WASHINGTON - President Bush hoped to limit the political damage from the nomination of Bernard B. Kerik by cutting him loose as soon as he confessed he had not paid taxes for a Mexican nanny who apparently had been in the country illegally. Instead, questions about Bush's judgment have escalated because of a cascade of damaging details about Kerik's business and personal lives that White House vetters either missed or ignored.
A few days of digging by news organizations have revealed that Bush had planned to entrust one of the most sensitive jobs in his Cabinet, secretary of homeland security, to a man who had failed to report lavish gifts he received as a New York City official, had declared personal bankruptcy and was the subject of an arrest warrant in a civil case involving unpaid condominium fees.
Since Kerik withdrew, reports have emerged that he helped a company suspected of doing business with organized crime, and he has been accused of extramarital affairs that his representatives do not deny.Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the lobbying community, accustomed to a White House that resists any whiff of sleaziness, were left wondering whether it was more astounding that Kerik allowed himself to be considered or that Bush disregarded a forest of red flags and nominated him anyway.
An exhausted staffer who has been closely involved in the matter from the beginning called it "a case of hubris on both sides."
White House overreach?
Marshall Wittman, a former Republican who is now a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council, called this the first instance of the overreaching that officials in both parties had expected after Bush won reelection and claimed a broad mandate.
"When you believe you are invulnerable, you will always take a step too far, and this was it," Wittman said. "The most cursory checking would have shown this guy has more skeletons than a haunted house. This choice was political from the beginning to the end."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said: "Commissioner Kerik withdrew his name. The matter is closed, and now we're moving forward on another nominee."
McClellan would not say where that process stands, but other administration officials said they do not expect a nominee to be announced this week.
Officials close to the White House said it is clear that Bush chose Kerik, who was New York police commissioner on Sept. 11, 2001, largely at the behest of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R). The White House says Giuliani was only one of several people who recommended Kerik. "We do not choose people based on recommendations," a White House official said.
Close aides to Bush said they are not angry at Giuliani, and McClellan on Monday described the two as "very good friends." The president invited the former mayor to the residence when he was at the White House for a holiday dinner on Sunday night. Giuliani and his wife, Judith, rode in the limousine with the president and Laura Bush, as they rode back from a "Christmas in Washington" event to attend the holiday dinner at the White House.
Many issues already known
White House officials said they knew about many of the issues before the nomination but did not deem them disqualifying. In part, they were relying on the support of New York's two Democratic senators, Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both of whom had issued statements praising Kerik after the announcement. The White House also was banking on the notion that Kerik had survived the rough-and-tumble New York political world, including its bare-knuckled tabloid press, and figured that no senator would dare question Kerik on his extramarital activities at a confirmation hearing.
One senior official said even Kerik's failure to pay employment taxes for the nanny would not have been enough to pull the nomination because he could have owned up to the error and paid the back taxes. But the official said the idea of hiring an undocumented immigrant was in the end untenable for the Cabinet secretary in charge of immigration.
In hindsight, according to people close to the White House, it appeared Bush or his aides allowed their affection for Kerik to cloud their judgment. Kerik traveled extensively on behalf of Bush's reelection campaign and became a popular figure within the president's circle. His hero status from the Sept. 11 attacks and his colorful personality, Bush advisers figured, would help inoculate Kerik from questions about his past.
But the Bush team effectively compartmentalized Kerik's controversies, assuming that each dispute and controversy could be deflected or explained away without anticipating the political toll of the accumulation of so many. Even before Kerik's withdrawal, news organizations began picking apart his history and Democrats began smelling blood — if not enough to block Senate confirmation, at least enough to stir up a tumultuous process.
The White House never checked with Schumer and Clinton before making the nomination, according to spokesmen for the senators. "There was no heads-up," said Philippe Reines, Clinton's press secretary. "It's an absurd notion that they run their picks past us."
Moreover, some Bush advisers say Kerik may have wanted the job so much that he was not as forthcoming as he ought to have been. The vetting conducted by the White House counsel's office before a nominee's announcement is not as thorough as the FBI investigation that follows and depends heavily on the nominee's candor.
A former Bush administration official who has been through the process said that lawyers from the White House counsel's office "sit you down and ask you everything, but then they don't go back and double-check until after the announcement."
"The understanding is: You tell us everything, and we'll help you get through this," the former official said. "The difficulty here was Kerik's definition of 'everything.' "
Jack Quinn, who as White House counsel oversaw vetting for President Bill Clinton's second-term team, said his team would grill potential nominees for a wide range of possible controversies. "Nothing was more terrifying to me than the possibility that a nominee would blow up in my face," Quinn said. "You feel an enormous responsibility to the president not to let that happen. I sat down with these people and got pretty obnoxious and spent a lot of time at the end of my interviews asking, 'What have I forgotten?' "
James Hamilton, a Washington lawyer who vetted about 75 nominees for Clinton when he was first elected, said, "In any good vet, tax matters, marital matters, business matters are explored in great detail."
The White House makes sure to ask questions as broadly as possible to draw out anything the vetters had not thought to ask. Question 43 on the Clinton form was: "Please provide any other information, including information about members of your family, that could suggest a conflict of interest or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family or the president."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
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