Obama Prepares to Sacrifice Justice and National Security for Political Expediency

Check out the way the WaPo reports the news–based on three anonymous Administration sources–that Obama will be personally involved in choosing the location of the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial.

President Obama is planning to insert himself into the debate about where to try the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, three administration officials said Thursday, signaling a recognition that the administration had mishandled the process and triggered a political backlash.

Obama initially had asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to choose the site of the trial in an effort to maintain an independent Justice Department. But the White House has been taken aback by the intense criticism from political opponents and local officials of Holder’s decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a civilian courtroom in New York.

Administration officials acknowledge that Holder and Obama advisers were unable to build political support for the trial. And Holder, in an interview Thursday, left open the possibility that Mohammed’s trial could be switched to a military commission, although he said that is not his personal and legal preference.

“At the end of the day, wherever this case is tried, in whatever forum, what we have to ensure is that it’s done as transparently as possible and with adherence to all the rules,” Holder said. “If we do that, I’m not sure the location or even the forum is as important as what the world sees in that proceeding.” [my emphasis]

The WaPo’s sources say this “triggered a political backlash” and that they’re involving Obama because they’re “taken aback by the intense criticism.”

It’s not until the 16th paragraph of the article that the WaPo reports the big reason why Holder originally chose a civilian trial (and therefore, for security reasons, NY): because it stands the best chance of success.

In his interview, Holder reiterated his belief that a civilian trial would be the best legal option for Mohammed. “Trying the case in an article III court is best for the case and best for our overall fight against al-Qaeda,” he said. “The decision ultimately will be driven by: How can we maximize our chances for success and bring justice to the people responsible for 9/11, and also to survivors?”

Instead of focusing on what the best policy decision is–the many reasons why an Article III court is more likely to lead to an uncontested verdict and closure–the WaPo focuses instead on who bears the blame for not dealing with the politics of the decision.

Managing the politics of terrorism has not been assigned to one person at the White House. Many people are dealing with the issue of the trial, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, senior adviser David Axelrod and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Increasingly, Phil Schiliro, the head of White House legislative affairs, has worked on building support in Congress. The new White House counsel, Bob Bauer, is also managing “a central piece of it,” one senior White House adviser said.

Now, I don’t necessarily fault the WaPo for this focus. After all, horserace is what it does. But the story itself is just one piece of evidence that the Obama Administration continues to mishandle this issue.

This is a question not only of justice, but really, of whether military commissions will work. There’s little evidence they will, and much reason to doubt it. But instead of telling that story, the Obama Administration has now turned this into another example of back-room deal-making rather than the most effective solution.

Nixon The Obama Campaign Goes to China

One of the most telling anecdotes in this must-read Edward Luce skewer of the way a small circle of Obama advisors (Rahm, David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, and Robert Gibbs) dominates his Administration is this story about his trip to China.

On Mr Obama’s November trip to China, members of the cabinet such as the Nobel prizewinning Stephen Chu, energy secretary, were left cooling their heels while Mr Gibbs, Mr Axelrod and Ms Jarrett were constantly at the president’s side.

The White House complained bitterly about what it saw as unfairly negative media coverage of a trip dubbed Mr Obama’s “G2” visit to China. But, as journalists were keenly aware, none of Mr Obama’s inner circle had any background in China. “We were about 40 vans down in the motorcade and got barely any time with the president,” says a senior official with extensive knowledge of the region. “It was like the Obama campaign was visiting China.”

Coming as it does in an article that compares Obama’s Administration to Nixon’s…

And barring Richard Nixon’s White House, few can think of an administration that has been so dominated by such a small inner circle.

The story really highlights the dangers of such a close-knit group dominating Administration policy: on a visit to China, our relationship with which is one of the most challenging policy issues we face, we’ve got tourists dominating the policy, not experts.

As much as I’m thrilled the story repeats calls to replace Rahm, I think the real story is the suggestion that Obama’s cabinet members are growing tired of being treated as “minions” by Rahm. The story names four by name: Kathleen Sebelius, Ken Salazar, Janet Napolitano, and (above) Steven Chu.

