WASHINGTON – President Bush on Tuesday backed House Speaker Dennis Hastert's investigation into a former lawmaker's sexually-explicit communications with a teenage male page.
Using the words "disgusted," "disappointed" and "dismayed" to describe his reaction to reports that former Rep. Mark Foley exchanged inappropriate e-mails with a congressional page, Bush stood by the speaker as he launches a probe of the matter.
"I know Denny Hastert. I meet with him a lot. He is a father, teacher, coach; he cares about the children of this country. I know that he wants all the facts to come out," Bush said. "I'm confident he will provide whatever leadership he can to law enforcement in this investigation ... This investigation should be thorough and any violation of the law should be prosecuted."
The president's support came after a newspaper editorial board and a leading conservative critic called on Hastert to resign from his leadership post over his handling of the Foley matter.
Hastert's spokesman said Tuesday the speaker is going nowhere.
"The speaker has and will lead the Republican conference to another majority in the 110th Congress," Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said.
Hastert and GOP leaders say they were first made aware of Foley's exchanges with a congressional page a year ago. But Hastert says nothing he saw compared to the lurid nature in a series of instant messages, or IMs, between Foley and another congressional page in 2003 that were just revealed in the media this week.
In Tuesday editions, The Washington Times called Hastert's actions inept and urged the speaker to call it quits.
"House Speaker Dennis Hastert must do the only right thing, and resign his speakership at once. Either he was grossly negligent for not taking the red flags fully into account and ordering a swift investigation, for not even remembering the order of events leading up to last week's revelations — or he deliberately looked the other way in hopes that a brewing scandal would simply blow away," reads an editorial appearing in Tuesday's paper.
Added Richard Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com: "Anyone who covers up such behavior should have the full wrath of the authorities and of the public fall upon them as they are the enablers who made it possible.
"This isn't an isolated situation. It is only the most recent example of Republican House leaders doing whatever it takes to hold onto power. If it means spending billions of taxpayers' dollars on questionable projects, they'll do it. If it means covering up the most despicable actions of a colleague, they'll do it," Viguerie said in a statement.
On the other hand, the Miami Herald, whose readership extends to Foley's 16th Congressional District in Florida, said "Democratic charges of a 'cover up' of Mr. Foley's activities by the Republican House leadership seem not only premature but crassly political."
The paper's editors wrote that they had heard about the seemingly innocuous e-mails in 2005, but didn't act on them because they didn't seem to be worthy of a news story.
"But the discovery of other, more explicit, messages and confusion over who knew what and when raise questions that require answers — preferably, under oath and soon. ... Speaker Hastert has initiated a review of the procedures on protecting the pages on Capitol Hill. That's a start, but for their sake, he should heed the advice of Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., and call for a full investigation of this entire, appalling incident," the editors wrote.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, speaking to a Cincinnati radio station on Tuesday morning, said that calls for Hastert's resignation are nothing more than "political maneuvering." Boehner added that it's also suspicious that the e-mails weren't released until six weeks before the midterm election.
In a letter to The Washington Times, Boehner wrote that he disagreed with the editorial board's conclusions.
"One thing is certain: no one in the leadership, including Speaker Hastert, had any knowledge of the warped and sexually explicit instant messages that were revealed by ABC News last Friday. Had Speaker Hastert or anyone else in our leadership known about Mr. Foley's despicable conduct, I'm confident the speaker would have moved to expel Mr. Foley immediately and turn him over to the appropriate authorities," Boehner wrote.
"We also need to know why these messages surfaced only last week, on the final day of legislative business before the November elections. If this evidence was withheld for political purposes, one can only speculate as to how many additional children may have been endangered before this information was finally revealed," he wrote.
Some Republican aides also told FOX News they are upset with The Washington Times editorial board, suggesting hypocrisy on its part because the paper's own human resources director was recently arrested for Internet solicitation of a minor and the managing editor has not been asked to step down in the wake of that scandal.
"The Washington Times editorial doesn’t make a great deal of sense so I have to question their motives here. The speaker was clear that, like Foley’s newspaper, they were only aware of those non-explicit e-mails asking how the one kid was after Katrina, and not the very disgusting other e-mails," said one Republican aide. "The Times editorial doesn’t differentiate between the two. ... I’m not sure what the Times’ motivation was but did find it suspicious that they saw fit to leak it to (cybergossip Matt) Drudge last night."
