For Bush it's bad, it could have been worse

Cheney Aide Indicted


White House Indictment


WASHINGTON -- The only good news for President Bush in yesterday's indictment of an influential White House aide is that the bad news wasn't worse.

The criminal charges, including obstruction of justice, brought against Vice President Dick Cheney's staff chief, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., were the latest blows to an administration reeling under a growing weight of problems.

But the president's top aide, Karl Rove, avoided an indictment, at least for now. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald said his investigation would continue but he appeared to dampen expectations that it would produce any significant breakthroughs.

"That's an enormous relief for the White House," said Republican Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, maintaining that the charges against Libby alone turned the problem into a "lower-level scandal" rather than a full-blown situation ensnaring the most powerful member of the president's staff.

Some Republicans predicted the Libby affair would largely fade from the public's attention by the time Bush delivers his State of the Union message in January.

But one veteran party strategist said the president needs to move aggressively to rebuild his standing with the country, starting with members of his own, fractured party.

"The main thing is for the president not to get distracted. We're at war," said Ken Khachigian, a former Nixon and Reagan adviser. "From a foreign policy perspective, if he starts to look weak, he could be tested overseas, and that would be bad."

At home, Bush's popularity is unlikely to drop sharply, said opinion analysts.

That's because Bush has not been implicated personally in the CIA leak case, unlike Ronald Reagan's involvement in a secret arms-for-hostages deal or the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

"This is not Iran-contra. This isn't Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. This is very far away from the president," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster.

Another reason Bush's standing with the public is unlikely to plunge very far: The poll numbers for the way he is handling his job have already sunk to the lowest levels of his presidency.

"Bush's ratings are already down," said Andrew Kohut of the independent Pew Research Center. "If anything, it'll just reinforce negative views of the administration."

Political advantage

Democrats hope to convert those negative impressions, and what they call the Republican "culture of corruption," a major theme of the 2006 congressional elections. They sought yesterday to tie Libby and his boss, Cheney, to a wider pattern of administration secrecy and what Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, called the use of "distorted facts" and politicized intelligence to achieve Bush's goals.

Cheney and Libby "have been at the center of a number of questionable and now perhaps criminal decisions and strategies," she said, citing Cheney's links to Halliburton Co., which he formerly headed and which has been accused of vastly overcharging the government for work in Iraq.

Beyond the theme of corruption, Democrats also will attempt to connect the Libby indictment to growing public opposition to the war. Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean called Libby part of an "un-American abuse of the public trust" by White House aides.

The Libby case raises "glaring questions ... about the rationale the Bush administration used to send us to war in Iraq," Dean said in a statement.

The charges against the White House aide dealt a fresh blow to the administration's credibility and to the image of Republicans in Washington, both of which have been sagging under the unrelated ethics problems of top Republicans in Congress. Even before Fitzgerald announced the results of his two-year investigation, public trust in Bush and those around him had been eroding, according to recent polls.

Perhaps worst of all, from Bush's standpoint, the agony of waiting for the CIA leak case to reach a conclusion isn't over yet.

"We're not quite done," said Fitzgerald at a news conference, revealing that he would have another grand jury available if he wanted to bring new charges and leaving open the possibility that Rove or others remain at risk.

In the next breath, Fitzgerald seemed to play down that possibility, saying he didn't "want to add to a feverish pitch" in Washington.

"It's very, very routine that you keep a grand jury available for what you might need," he said.

Libby, often described as "Cheney's Cheney," is virtually unknown to the public, but his job as a vice-presidential aide belied his influence. A powerful figure inside the administration, Libby was also an assistant to Bush and had been instrumental in decisions on everything from going to war in Iraq to the recent selection of a new Federal Reserve Board chairman.

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