`She saluted ... fell on her sword'

Miers' withdrawal comes amid realization nomination beyond rescue

Supreme Court Nomination

October 28, 2005|By MAURA REYNOLDS | MAURA REYNOLDS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday, shortly before midnight, weary White House aides traipsed up to Capitol Hill with boxes of documents sought by senators considering the nomination of White House counsel Harriet E. Miers as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. At 7:30 a.m. yesterday, they were busy conferring with Senate staffers on the logistics of distributing the papers.

They were apparently unaware that 11 hours earlier, Miers had pulled the plug on her nomination.

Around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, from her office in the West Wing, Miers telephoned President Bush in the White House living quarters, White House officials said. Bush was "deeply disappointed," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

McClellan and others in the White House insisted that the decision had been Miers' alone. But interviews with White House officials, senators and congressional staff indicated her action was the culmination of a long day in which information and opinion moving between the White House and Congress coalesced into a sense that the nomination -- troubled from the start -- could not be rescued.

Most people interviewed for this report declined to speak for attribution -- in part out of respect for Miers, saying they did not want to suggest that she had been pushed either by the White House or by congressional leaders to withdraw.

But a source close to the White House said that when Miers learned that her nomination was not being received favorably by senators, she offered to step aside.

"Harriet, being a good soldier, knows the president would never ask her on his own to withdraw," the source said. "So she saluted and fell on her sword."

Difficulty with GOP

On Wednesday morning, congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, went to the White House and met with Bush before he was to sign a gun liability bill. As they talked, Frist raised the issue of Miers' nomination, telling the president that it was running into difficulty with Republicans.

Shortly thereafter, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie headed to Capitol Hill, meeting with, among others, Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican and a key member of the Judiciary Committee, which was considering the nomination. At a previously scheduled lunch, Gillespie was joined by Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, another Judiciary Committee member and Miers' chief Senate champion, and two advisers to the White House on judicial matters -- Leonard Leo, on leave from his position as executive vice president of the Federalist Society, and former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, the liaison between Miers and the Senate.

When Cornyn was called to the Senate floor to vote, the others followed, resuming their discussion in Vice President Dick Cheney's office in the Capitol. An aide to Cornyn said the three men were working to rally support for Miers.

After the meeting, Coats spent an hour in the Washington office of Concerned Women for America, one of the nation's largest Christian advocacy organizations. The organization boasts 600,000 members and had rallied them in the 2004 and 2000 elections on the president's behalf.

Before he arrived, the group's senior staff had concluded over lunch that they had more than enough information to formally oppose her nomination. All they needed was permission from the group's founder, evangelical author Beverly LaHaye, who was on a plane to Palm Springs, Calif.

When LaHaye arrived home, she was told that the CWA staff was recommending that the group oppose Miers, and she phoned back to give her approval.

At the same time, Coats was urging CWA's general counsel, Jan LaRue, to hold back on any statement until after Miers' confirmation hearings, scheduled to begin Nov. 7. She was called out of the room to get LaHaye's message.

"I went back in and told him and told him I didn't want him to be blindsided," LaRue recounted. "He was obviously disappointed that we weren't able to wait until the hearing."

Two factors appeared to lead Miers and her advisers to accept that she was unlikely to retain enough support for confirmation: her lackluster performance in individual meetings with senators and the reluctance of the White House to release documents that could counter that performance by shedding light on her approach to legal issues.

`You flunked'

In the meetings, she would say little, and what she did say largely failed to impress the senators. A conservative activist described a conversation with a chief of staff for a senator who met with Miers this week: "At the end of the meeting she asked the senator: `How did I do?' He said: `You flunked.'"

As for the papers, White House officials said neither Miers nor the administration was prepared to release confidential White House documents.

In the end, the documents provided Miers and her boss a ready explanation for her withdrawal.

"It is clear that senators would not be satisfied until they gained access to internal documents concerning advice provided during her tenure at the White House -- disclosures that would undermine a president's ability to receive candid counsel," Bush said.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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