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Staff Changes in White House May Indicate Change in Direction

April 19, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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SCOTT MCCLELLAN, Former White House Press Secretary: I’m here to announce that I will be resigning as White House press secretary.

JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: With those simple words, Scott McClellan, after almost three years as the chief spokesman, added his name to the growing list of high-profile changes at the White House.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I have given it my all, sir, and I’ve given you my all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That “all” came at a cost. McClellan had an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the White House press corps in recent months, as hot-button issues put him in the hot seat, from the administration’s handling of Katrina, to the CIA leaks investigation, the conduct of the war in Iraq, the Dubai ports deal, and the hunting accident involving Vice President Cheney.

JOURNALIST: At that point, what was he informed? Was he informed that the vice president had accidentally shot somebody?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: We didn’t know who was involved, but then there was additional information that was coming in later in the night or later in the day and on into the morning.

JOURNALIST: … the vice president and find out that he was the shooter. How is that possible?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, Kelly, I can only tell you what the facts are.

JOURNALIST: It doesn’t make any sense, though.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The other big change announced at the White House today was that Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is giving up his policy role. Rove, who was put in charge of most White House policy coordination just over a year ago, will retain his deputy chief of staff title, along with his newly, more limited role as senior adviser and chief policy aide to the president.

Rove, who remains in the spotlight for his role in the CIA leaks case, was the genesis of a good deal of the contentious questioning for Scott McClellan. In fact, McClellan was the first White House official who said that, if any people from the administration were involved in the leaking of the name of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame, they would be fired.

Here’s what he said in the fall of 2003.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: And I made it very clear back there in July, too, that there was no information, beyond the media reports with anonymous sources, to suggest any White House involvement.

JOURNALIST: There’s a legal issue; there’s an ethical issue, too. Going after a man’s wife is unethical.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Let me make it very clear. As I said previously, he was not involved, and that that allegation is not true, in terms of leaking classified information, nor would he condone it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By last July, McClellan was facing questions about Rove and about his own credibility on an almost daily basis…

DAVID GREGORY, NBC White House Correspondent: Scott, can I ask you this? Did Karl Rove commit a crime?

JUDY WOODRUFF: …and he developed an automatic response.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Again, David, this is a question relating to an ongoing investigation.

DAVID GREGORY: Scott, I mean, this is ridiculous, the notion that you’re going to stand before us after having commented with that level of detail and tell people watching this that somehow you’ve decided not to talk? You’ve got a public record out there. Do you stand by your remarks from that podium or not?

JUDY WOODRUFF: As for Rove, he will now refocus his sights on the fall midterm elections from his perch at the White House. He gave a preview of his approach with a broadside attack on Democrats during an appearance at a Republican National Committee meeting this winter in Washington.

KARL ROVE, Deputy White House Chief of Staff: The United States faces a ruthless enemy, and we need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment America finds itself in. President Bush and the Republican Party do; unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As Rove settles back into his old role, Joel Kaplan will take over as deputy chief of staff for policy, working once again with his old boss from the Office of Management and Budget, Joshua Bolten, the newly named White House chief of staff. No replacement for McClellan has been formally announced.

Judy Woodruff: For more on the changes at the White House, we turn to Elisabeth Bumiller, White House correspondent for the New York Times.

Former Republican Congressman Vin Weber of Minnesota. He’s now a lobbyist and an adviser to the White House.

And David Gergen, who served as an adviser to five presidents. He’s now a professor at Harvard University’s School of Government and director of its Center for Public Leadership.

Thank you all for being here.

Elisabeth, to you first. Whose idea were these changes? Was it the president? Was it Karl Rove? Was it Josh Bolten?

ELISABETH BUMILLER, White House Correspondent, New York Times: I think you have to start with the president. People forget that this is a president who is very directly involved in decisions like this.

Obviously, Josh Bolten spoke to the president about these changes possibly before he took the job. And it was also, you know, generally agreed, even within the White House, that there had to be some changes, you know, in the press operation and also, you know, in the policy-making, because it had such trouble with that ever since the president’s re-election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vin Weber, who do you think is behind all this?

FORMER REP. VIN WEBER (R), Minnesota: Well, I think Elisabeth is largely right. I do think that the main message today is that we are going to have a stronger chief of staff, both structurally and personally, than we’ve had for the last several years of this White House.

