Trying to distance himself from a corruption scandal, President Bush on Thursday refused to release photographs showing him with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and declined to disclose information about meetings between Abramoff and White House staff.
Recent news reports have described five photographs showing the president with Abramoff, a GOP-friendly lobbyist and longtime Republican fundraiser, which were shot during White House functions. Bush’s spokesman has acknowledged that “a few staff-level meetings” between Abramoff and White House aides took place but has declined to say who met with the lobbyist or what was discussed.
“I had my picture taken with him, evidently,” Bush said Thursday of Abramoff. “I’ve had my picture taken with a lot of people. Having my picture taken with someone doesn’t mean that I’m a friend with them or know them very well.”
He added: “I’m also mindful that we live in a world in which those pictures will be used for pure political purposes.”
The president’s comments, which came during a wide-ranging White House news conference, underscored the challenges he faced heading into Tuesday’s State of the Union address, a speech that aides hope will help kick-start an agenda for the year and lift Bush above Washington scandals and weakened approval ratings.
Many political strategists believe that the elections this November, which will determine which party controls Congress, could be tied directly to the public’s view of Bush.
The president called Thursday for setting aside partisanship that “inevitably will come with an election year” and said he intended to push an “optimistic agenda” that would “get some stuff done.” But persistent questions about Abramoff and other topics at the news conference pushed Bush off a desired script.
Instead of focusing on economic gains and his ideas for changing healthcare, Thursday’s appearance showed how Bush must navigate questions about the lobbying scandal, the White House’s refusal to provide testimony on its response to Hurricane Katrina, and whether the president broke the law by approving domestic surveillance without warrants. In almost every case, the questions and Bush’s responses illustrated the tensions created by the administration’s long-held belief in strengthening executive power.
Bush defended his administration’s decision to withhold support from a congressional plan, backed by leading officials in both political parties in Louisiana, to set up a federal agency that would try to revive New Orleans by buying damaged homes and selling them to builders.
Supporters say the idea is the best way to make sure neighborhoods can be revived as a coherent whole. They say the current federal plan is inadequate and underfunded.
But Bush said he was “concerned about creating additional federal bureaucracies, which might make it harder to get money to the people.” He also said the federal government had committed $85 billion to reconstruction throughout the damaged Gulf Coast, and that in New Orleans, it had agreed to “make the levees stronger and better than before, and study further strengthening of the levees.”
Bush also defended the White House decision to bar some of its top aides from testifying before congressional committees investigating the government response to Hurricane Katrina.
“If people give me advice and they’re forced to disclose that advice, it means the next time an issue comes up, I might not be able to get unvarnished advice from my advisors,” Bush said.
Bush also said his administration had been “fully cooperative” with the House and Senate committees and would continue to cooperate “without giving away my ability to get sound advice from people on my staff.” He said the White House had sent 15,000 pages of documents to Congress, and had made officials -- other than his top aides -- available for interviews and public testimony.
But Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating the government’s response to the storm, said the White House had not made staff members available for interviews. Lieberman said the administration had not handed over the documents and e-mail messages the committee needed, and that it had instructed government agencies not to talk to committee investigators. A Senate aide said the documents released by the White House included public transcripts of news briefings and of the online chat, “Ask the White House.”
As a result of the White House actions, Lieberman said in an interview, it was difficult for the committee to assemble a timeline of what happened during and after the hurricane -- particularly concerning the rupture of the levees protecting New Orleans -- and who knew about it, and why the military had not been deployed sooner.
On Thursday, Bush also defended his decision to authorize the National Security Agency to monitor electronic communications, without court approval, between Americans and suspected Al Qaeda members overseas, a decision that critics assert was a violation of federal law.
Bush said at least 10 times that he believed he acted lawfully. He took issue with a question that suggested he had circumvented the law.
“Wait a minute,” Bush said. “It’s like saying, you know, you’re breaking the law.”
“I’m not,” he added. “I am upholding my duty, and at the same time, doing so under the law and with the Constitution behind me.”
As Bush seeks to reinvigorate his second term, the Abramoff scandal remains an unpredictable factor.
On Thursday, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) called for the appointment of a special counsel to take over investigation of Abramoff and his links to lawmakers and their staffs. Abramoff has reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and has said he would cooperate with the investigation.
Abramoff is a longtime associate of White House strategist Karl Rove and was a “pioneer” for Bush’s reelection campaign, meaning he raised at least $100,000. The federal investigation has led to an indictment of Bush administration official David H. Safavian, who headed procurement for the U.S. General Services Administration until he was charged with making false statements and obstruction of justice in connection with a golf trip Abramoff took in 2002 with several members of Congress.
That excursion and others have fueled speculation that, with Abramoff’s testimony, charges could be brought against several lawmakers or Capitol Hill staff members.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has for weeks refused to offer details about Abramoff’s dealings with the White House. He has played down any links and declined to elaborate, saying, “I don’t get into discussing staff-level meetings.”
Time magazine said this week that its reporters had seen five Bush-Abramoff photos and a sixth showing Bush with several of Abramoff’s children and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). None of the photos has been circulated publicly. A spokesman for Abramoff, Andrew Blum, said that “to the extent that Mr. Abramoff has possession of any of these photos, he will not be releasing them, nor is he seeking to sell them or use them for any other purpose.”
Bush said that the photos were “not relevant” to the federal investigation that has gripped Capitol Hill since Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
“I, frankly, don’t even remember having my picture taken with the guy,” Bush said. “I don’t know him.”
He characterized the photos as typical “grip and grin” shots that are snapped thousands of times each year at White House receptions.
“It’s part of the job of the president to shake hands with people and smile,” he said. “And the man contributed to my campaigns, but he contributed, either directly or through his clients, to a lot of people in Washington. And this needs to be cleared up so the people have confidence in the system.”
Bush said he tried not to meet with lobbyists. But he quickly added: “Now, when, for example, people are helping on issues -- like on promoting trade -- you bet, we bring them in, and I say thank you.”
Times staff writer Mary Curtius contributed to this report.