Miers, Libby or Rove -- who bails first?

Asked whether the White House is making contingency plans for Miers' withdrawal, the president answers a different question instead.

Published October 24, 2005 3:54PM (EDT)

George W. Bush spent the weekend at Camp David with some of his top aides, and we can only imagine the conversations they had there about the interplay between the bad story that they can control and the bad story that they can't: Do we use the withdrawal of Harriet Miers as a way to bury the news of indictments in the Valerie Plame case? Or do we use indictments in the Plame case as a way to bury the news of Miers' withdrawal?

There are a lot of assumptions built into these imaginings, of course. Patrick Fitzgerald hasn't indicted anyone yet, and Bush says publicly that he's standing by Miers. But it's probably fair to put both possibilities -- the indictments and the withdrawal -- in the "more likely than not" column. The New York Times says again today that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby have been "advised that they are in serious legal jeopardy," and Fitzgerald's shiny new Web site sure is sitting there with a lot of space to fill. Meanwhile, the president has just received what the Wall Street Journal's John Fund calls a "grim" report on Miers' performance as a nominee, and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer says that, if votes were held today, Miers wouldn't get a majority from either the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee or the Republican-controlled Senate.

What will Bush do?

On Plame, probably nothing -- except oversee, in a hands-off, plausible-deniability sort of way, an effort to downplay any charges, undermine Fitzgerald and continue to smear Joseph Wilson. Bush has equivocated on whether he'd fire anyone who is indicted in the case, but Rove and Libby would probably spare him the trouble by resigning first; that's what Republicans like George Allen and Newt Gingrich are saying, and they probably wouldn't be raising the expectation if they weren't sure that Rove and Libby will meet it.

On Miers, it's harder to tell. The president wears his stubbornness like a crown -- 1,997 tombstones will attest to that -- but he has also been known to blink when political reality forces his hand: He opposed the creation of the 9/11 Commission before caving in, and he allowed Bernard Kerik to withdraw his nomination as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Will he let Miers fall on her sword, too? The Washington Times said over the weekend that the White House is beginning to discuss a contingency plan for what happens after Miers is gone. "White House senior staff are starting to ask outside people, saying, 'We're not discussing pulling out her nomination, but if we were to, do you have any advice as to how we should do it?'" the paper quoted a "conservative Republican with ties to the White House" as saying.

The president was asked about that report this morning, but he answered a different question entirely. Asked at today's Cabinet meeting whether the White House is "working on a contingency plan for the withdrawal of Harriet Miers' nomination," Bush said -- as he always does -- that Miers is an "extraordinary woman" and a "legal pioneer" who has been "ranked one of the top 50 women lawyers in the United States on a consistent basis." Then he said, as if someone had just asked him, that he won't release documents that reflect advice she may have given him at the White House. "Harriet Miers is a fine person, and I expect her to have a good, fair hearing on Capitol Hill," Bush said. "Thank you all for coming."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Chuck Schumer D-n.y. George W. Bush Karl Rove Supreme Court