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2477How Rove Directed Federal Assets for GOP Gains

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  • Greg Cannon
    Aug 19, 2007
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      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/18/AR2007081801182_pf.html

      How Rove Directed Federal Assets for GOP Gains
      Bush Adviser's Effort to Promote the President and His
      Allies Was Unprecedented in Its Reach

      By John Solomon, Alec MacGillis and Sarah Cohen
      Washington Post Staff Writers
      Sunday, August 19, 2007; A01

      Thirteen months before President Bush was reelected,
      chief strategist Karl Rove summoned political
      appointees from around the government to the Old
      Executive Office Building. The subject of the Oct. 1,
      2003, meeting was "asset deployment," and the message
      was clear:

      The staging of official announcements, high-visibility
      trips and declarations of federal grants had to be
      carefully coordinated with the White House political
      affairs office to ensure the maximum promotion of
      Bush's reelection agenda and the Republicans in
      Congress who supported him, according to documents and
      some of those involved in the effort.

      "The White House determines which members need
      visits," said an internal e-mail about the previously
      undisclosed Rove "deployment" team, "and where we need
      to be strategically placing our assets."

      Many administrations have sought to maximize their
      control of the machinery of government for political
      gain, dispatching Cabinet secretaries bearing
      government largess to battleground states in the days
      before elections. The Clinton White House routinely
      rewarded big donors with stays in the Lincoln Bedroom
      and private coffees with senior federal officials, and
      held some political briefings for top Cabinet
      officials during the 1996 election.

      But Rove, who announced last week that he is resigning
      from the White House at the end of August, pursued the
      goal far more systematically than his predecessors,
      according to interviews and documents reviewed by The
      Washington Post, enlisting political appointees at
      every level of government in a permanent campaign that
      was an integral part of his strategy to establish
      Republican electoral dominance.

      Under Rove's direction, this highly coordinated effort
      to leverage the government for political marketing
      started as soon as Bush took office in 2001 and
      continued through last year's congressional elections,
      when it played out in its most quintessential form in
      the coastal Connecticut district of Rep. Christopher
      Shays, an endangered Republican incumbent. Seven
      times, senior administration officials visited Shays's
      district in the six months before the election -- once
      for an announcement as minor as a single $23
      government weather alert radio presented to an
      elementary school. On Election Day, Shays was the only
      Republican House member in New England to survive the
      Democratic victory.

      "He didn't do these things half-baked. It was total
      commitment," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), who
      in 2002 ran the House Republicans' successful
      reelection campaign in close coordination with Rove.
      "We knew history was against us, and he helped
      coordinate all of the accoutrements of the executive
      branch to help with the campaign, within the legal
      limits."

      In the past few months, revelations about a few dozen
      political briefings that Rove's team conducted at
      federal agencies and several election-related slides
      from those briefings have touched off investigations
      into whether the White House improperly politicized
      federal workers or misused government assets to win
      elections.

      Investigators, however, said the scale of Rove's
      effort is far broader than previously revealed; they
      say that Rove's team gave more than 100 such briefings
      during the seven years of the Bush administration. The
      political sessions touched nearly all of the Cabinet
      departments and a handful of smaller agencies that
      often had major roles in providing grants, such as the
      White House office of drug policy and the State
      Department's Agency for International Development.

      The U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the House
      Government Reform and Oversight Committee are
      investigating whether any of the meetings violated the
      Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from
      using federal resources for election activities. They
      also want to know whether any Bush appointees
      pressured government for favorable actions such as
      grants to help GOP electoral chances.

      "What we are seeing is the tip of a whole effort to
      make the federal government a subsidiary of the
      Republican Party. It was all politics, all the time,"
      Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the
      oversight committee, said last week.

      The White House has repeatedly said that Rove's team
      stayed within the confines of federal law and that the
      meetings were an effort to ensure the president's
      agenda and those who supported it were fully promoted.

