With one top official facing jail time and another still under investigation, the White House is nearing a perfect storm of political events that threatens President Bush's agenda.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (search), the vice president's chief of staff, resigned on Friday after he was indicted by a special prosecutor on five counts in the investigation of the leak of a CIA officer's identity. While not widely known by the public, Libby was a key figure in the administration and integral to developing the case for the invasion of Iraq.
After departing the White House on crutches, the former adviser to the president said he is "confident that at the end of this process I will be completely and totally exonerated."
The probe of whether Libby and other top officials knowingly blew Valerie Plame's (search) identity in an effort to discredit her husband, a former State Department official turned war critic, had the unintended effect of reviving the debate over the Iraq war. Compounded by an increasing death toll for U.S. soldiers there — more than 2,000 as of last week — as well as high energy prices and the withdrawal of his Supreme Court nominee, Bush's political woes seem to be mounting.
The charges of false statements, perjury and obstruction of justice have yet to be proven, but the indictment itself forced immediate responses both within and from the White House on Friday.
Vice President Dick Cheney (search) said he accepted his top aide's decision "with deep regret."
"In our system of government, an accused person is presumed innocent until a contrary finding is made by a jury after an opportunity to answer the charges and a full airing of the facts. Mr. Libby is entitled to that opportunity," Cheney said, adding that he would not comment on the charges or the ongoing probe.
Later on Friday, Bush told reporters he was "saddened" by the development, but also declined to comment on his staffers' roles in the case.
Meanwhile, a memo sent from Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card to White House staff suggests the indictment may have shaken confidence and morale inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
"We have always placed the people's business ahead of all else. This is our duty as public servants, and the American people deserve no less," Card wrote. "Our work here at the White House is of critical importance, and the president expects everyone to work hard to advance the optimistic agenda he has laid out to ensure peace and prosperity for future generations."
Late Friday, White House aides told reporters that the White House counsel's office, run by former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers (search), issued a memo to the entire staff making clear that the probe by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is an ongoing legal matter and staff should not discuss it except as directed by the counsel's office.
White House staff were also warned not to have any discussion about the probe with Libby, who as a result of leaving his job has turned in his White House pass and had his security clearance revoked.
Making Political Hay
While senior White House officials have repeatedly told staff and the public that the president is focused on the work of the nation, the Libby indictment appears to have presented Democrats a golden opportunity to dismantle Bush's Iraq war justifications, question other administration policies and bring a cloud of suspicion over the vice president.
"I think what it shows is that there is a White House that has run out of steam, whether it's ethical issues or Katrina or Iraq or the budget deficit, high gas prices," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told CBS on Sunday. "They are at a real turning point. Thus far, they've admitted no mistakes at all. And That's not a good sign or a good attitude."
Cheney is said to be the source for Libby's coming to know that Plame worked at the CIA. Libby allegedly told the grand jury he learned the name from reporters, a claim Fitzgerald alleges is a fabrication.
"Obviously, the involvement of the vice president raises profoundly disturbing questions. We need to understand in detail what role Mr. Cheney played in this despicable incident," Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking member of the House Committee on Government Reform, wrote to Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., in a letter demanding hearings on the CIA leak and efforts by the White House to justify war in Iraq.
"What did the vice president know, what were his intentions?" asked Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., on "FOX News Sunday." "Now, there's no suggestion the vice president is guilty of any crime here whatsoever. But if our standard is just criminality, then we're never going to get to the bottom of this."
One thing Bush can count on during this trying time is his supporters' willingness to emphasize any Democratic questions about the case as an attempt to make political hay.
Republicans joined the White House in stressing Libby was innocent until proven guilty, and sought to paint Democrats as too preoccupied with politics to focus on their constituents.
"While some Democrats have acted irresponsibly in regards to this matter from the beginning, the president and Republicans in Congress have and will continue to focus on the American people's priorities: strengthening the economy, winning the War on Terror, lowering energy costs and improving our schools," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
In his Friday remarks about the indictment, Bush sought to steer the conversation back to the War on Terror and the economy.
"I got a job to do and so do the people who work in the White House. We got a job to protect the American people and that's what we'll continue working hard to do. I look forward to working with Congress on policies to keep this economy moving and pretty soon I'll be naming someone to the Supreme Court," he said.
The president's weekly radio address on Saturday also discussed progress in Iraq.
"Just 30 months removed from the rule of a dictator, and nine months after they first elected their own leaders, the Iraqi people are resolving tough issues through an inclusive political process. And this process is isolating the extremists who wish to derail democracy through violence and murder," he said.
Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said redirecting focus is the best way for Bush to keep a lid on public indications of concern or worry.
"He's got to jumpstart his administration and try to put all this bad news behind him. He has to create the impression he's in control -- admit his mistakes, get this behind him," Buchanan said. "His reputation for stubbornness and dogmatism is going to be tested, but we're seeing evidence he's going to be flexible to stay viable politically."
Still, Libby's indictment could very well drive Bush's low public opinion ratings down even further. Bush has experienced for the first time in his presidency coordinated attacks from his base of religious conservatives. Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court inflamed the right so much so that those on the left who also had issues with her were content to sit back and watch.
While Miers' withdrawal on Thursday enabled the president to win back his conservative base, the impression the embarrassing episode made on the public may be tough to erase.
"If you think things are going fine and dandy at the White House, you're in another world," said National Public Radio national correspondent Juan Williams, a FOX News contributor.
On the other hand, the White House's worst-case scenario — indictments for both Libby and Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove — did not materialize. The prospect of a high-level official being escorted out of the White House in handcuffs had Bush critics practically giddy with anticipation; some even referred to Fitzgerald's pending announcement as "Fitzmas."
"Had Rove been indicted, this would have been a 100-megaton explosion for the White House. But the fact that he escaped indictment and the only person indicted was Libby, who the public doesn't know much about, makes this a difficult but containable political problem," said Wayne Slater, Dallas Morning News senior political reporter and co-author of "Bush's Brain."
But Rove remains under investigation and the potential for other indictments is still on the table.
"Everything we know about [Fitzgerald] suggests he's a serious, professional prosecutor. He would have let Karl Rove go if he didn't have the goods on him," said New York Law School professor Cameron Stracher, a classmate of Fitzgerald's at both Amherst and Harvard.
Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to transform lost support for Bush and the Republican Party into gains for them.
"The fight for the soul of the party has not been concluded yet. The centrist Democrats are still alive, they want fiscal prudence, no big social spending programs. The Howard Dean wing of the Democratic Party has said you don't win by running as a paler version of the Republican mandate. Those two factions have not come to terms," Buchanan said.
The true evidence of the effect of Bush's problems will be seen in the upcoming off-year and midterm elections. The effort is already being made to use links to Bush for political advantage. Democratic Sen. John Corzine, the New Jersey gubernatorial candidate, is employing guilt-by-association imagery using Bush in his ads. In Virginia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore missed a chance to be seen with Bush on Friday, the same day the indictment came down.
Buchanan predicted the Libby indictment would be used as a weapon in upcoming Democratic campaigns.
"Today's events put him in a position of having to defend the ethical status of [the Bush] administration, to the extent that he is implicated in the activities of Rove and Libby," Buchanan said. "It raises questions [about] the man who said he would bring an ethical tone back to Washington."