who identified Plame to Libby as a CIA employee. Cheney could try to avoid testifying by asserting executive privilege, but more than likely his lawyers would have to work out a way to have him provide his testimony without actually appearing in court.
President Bush, meanwhile, is thinking in bigger terms. Friends say he has decided that he will never catch a break from the Democrats or the media--on the CIA case or anything else--so he will govern from the right, as he did on most issues in his first term. "He seems content to remain a 51-percent president, unlike other presidents who wanted to increase their job approval far beyond that," says a friend. "In fact, as long as he gets one more vote than the other side, he seems happy."
With Edward T. Pound and Kevin Whitelaw
This story appears in the November 14, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.