      But the Office of the Special Counsel, which protects
      whistleblowers, has concluded that the Hatch Act was
      violated during one such briefing, conducted for
      General Services Administration political appointees
      by J. Scott Jennings, the White House's deputy
      director of political affairs. Special Counsel Scott
      J. Bloch said he hopes his investigation of political
      briefings will have "an educational benefit and a
      deterrent effect" in reminding federal employees about
      their legal obligations. "Yes, people have their
      political parties, and that is good. But they have to
      check those affiliations at the door when you do the
      people's business," he said in an interview last week.
      'How We Can Work Together'

      An invitation to a March 12, 2001, political briefing
      for federal officials -- one of the Rove team's
      earliest -- framed the mission this way: "How we can
      work together."

      In practical terms, that meant Cabinet officials
      concentrated their official government travel on the
      media markets Rove's team chose, rolling out grant
      decisions made by agencies with red-carpet fanfare in
      GOP congressional districts, and carefully crafted
      announcements highlighting the release of federal
      money in battleground states.

      "We did that from Day One of the administration,
      strategically utilizing the president's appointees to
      sell his agenda," Drew DeBerry, the Agriculture
      Department's liaison to the White House between 2001
      and 2005, recalled in an interview last week.

      The scope of Rove's ambitions was unprecedented.

      "Karl's ability to see the chessboard and deploy all
      of the various pieces to the maximum effect is
      flat-out unrivaled," said Mark Corallo, a longtime GOP
      operative who worked with Rove as a top Justice
      Department communications official and later as a
      private consultant. "At the same time, he was always
      thoroughly aware of the limits and of the boundaries."

      To lead the charge, Rove had his "asset deployment
      team." It comprised the chief White House liaison
      official at each Cabinet agency. The team members met
      -- sometimes as often as once a month -- to coordinate
      the travel of Cabinet secretaries and senior agency
      officials, the announcement of grant money, and
      personnel and policy decisions. Occasionally, the
      attendees got updates on election strategies.

      White House officials say Rove had two basic rules:
      the first was to avoid meddling with grant and
      contract decisions made by career government
      employees; the second was to make sure they complied
      with the Hatch Act. "What was surprising was how
      adamant Karl and his whole team was that we involve
      the lawyers in our discussions to make sure we didn't
      come up with things that ran afoul of the law,"
      DeBerry said. In March 2002, then-White House lawyer
      Brett Kavanaugh gave such a briefing on the "do's and
      don'ts regarding your participation in politically
      related activities," according to the invitation.

      Most of the political briefings, officials said, were
      held at the White House or Old Executive Office
      Building for the liaisons or the agency chiefs of
      staff. But once or twice a year, Rove's team sought to
      spread the message beyond this core team. Attendees
      were presented a slide show with the latest polling
      data, election talking points and maps identifying
      competitive media markets, congressional races and
      presidential battleground states.

      The subjects for such meetings -- which involved at
      least 18 agencies -- ranged from "a political update"
      and "mid-term election trends" to "outreach" and
      "coalition activities/organization," according to
      invitations gathered by congressional investigators.

      DeBerry requested one such meeting at the Agriculture
      Department about five months before the 2004 election.

      "We would like to hold a briefing for our political
      appointees on the strategy we should focus on over the
      next several months," he wrote on June 15, 2004, to
      Barry Jackson, the White House chief of strategic
      initiatives. "The briefing you gave the Asset
      Deployment team about a year ago would be perfect."

      DeBerry's e-mail captures what administration
      officials said was the essence of Rove's approach:
      making sure that political appointees at every level
      of government pushed a uniform agenda in key media
      markets and on behalf of White House-backed
      candidates. That meant resisting the natural
      tendencies of the federal bureaucracy to cater just to
      congressional purse-string holders, officials said.

      "I feel like people need to hear the message about
      resisting the urge to travel to the districts of the
      key committee chairmen and members for the sake of
      building relationships . . . that the White House
      determines which members need visits and where we need
      to be strategically placing our assets," DeBerry
      wrote.

      Some briefings targeted political appointees because
      of their race or ethnicity. On Aug. 11, 2006, for
      instance, Hispanic political appointees were summoned
      to a meeting with Rove's team to discuss the
      administration's accomplishments for Hispanic
      Americans.