I think that Josh Bolten is probably more responsible for the changes today maybe than Elisabeth’s comments indicated. He surely had from the president a broad mandate to make just about any changes he wanted as a condition of becoming chief of staff. I think it’s a good thing the president gave him that mandate, and I think it’s a good thing he’s exercising it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why the changes?

VIN WEBER: Well, I think that, when this team came in, in 2001, it was kind of a unique set of circumstances. You had a chief of staff, Andy Card, who is a good man and a close friend of the Bush families. But you had a whole bunch of very strong people in the administration with direct lines of access to the president: Vice President Cheney, and Condi Rice, and Karen Hughes, and Karl Rove.

And a traditional structure, such as we’ve seen in past White Houses, didn’t really emerge. You had a bunch of competing centers. It seems to me like the president has already decided he is going to have a more conventional structure, a stronger chief of staff, and that’s what we’re seeing emerge now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elisabeth, is that what you’re hearing?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Absolutely. Josh Bolten is very focused on policy. Andy Card, the recently departed chief of staff, was much more of an administrative type of person. And so, obviously, Josh Bolten wants his person next to him developing policy, and that is Joel Kaplan, who worked with him at the Office of Management and Budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Gergen, is all of this going to make a big difference?

DAVID GERGEN, Former Presidential Adviser: What they’ve done so far, I think, will bring some differences that will be important. One is to go to Vin Weber’s point. I think they are going to be more effective at execution. They’ll be a little quicker off the mark.

And, you know, they’ve made a number of mistakes, by their own admission, when they’ve been too slow off the mark, as in Katrina and as in responding to the vice president’s accidental shooting and the like. So, on that front, I think they’re likely to be more effective.

I think they’re also likely to be more effective in working with Congress. They’ve moved two or three different people now into place who have excellent relations. And these are strong people, not only Josh Bolten but Rob Portman, are very strong people.

Where I don’t think it’s going to make a difference — because a lot of this emphasis so far is on changing the salesmanship — where I don’t think it’s going to make a lot of difference is in policy and in the forms of governance.

On that, the president has very clearly made it obvious in refusing to change Don Rumsfeld, and obviously in keeping Dick Cheney in a very powerful role, that on main policy lines, especially in Iraq, he’s going to continue to go the way he has in the past. He’s going to continue to govern in much the same way.

So I think we’re going to continue to see, for example, a secretive administration, but he’s going to have some new faces. I think, in some ways, it’s old wine in new bottles.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vin Weber, do you buy all that? I mean, do you think it doesn’t make much difference?

VIN WEBER: Well, it makes some difference. I agree with David. The fundamental policy direction of this administration would only change if the president changes his mind about policy, and there’s no evidence that he’s done that. As a Republican, I don’t want him to do that.

I think execution will change somewhat. I think policy will get a higher priority within the White House staff, because we now have a White House chief of staff who himself came out of a policy background, and he’s elevated his deputy at OMB to become deputy chief of staff for policy. So that whole area is going to receive additional emphasis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But to say that Karl Rove is no longer involved in policy, I mean, is that really going to happen? Can you compartmentalize somebody as important as Karl Rove?

VIN WEBER: I think these lines — David Gergen was in the White House. He could speak to this. I think these lines of delineation will never be quite as strong and sharp as they are today. You know, we’re all talking about it today when it’s announced.

As time goes on, those lines blur a little bit. I think that Karl Rove remains an enormously trusted adviser to the president and, as well, as an adviser and friend of Josh Bolten’s. And I think he’s going to find his way into policy as it’s appropriate.

But, remember, the Republican Party does, indeed, face a huge challenge going into the ’06 elections, and they want Karl Rove to not be in charge of micro-policy; they want him to be in charge of macro-politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning the elections.

Elisabeth, if I remember correctly, it was Karl Rove who brought Josh Bolten into the Bush team in the first place. Does this in any way signify any tension between the two of them?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, we will see. We shall see. There was a lot of talk today about how well they work together, as you always hear in these situations. And I know that the two of them sat down together and sorted this out ahead of time, obviously.

