Sunday, October 23, 2005

Legal Problems Dog Bush's Inner Circle

ABC News
Legal Problems Dog Bush's Inner Circle
All the President's Men and Women Are Getting Worn Out by Legal Problems
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - It's a nightmare prospect that Republicans have trouble fathoming: legal problems that could drive some of the president's most powerful aides from office.

A special prosecutor and grand jury are closing in on a deadline to decide whether to lodge criminal complaints against presidential adviser Karl Rove and White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, the wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson.

If it comes to pass, administration officials and GOP consultants expect President Bush to turn to a few individuals to fill any void in his inner circle.

Among the candidates are go-to Republicans whom Bush trusts, including Ed Gillespie, Ken Mehlman and Karen Hughes; former lawmakers Rob Portman and Vin Weber; and those who could be promoted from within, such as Dan Bartlett, Joshua Bolten and Joe Hagin.

It's also possible the president could reach out to others in his Cabinet, among them Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

Republicans steadfastly cling to the belief that there will be no indictments, the issue will blow over and the speculation will amount to nothing more than idle chatter.

"I don't think anybody's leaving," said Charles Black, a veteran GOP strategist and close Bush ally.

But one White House official, noting that Bush's senior staff is tired of the long hours and increasing pressure, has told colleagues it might be best if everyone closest to the president resign and clear the way for new blood and fresh perspectives.

White House chief of staff Andrew Card has been on the job since January 2001, a mark of longevity for Bush compared with Presidents Reagan and Clinton, who each had four chiefs of staff through two terms. Even Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, had three chiefs of staff in four years as president.

If the unthinkable happens, Republicans know where Bush will look.

Rove has been labeled "Bush's brain" by administration foes and the "architect" of Bush's rise to power by the president's backers. He is considered a White House adviser without peer. Conservative activist Grover Norquist finds it hard to imagine one person handling Rove's job.

"Karl is sufficiently sui generis (unique), it would take two or three different people to replace him," Norquist said.

Among the possible replacements are Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee; current RNC chief Mehlman, or Hughes, a former White House political adviser to Bush now working in the State Department.

Hughes, whose title is Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, is trying to reverse anti-American sentiment around the world.

Black said he would be surprised if Hughes left that post because Bush "believes he's put Karen in the most important job in the government." Rather, the president would likely promote from within, and White House counselor Bartlett could get the call.

Kevin Spillane, a Republican consultant in California, said Gillespie and Hughes would be the most obvious candidates.

"Hughes is unique in selling policy and has the president's trust," Spillane said. "Gillespie can juggle policy and media."

Although Rove is considered indispensable to Bush, the political landscape has changed with no presidential election for Bush on the horizon. Mehlman can handle the politics of the 2006 midterm elections and beyond, Norquist said.

As for Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff and his assistant on national security affairs, his departure would leave Cheney with the option of bringing in a trusted adviser. That could be former aide Mary Matalin or a specialist in national security, such as Eric Edelman, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

Edelman was national security assistant to Cheney from February 2001 to June 2003.

Republicans close to senior administration officials say it is unlikely Card would leave, especially if the White House is in a lurch with a Rove indictment. But if Card does exit, Bush could tap Gillespie; turn to Portman, the former Ohio congressman now serving as U.S. trade representative; choose one of his Cabinet secretaries or promote Card's deputy, Joe Hagin, or Bolten, the White House budget chief.

And what if the unthinkable happens and Cheney is indicted?

Cheney has said he is not interested in pursuing the Republican nomination for president in 2008. So Bush's choice to replace his running mate would tip the president's hand on his preference for 2008. Florida governor and first brother, Jeb Bush?

AP Political Writer Ron Fournier contributed to this report.

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