For his part, Hastert said he thought Democrats "put this thing forward to try and block us from telling the story" of Republican accomplishments this term.
"The story is that we have protected this country against terrorism. The story is that we have created a good economy in this country. And the story is that we have a plan for energy independence, which we have to do as well," Hastert told Rush Limbaugh on his radio show.
Hastert Was Unable to Find the There There
Boehner told the Cincinnati radio station that to the best of his knowledge, he thought the matter had been resolved when it first came to the speaker's attention. Boehner said someone knew about Foley's e-mail correspondence with one page for the past two or three years.
"I believe I talked to the speaker and he told me it had been taken care of," Boehner told WLW radio. "And my position is, it's in his corner, it's his responsibility. The clerk of the House who runs the page program, the page board — all report to the speaker. And I believe it had been dealt with."
According to Hastert, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who heads the page board, and is the House clerk, Foley had been confronted in the fall of 2005 about his communications with one male page, and told to "immediately cease any communication" with him and any other pages.
"We went to Foley, confronted him, he said he wouldn't do it anymore, sorry he was trying to talk to the kid, he liked the kid, nice kid, and he wouldn't do it anymore. We told him not to do it anymore there or to anybody period," Hastert told Limbaugh.
Hastert told reporters on Monday that his aides and Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., heeded the wishes of the parents of the former House page, who wanted such questionable e-mails to stop but didn't want the matter pursued. The e-mail had not been shown to Hastert's staff or Shimkus, the speaker said.
Hastert said he does not recall being told last spring by Rep. Tom Reynolds, the House GOP campaign chairman, about the questionable e-mail, but he doesn't dispute Reynolds' account.
"I don't think I went wrong at all," Reynolds said at a Monday evening news conference in his western New York district, surrounding himself with about 30 children and about as many parents. "I don't know what else I could have done."
Boehner said he thought it was odd that the e-mails were not released sooner, knowing that the pages were in jeopardy. He noted that his daughter had been a Senate page several years ago, and said of Foley: "If I'd known anything about the context of all this when it occurred, I'd have drug him out of there by his shirt sleeves."
Shimkus and Hastert on Monday announced new measures to be implemented to keep pages safe, including a toll-free hotline for pages, former pages and families to report any incidents confidentially. Bonjean said Tuesday that Hastert is diligently following the matter.
"Mark Foley has resigned his seat in dishonor and the criminal investigation of this matter will continue. The speaker is working everyday on ensuring the House is a safe, productive environment for members, staff and all those who are employed by the institution," he said.
ABC News reported that its initial account has prompted another former page to come forward with a graphic e-mail.
The FBI announced on Sunday it was opening a preliminary investigation into the matter. One law enforcement official said the agency had received some Foley-related e-mail correspondence in July, but concluded that no federal law had been violated. The official would not say how many e-mails the FBI initially received or whether they came from multiple sources.
"We'll ask the state of Florida to come forward and hold an investigation as well," Hastert told Limbaugh, saying that's where Foley's e-mails apparently originated.
As the questions fly about Foley's legal prospects, government lawyers and investigators are considering whether a probe will yield any criminal proceedings against Foley.
Investigators need solid probable cause to draft a search warrant and conduct a raid to confiscate hard drives and other computer equipment. The instant messages between Foley and one male page are being reviewed for any evidence of criminality, attorneys say.
In the IMs published in the press and attributed to Foley, he told the page he wanted to see him, but made no effort to press the issue. In the exchange, even the page alluded that Foley was fishing for promises of some sort of illicit activity, but the page didn't take the bait and apparently Foley didn't press the issue.
Telling the page he wanted to see him may fall just short of enticement, say attorneys, and that is one of the things the FBI's preliminary investigation is trying to determine. Having an intimate familiarity with the laws governing this sort of communication as co-chairman of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, Foley may have known where the legal line was not to be crossed.
If more obvious communications surface in which Foley clearly pressures a young person for sex, then the FBI has a more solid case, the attorneys say.
Foley attorney David Roth told a news conference in West Palm Beach. Fla., on Monday that Foley had checked into an alcohol rehabilitation clinic, and he was "absolutely, positively not a pedophile" nor ever had inappropriate sexual contact with a minor.
FOX News' Major Garrett, Kelly Wright, Trish Turner and Ian McCaleb and The Associated Press contributed to this report.