Karl is being cast in this way of being very happy about this, even though it is seen by some Republicans in Washington as certainly as a diminishment of his role. But I think it is true that right now Republicans are facing such difficult prospects in the midterms, and they’re viewing Karl as their potential savior here, to see if they can pull this out one more time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Gergen, what does it mean to you that Karl Rove is going to focus exclusively on politics now? I mean, are we going to see some different argument from what we heard at that Republican committee meeting back in January?

DAVID GERGEN: Judy, what it means to me is that what’s behind all of these changes, not the president, what’s behind these changes are bad poll numbers. Bad poll numbers have reached the Republicans. They’re scared about the elections. They have pushed the White House for change.

The president, I think, somewhat reluctantly is starting to change some of his players. He doesn’t want to change direction. And I don’t think it means a whit of difference, in terms of real policy influence in the White House.

Karl Rove is going to be at the table when the decisions are made. He, as Vin will tell you and Elisabeth will tell you, he has a very fine grasp of policy issues. And so he’ll be a heavyweight on policy issues.

But what Republicans want to do is they want to save the party in this election, and they want to get back to what Karl’s original enterprise was, which was to build a durable Republican majority as one of the great legacies of the Bush administration.

That prospect, that legacy is obviously very much in doubt now, and they want to get him back to what he’s terrific at, and that is winning elections. So I think the Karl Rove stuff is the least important, perhaps, of the changes.

And I just would like to add one other point: I may be wrong about this, but my sense is what they’re still lacking is a domestic policy heavyweight for the formulation of policy. I see Josh Bolten’s role and now Mr. Kaplan’s role coming in with him is as coordinators of policy, but not the person, not the kind of people who actually develop new policy, to bring fresh policy.

So the question to me is: Are there more changes coming? Will they bring a heavyweight into the White House into, say, a domestic policy counselor role? And will he bring in a new treasury secretary, someone like Hank Paulson from Goldman Sachs, who really will bring freshness to the policy side. And we don’t know the answer to that yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Vin Weber, you were saying a minute ago you’re not sure they want new policy.

VIN WEBER: Well, I think that — I don’t want new policy. I think we want the policy this president has been pursuing to be pursued more effectively, in some cases, but we’re growing the economy strongly with the macroeconomic policies of this administration.

We surely have a huge challenge in Iraq, but I am not among those that think that we’re going to succeed there by fundamentally changing that policy at all. I would like to see some things done better than they’ve been done in the past, like the faith-based initiatives that were the cornerstone of the president’s compassionate conservatism.

But, in terms of fundamentally changing policy, no, I don’t think most Republicans want to see that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, when we’re told that Karl Rove is going to focus like a laser on these elections, what argument is he going to make that we haven’t heard?

VIN WEBER: What we really need, in my view, is to bring the party and its leadership together a lot more as we go into this election cycle. There’s only so much, in my view, by the way that the White House can do.

A lot of what has to happen has to happen at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Republican congressional leadership has been at odds for a long time and at sea for quite a while, and they need to come together too. But Karl is the right person, in my judgment, to sort of make all that happen, if that’s the role he wants to play.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elisabeth Bumiller, we’d left out Scott McClellan through most of this discussion. How much difference does it make in this era who the press secretary is?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, that’s a good question, asked by a former White House reporter like yourself, obviously. I don’t think it makes that much difference.

They have the kind of press secretaries they want in this White House, which are people who stand up, and deliver the message of the day, and don’t get too far off that message at all.

And I don’t see — I’ll be very surprised to see that there’s any kind of significant change in that policy. There’s been a lot of talk about Tony Snow, a FOX News commentator, coming in or Victoria Clarke, former spokeswoman for Donald Rumsfeld.

But, you know, here again — people find this hard to believe — the president sets the press policy. And he gets the press secretaries he wants. And right now, there’s no indication he wants anything that different from what he had with Ari Fleischer before Scott, and now Scott McClellan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Gergen, 30 seconds, you’ve overseen the press operation, the communications operation of a White House. Do you buy what Elisabeth is saying?

DAVID GERGEN: Absolutely. Scott McClellan was doing his master’s bidding. He did it as well as he could, under the circumstances. The next person is going to have a short honeymoon, but unless the president really wants to change the way the press is treated, the next person is going to have the same problems down the road, because Scott McClellan was taking orders from the top about how to handle that job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Gergen, and Vin Weber, and Elisabeth Bumiller, thank you, all three.

VIN WEBER: Thank you.