COMMENTS: White House Aides in Cross Hairs

The President set the network news agenda with a late afternoon press conference. All three newscasts led from the White House with the Story of the Day as George Bush refused to allow his aides to testify under oath on Capitol Hill about why the Justice Department fired those eight US Attorneys. He called such hearings "show trials." Instead he offered off-the-record unsworn interviews behind closed doors with Congressional leaders as a "reasonable way to avoid an impasse."

NBC's David Gregory noted that Bush's statement was "hastily arranged…to set the stage for a showdown with Democrats." By contrast, when Bill Clinton was President, "more than two dozen" White House advisors agreed to testify. When Democrats insisted that key Bush aides take an oath too, CBS' Jim Axelrod aired the punning reply of the Senate's Texas Republican John Cornyn: "Democrats see Karl Rove behind every Bush." ABC's Jonathan Karl (subscription required) characterized the Congressional reaction to the White House offer as "scorn" and predicted subpoenas, which the White House will fight "all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary."

Only CBS followed up from the Justice Department with an analysis of 3,000 pages of internal e-mail discussions about how to handle the uproar. Bob Orr saw "confusion at the highest levels" over how to account for the firings, however "the big questions remain unanswered. Who first floated the idea of firing the prosecutors? Who put together the hit list? How much influence did the White House have in the whole affair?"

ABC and NBC both sought political analysis from their Sunday morning anchors. Tim Russert (at the tail of the Gregory videostream) of NBC's Meet the Press concluded that Bush had listened to those Republican advisors who warned that Democrats would not be placated with the dismissal of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales so he had to "hang tough." George Stephanopoulos of ABC's This Week took Bush's comments as a means to protect Rove: "If they throw the Attorney General overboard too early, Democrats will come straight at the White House."

ABC anchor Charles Gibson observed that "Washington has been filled with people in the last couple of days who thought they knew--and said they knew--what was going to happen to the Attorney General." Those "people" seemed like a reference to CBS' Axelrod, who reported last week that it was "inevitable" that Gonzales would be fired. Axelrod now was obliged to note that the President "forcefully voiced his support for his embattled Attorney General."


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