WASHINGTON - Concerned about the appearance of disarray and feuding within his administration as well as growing resistance to his policies in Iraq, President Bush - living up to his recent declaration that he's in charge - told his top officials to "stop the leaks" to the media, or else.
News of Bush's order leaked almost immediately.
Bush told his senior aides on Tuesday that he "didn't want to see any stories" quoting unnamed administration officials in the media anymore, and if he did, there would be consequences, a senior administration official who asked that his name not be used told Knight Ridder.
What's most revealing is the extent of frustration taking hold.
It's really reminiscent of Johnson and Vietnam. Members of the Senate … and the media were giving him grief. It sounds like Bush is falling into that pattern. He's blaming the media, much like Johnson did.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek
An escalating turf war involving Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell has generated an unusually bountiful crop of leaks in recent months, and one result is a criminal investigation of anonymous officials in the White House who are alleged to have leaked the name of a Central Intelligence Agency covert officer to reporters.
The infighting, backstabbing and maneuvering on major foreign policy issues such as North Korea, Syria, Iran and postwar Iraq have escalated to a level that veterans of government haven't seen in years. At one point, the senior official said, Bush himself asked how bad it was.
"This isn't as bad as (George) Shultz vs. (Caspar) Weinberger, is it?" he asked, referring to a legendary Reagan administration rivalry between the heads, respectively, of the State and Defense departments. One top official nodded in reply and said it was "way worse."
The infighting has strained Bush's patience.
On Monday, reacting to reports of internal conflict among his top advisers, the president told one regional broadcaster: "The person who's in charge is me."
Bush's attempt to assert himself extends beyond the executive branch of the government. Late Tuesday, in a brief, brusque arm-twisting session with nine senators, the president made it clear that he wasn't there to answer questions or debate the merits of his $87 billion Iraq and Afghanistan aid package. He demanded that the aid to Iraq should be in the form of grants, not loans, as some of the senators have urged.
Present at the session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House were Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine; Saxby Chambliss of Georgia; Sam Brownback of Kansas; Lindsay Graham of South Carolina; Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John McCain of Arizona. Democrats included Maria Cantwell of Washington and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
At one point, as he discussed the question of providing some of the money as a loan, Bush slammed his hand down on the table and said: "This is bad policy." When Collins tried to ask a question, the president replied: "I'm not here to debate it."
One participant told Knight Ridder that some of the senators, particularly those who've never been on the "wrong" side of an issue with Bush, were "surprised by his directness." It was very clear that the president was not there to engage in any give and take, the participant said.
Nevertheless, Bush failed to sway any of the pro-loan senators, in sharp contrast to the president's lobbying of House members last week. One key House member who had pushed a loan plan, Zack Wamp, a Republican from Tennessee, backed away from that idea after meeting with Bush. "If his eyes had been lasers, mine would have burned out," Wamp commented at the time.
"What's most revealing is the extent of frustration taking hold," said historian Robert Dallek of Boston University, the author of acclaimed biographies of Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. "It's really reminiscent of Johnson and Vietnam. Members of the Senate … and the media were giving him grief. It sounds like Bush is falling into that pattern. He's blaming the media, much like Johnson did."
On Wednesday, Bush sent Vice President Dick Cheney and Powell to the Capitol to attend a Republican senatorial lunch, but they made no apparent converts. After the lunch, a dozen GOP senators were still discussing how the reconstruction money could be turned into a loan or partial loan.
Snowe said of Powell and Cheney, "They're very strong in their beliefs. And the president has come out strongly. Obviously we have a fundamental difference on the issue."
Brownback said, "I think we ought to have the Iraqis have some skin in the game with some loans. I don't know if they're going to be able to repay it. But if it's all a grant we know it won't get repaid."
Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent William Douglas contributed to this report.
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder