Sabato, Sanchez dismissed as "politics" likely Dem objections to potential Chertoff nomination

››› ››› KATHLEEN HENEHAN

Discussing replacements for outgoing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Larry Sabato asserted that if President Bush nominates Michael Chertoff, "[u]ndoubtedly, the Democrats are going to revisit Katrina. They're going to use the nomination hearings ... to talk about something that happened two years ago in a completely different realm, but that's politics." Similarly, Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez, apparently referring to a potential Chertoff nomination, stated that the "Democrats have already announced this is going to be another piece of political theater," adding that they "want to rehash Katrina, different allegations, start more investigations."

On the August 27 edition of Fox News' Special Report, during a segment on possible replacements for outgoing Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia who frequently appears in the media as a nonpartisan political commentator, was shown asserting that if President Bush nominates Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, "[u]ndoubtedly, the Democrats are going to revisit [the federal response to Hurricane] Katrina. They're going to use the nomination hearings for attorney general to talk about something that happened two years ago in a completely different realm, but that's politics." Similarly, on the August 27 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez appeared to be referring to a potential Chertoff appointment when she stated that the "Democrats have already announced this is going to be another piece of political theater," adding that they "want to rehash Katrina, different allegations, start more investigations." Sanchez later said that Chertoff "has shown a tremendous amount of leadership," and that "people can argue about certain details, but ... these were Democrats who supported him initially," apparently referring to Democratic support for Chertoff's nomination as Homeland Security chief in February 2005.

But while Sabato and Sanchez suggested that a Democratic effort to question Chertoff on his handling of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina would be politically motivated, neither Fox News chief White House correspondent Bret Baier nor Situation Room host Wolf Blitzer mentioned that both a House report -- written by Republicans -- and a bipartisan Senate report identified numerous failures on Chertoff's part in his management of the DHS' response to the disaster.

Indeed, the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina -- which was comprised entirely of Republicans -- released its final report on February 15, 2006, finding that "critical elements of the National Response Plan," for which Chertoff was responsible, "were executed late, ineffectively, or not at all," as Media Matters for America noted. The report's Executive Summary listed several criticisms of the National Response Plan leveled specifically at Chertoff, including:

  • Given the well-known consequences of a major hurricane striking New Orleans, the Secretary [Chertoff] should have designated an Incident of National Significance no later than Saturday, two days prior to landfall, when the National Weather Service predicted New Orleans would be struck by a Category 4 or 5 hurricane and President Bush declared a federal emergency.
  • The Secretary [Chertoff] should have convened the Interagency Incident Management Group on Saturday, two days prior to landfall, or earlier to analyze Katrina's potential consequences and anticipate what the federal response would need to accomplish.
  • The Secretary [Chertoff] should have designated the Principal Federal Official on Saturday, two days prior to landfall, from the roster of PFOs who had successfully completed the required training, unlike then-FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] Director Michael Brown. Considerable confusion was caused by the Secretary's PFO decisions.

[...]

  • The Secretary should have invoked the Catastrophic Incident Annex to direct the federal response posture to fully switch from a reactive to proactive mode of operations.

In addition, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs issued a bipartisan report in May 2006, concluding that Chertoff's agency "failed to effectively lead the federal response to Hurricane Katrina" and listed specific steps Chertoff did not take in advance of the storm and following it. Specific criticisms of Chertoff's performance included:

29. In advance of landfall, Secretary Chertoff failed to make ready the full range of federal assets pursuant to DHS's responsibilities under the National Response Plan (NRP).

[...]

31. Secretary Chertoff failed to appoint a Principal Federal Official (PFO), the official charged with overseeing the federal response under the NRP, until 36 hours after landfall.

[...]

34. Secretary Chertoff appointed a field commander, Michael Brown, who was hostile to the federal government's agreed-upon response plan and therefore was unlikely to perform effectively in accordance with its principles. Some of Secretary Chertoff 's top advisors were aware of these issues but Secretary Chertoff has indicated that he was not. Secretary Chertoff should have known of these problems and, as a result, should have appointed someone other than Brown as Principal Federal Official.

From the August 27 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BAIER: The president said Solicitor General Paul Clement will serve as acting attorney general after Gonzales leaves September 17th. With solid conservative credentials, Clement could be in the running as a permanent replacement. Republican strategists are pushing the White House to get the slot filled quickly.

BRAD BLAKEMAN (Republican strategist): I think that the best choice would be that somebody who comes from outside the administration would have an easy time getting confirmed without the, quote, unquote, "baggage" of having served. Ted Olson would be great, the former solicitor general of the United States.

BAIER: Olson is well-respected on Capitol Hill. Other possible successors include former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and current Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, a former federal prosecutor, assistant attorney general, and federal judge, but his tenure as head of DHS is open to attack.

SABATO: Let's say it's Michael Chertoff. Undoubtedly, the Democrats are going to revisit Katrina. They're going to use the nomination hearings for attorney general to talk about something that happened two years ago in a completely different realm, but that's politics.

BAIER: Senior aides tell Fox a nomination will likely not be announced before Labor Day, and this White House is preparing for yet another confirmation battle no matter who the nominee is, simply because of the political environment.

At the White House, Bret Baier, Fox News.

From the August 27 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: Which direction should he -- should he go for a fight or try to find someone who will sail through a confirmation process before the Senate Judiciary Committee?

SANCHEZ: The bigger issue is -- it's very unlikely any candidate is going to sail through. The Democrats have already announced this is going to be another piece of political theater. They want to rehash Katrina, different allegations, start more investigations. It's going to be trouble for any Republican to move through that.

That being said, I think you have a lot of outstanding potential candidates, and, with respect to Judge Gonzales, I think that the Chuck Schumer water torture should have ended on him months ago. I mean, I was one of the people that said he was becoming ineffective and he needed to leave, and many Republicans, I think, agreed with that.

BLITZER: Paul, some of the names that are being floated out there -- and I say floated because it may be none of the above -- but we've heard Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, his name being floated; Larry Thompson, a former deputy attorney general; Ted Olson, you remember him, former solicitor general; George Terwilliger, another former Justice Department official.

Some of those names, like Chertoff, could be controversial. Some of the other ones might not necessarily be all that controversial.

PAUL BEGALA (Democratic strategist): Might not be. Again, I think I'd prefer the two names I gave you a moment ago, either Clement, who's there now, or Comey, both loyal Republicans. Both served under this president in previous posts.

But I think some of those guys, particularly Michael Chertoff, you're right, could be really, really problematic for the White House. And I do disagree with Leslie on this. I've talked to Democrats on the Hill today, and they're not spoiling for a fight. In fact, even Chuck Schumer was very restrained, I thought, today in his press conference. The name I keep hearing by analogy is Robert Gates.

The defense secretary sailed through after Donald Rumsfeld, a very controversial Pentagon chief. The new defense secretary, a loyal Republican, sailed through, because he was the kind of person Democrats thought they could work with.

BLITZER: I guess it depends, Leslie, on who the president nominates.

BEGALA: So, this is not baked in. They don't have to have a fight here.

SANCHEZ: No. It's clearly -- it's clearly that. It's interesting when people say that about Chertoff, somebody who definitely had tremendous amount of support, has shown a tremendous amount of leadership. And people can argue about certain details, but this was -- these were Democrats who supported him initially, and it was not -- not that far -- you know, long ago.

BLITZER: All right. Paul, over the weekend, the Democratic National Committee, some are suggesting, declared war on Democrats. And, arguably, for the presidential election, Florida could be the most important state in the country. What is going on?

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