      Even agencies traditionally considered to be above the
      elections fray sent representatives to such briefings.
      A White House-arranged meeting that year for Justice
      Department appointees at the Old Executive Office
      Building included "a presentation about what the
      Department of Justice is doing for Hispanic American
      citizens," the department recently told Waxman's
      committee.

      During the Clinton administration, White House
      officials made their own attempt to harness the
      federal bureaucracy's grant announcements and travel,
      but they were far less systematic. The White House
      political office held two or three meetings in the 18
      months before the 1996 election with each Cabinet
      secretary and one or two top aides, deeming some
      agencies such as Justice and State as off limits to
      politics, former Clinton officials said.

      "It was not a full-scale agency briefing. There were
      no targets; we were not calling them in and giving
      them lists of who to take care of and punish," said
      Douglas Sosnik, White House political director in 1995
      and 1996. "It was an overview of where we were headed
      with the campaign."
      Helping Endangered Republicans

      Politically embattled Republicans such as Shays were
      frequent beneficiaries.

      Between April 2006 and Election Day, Shays was able to
      announce at least 25 new federal grants or projects
      totaling more than $46 million, including a new
      veterans medical facility and a long-awaited
      installment of federal money for ferry service,
      according to a Post analysis of his news releases.
      Seven different Bush administration officials,
      including two Cabinet secretaries and the chief of the
      highway administration, visited his district during
      that time.

      In contrast, Shays announced just $39 million in
      grants and got just one visit by a federal official in
      the prior 15 months, the analysis shows.

      No federal generosity was too small to tout. A top
      official of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
      Administration was on hand with Shays when the NOAA
      awarded a single severe-weather alert radio, valued at
      $23, to an elementary school in Norwalk, Conn., two
      months before Election Day.

      Shays wrote Bush on Sept. 8, 2006, to seek the early
      release -- before the election -- of heating
      assistance money for low-income residents in his
      state. Just four days later, the White House released
      $6 million. Asked to comment on the administration's
      help, Shays's campaign manager Michael Sohn said,
      "Chris was grateful to be returned to office based on
      his record of hard work and accomplishment."

      Similar efforts to promote grants in key states took
      place across the government. When the Department of
      Health and Human Services, for example, released 22
      grants totaling $35.7 million for community health and
      disease-prevention programs in late September 2004,
      The Post analysis found, half the awards went to
      targeted election states or congressional districts,
      the rest to noncompetitive areas that included
      Democratic strongholds such as Boston and New Orleans.

      The agency's news release about those grants, however,
      detailed at the top just four recipients -- in
      Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and an Oklahoma
      congressional district -- that Rove's team identified
      in earlier 2004 briefings as key to the GOP's
      reelection strategy.

      The White House briefings also frequently identified
      key media markets where Republicans most wanted their
      message out. A Post review of trips announced by
      several Bush Cabinet members during the 2004 election
      showed that their travel fell neatly into the markets
      listed on a slide included in briefings that year.

      Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao made 13 official visits
      in the last two months of the election, never straying
      more than 50 miles from the media markets on Rove's
      office list, the analysis showed. That August, she
      attended three local Fraternal Order of Police
      meetings in the battleground states of Pennsylvania,
      Ohio and Michigan to tout new overtime rules that
      would soon go into effect. Likewise, she traveled to
      Tampa -- another targeted media market -- to announce
      grants for recipients who actually lived in
      Jacksonville, Fla., a less competitive area.

      Aside from her home town of Denver, Interior Secretary
      Gale A. Norton visited just five cities in the first
      two months of 2004, according to the public
      announcements. But that pace changed between June and
      November, when -- in visits to 37 cities -- she hit
      the target election markets 32 times, the
      announcements show.

      Those visits occurred after Interior liaison William
      Kloiber wrote to White House political affairs aide
      Matt Schlapp to thank him for a briefing about the
      political landscape. In an e-mail obtained by
      congressional investigators, Kloiber wrote, "Sometimes
      these folks need to be reminded who they work for and
      how their geographic travel can benefit the President."