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White House Plans to Deflect

Times Staff Writers

The prosecutor hasn’t announced any indictments, but President Bush’s aides and their allies in Congress are working on strategies to counter the blow if White House officials are accused of crimes.

The basic plan is familiar to anyone who has watched earlier presidents contend with scandal: Keep the problem at arm’s length, let allies outside the White House do the talking, and try to change the subject to something -- anything -- else.

The White House doesn’t plan to attack Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation -- at least not directly, several GOP officials said. Instead, expect Bush to unveil a flurry of proposals on subjects from immigration and tax reform to Arab-Israeli peace talks.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and so we don’t have a lot of time to sit back and think about” possible indictments, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday, reflecting the strategy. “We’re focusing on what the American people care most about, and that is winning the war on terrorism, succeeding in Iraq, addressing high energy prices ... and helping the people in the Gulf Coast region recover and rebuild.”

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Republicans outside the White House are pleading with Bush to act quickly and decisively if aides are indicted. “What is of most concern is that the president handle it properly -- that he ask [officials who are indicted] to step down; that he not vacillate, not equivocate; that he be decisive,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a leading Republican moderate.

“Changing the subject will not work,” said David Gergen, a former aide to Presidents Reagan and Clinton. “Giving more speeches about Iraq or the state of the economy doesn’t have the weight that action does.... It’s dangerous for the country to have a disabled president for three years, and we’re getting close to seeing that happen. I worry that they [Bush and his aides] are in denial.”

And GOP pollster David Winston warned that discontent among Republicans in Congress was rising. “This is not the environment that Republicans want to run in next year,” Winston said.

The immediate reason for Republicans’ worries was the growing expectation that Fitzgerald, who is investigating the 2003 leak of a CIA officer’s identity to reporters, was on the verge of issuing indictments. His probe has focused on the actions and statements of several high-ranking White House officials, including Karl Rove, Bush’s top political advisor, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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So far, the probe has attracted relatively little attention from the public. One recent poll found that 50% of those surveyed recognized Rove’s name; NBC’s “Today” show ran a three-minute primer on the case Wednesday morning called “Leak Investigation for Dummies.”

But at a time when Bush’s standing in public opinion polls has been battered by soaring gasoline prices and rising pessimism about the war in Iraq, the prospect that several White House aides might be indicted was being treated -- despite McClellan’s public dismissals -- as a potentially major political crisis.

“We’ve had discussions; we’ve gamed out different scenarios,” said one Republican strategist in frequent contact with the White House. “But to try to put together a big binder with 18 different tabs is a fool’s errand at this point. There are so many different ways this could play out.”

Some key elements of the post-investigation game plan have emerged, GOP advisors said:

* Any indicted White House officials would immediately step down, and Bush would quickly name their successors. If Rove is indicted, more than one person might take over his many responsibilities.

* The president and other White House officials would limit their public comments on the case. Outside interest groups and allies would do most of the talking.

* Whenever possible, Bush and other administration officials would try to change the subject. Among the issues the president plans to put atop his new agenda are spending restraint, tax changes and immigration. In addition, Bush’s foreign policy advisors have discussed launching a more visible presidential effort to prod Israel and the Palestinians toward peace, one official said.

* The White House would try to insulate Bush from the scandal allegations. Officials would argue that the president has not been accused of any direct involvement in the leaking of information in the CIA case or subsequent efforts to minimize the political damage. Although it is not yet clear who would coordinate the defense, several advisors said they expected Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman would be heavily involved. One official said former Cheney aide Mary Matalin was another likely participant. Neither Mehlman nor Matalin could be reached for comment.

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White House officials and allies are hoping that intensive news coverage of the Fitzgerald investigation will be short-lived. On Nov. 7, they predicted, attention would shift to the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers.

“Let’s say something happens in the next 48 hours,” said one official. “It will dominate the news cycle until the 7th of November. Then a new cycle begins: Harriet will be the news.”

Once the controversy begins to subside, they argued, Bush will have an opening to change the subject and call public attention to Iraq and the domestic economy, where the administration says there is good news.

“Because all this other snap, crackle and pop is occurring, it’s harder to tell the story of the progress being made on the foreign policy front and the economic front,” another strategist said. “When some of these other stories expire, it will be easier to get back on those issues.”

Some conservative Republican members of Congress and activists outside the White House agreed with that view.

“The only thing I ever learned from Bill Clinton was that when problems are nipping at the heels of an administration or a party, it’s always a good idea to return to the agenda that brought you to Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a leading House conservative. “The American people who care about Republican governance in Washington, D.C., will be heartened and encouraged if we put our heads down and return to our agenda.”

Influential conservative organizer Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said: “I think Karl Rove is going to learn how little the rest of the country even knows his name. Whatever comes out of this, it is less of a scandal than the administration’s critics had hoped it would be.”

But other, less-conservative figures were more worried.

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Gergen said problems went deeper than the CIA case. “This story’s going to have legs if somebody gets indicted,” he said. “I think the president has to lance the boil directly.... It starts with facing reality, accepting your share of responsibility without blinking.”

Kenneth M. Duberstein, who served as chief of staff to Reagan after his White House was shaken by a scandal over secret weapons sales to Iran, said his old boss “cleaned house and appointed.... a very strong management team. There are lessons to follow there.”

Duberstein said Bush could take another lesson from Reagan and “do some big things” after he weathers the immediate effect of any indictments. “You can try for breakthroughs on North Korea, on Iran,” he said. “I think he can do tax reform, tax simplification. I think he can do something big on energy. He has to do something on Medicare and Medicaid. He has to do something on the spending side. He needs to be addressing immigration.”

One solace for Republicans: Bush’s standing is so low, he may not have much further to fall, said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

“They’ve fallen so far, it’s hard to believe they’re going to take a real tumble,” he said. “If there is an indictment, people will take notice, but it may not create a sea change.

“Bush has multiple problems before he even has to worry about this,” he said. “The loss of confidence in his leadership, Iraq, the lack of success of the domestic agenda.... The biggest thing that could lift him would be some kind of turnabout in Iraq.”


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