Perhaps the biggest losers are the cabinet members. Kathleen Sebelius, Mr Obama’s health secretary and formerly governor of Kansas, almost never appears on television and has been largely excluded both from devising and selling the healthcare bill. Others such as Ken Salazar, the interior secretary who is a former senator for Colorado, and Janet Napolitano, head of the Department for Homeland Security and former governor of Arizona, have virtually disappeared from view.

Administration insiders say the famously irascible Mr Emanuel treats cabinet principals like minions. “I am not sure the president realises how much he is humiliating some of the big figures he spent so much trouble recruiting into his cabinet,” says the head of a presidential advisory board who visits the Oval Office frequently.

With the suggestion that Sebelius, for example, has been “excluded both from devising and selling the healthcare bill,” are we to understand that all of these cabinet officials are not intimately involved in setting policy? We’ve got Steven Chu, one of the best cabinet picks in the Administration, cooling his heels rather than the climate? And what are Sebelius, Salazar, and Napolitano advising that is not being heard? Is Sebelius growing tired of Rahm fucking up what should be her portfolio (after which, as happened last week, she has to go to Congress and get grilled on it)?

And then, of course, there’s an even more notable cabinet member that goes unmentioned: Hillary Clinton. She showed up prominently in the pictures from China, but she is not mentioned in this story as either one of those (like Joe Biden) who regularly gives Obama counsel but is not part of this inner circle, or one of those prominent cabinet members that Rahm treats like a minion. But the story does note how Arab-Israeli peace took a back seat to Rahm’s failed attempt to pass health care reform. Whether or not Hillary (or, more likely, her inner circle; John Podesta is one of the few named sources for it) is a source for this article, I can imagine how seeing a failed attempt to pass healthcare stall attempts to bring peace to Palestine would rankle Secretary Clinton.

So, yes, this is another story pointing to growing dissatisfaction with Rahm from allies both inside and outside the Administration. But note clearly, it appears to be very high level dissastisfaction.

Where Will Brennan Land in Rahm v. DOJ Spat?

As Jason notes, David Axelrod has already taped a CSPAN response to Jane Mayer’s piece on Rahm’s spat about distractions like “the law” and “human rights” with Eric Holder and Greg Craig. In it, Axe appears to try to distance the White House from the decisions that have been attacked in the last few weeks, particularly the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York.

David Axelrod did not dispute that a rift had emerged between the White House and the Justice Department over the 9/11 case, which has recently become a political sore spot for the administration.Despite a rising tide of opposition to having a trial in Manhattan, which has sent the administration scrambling to find another location, Axelrod said it was not a mistake for Holder to announce the trial would be held there. But Axelrod did not defend it — or portray it in any way as a decision that came from the White House. “The attorney general was responding under the protocol that was developed between the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense for the prosecution of terrorists,” Axelrod said in an interview for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” series set to air on Sunday.

Acknowledging White House resistance to the Justice Department decisions, Axelrod continued: “Rahm has a perspective that’s different. He’s the chief of staff. He looks at things from a legislative perspective, he looks at things from other perspectives.”

Side note: Responsible journalism would dictate that Anne Kornblut avoid the metonymy of “White House” here, as it obscures whether this is just Axe and Rahm working the press as they do, or Obama as well. After all, if Obama has decided to give Holder autonomy on this decision, he has, in fact, supported such a decision, or should have. But therein may be the real root of White House dysfunction on this issue.

So Rahm and Axe are out there declaring that the decision to try KSM in a civilian trial in NY belongs entirely to DOJ and DOD, which Axe appears to portray as somehow divorced from the authority and will of the White House (and therefore, from Obama). In the likelihood that the trial will be moved to some other venue altogether, then, Axe and Rahm can continue to make Holder the scapegoat. Heck, they may even be trying to force Holder out like they have forced Craig out.

But what’s going to happen when the White House strongly owns its decisions on the handling of the Underwear Bomber? They’ve got John Brennan on Meet the Press tomorrow to defend the Administration’s decisions on his treatment. As Mark Ambinder tweets,

Admin puts Brennan on Sunday shows to defend Abdulmuttalab’s handling. He is steaming mad about the CW.

Whatever my complaints with Brennan, he does come off as less of a backroom bumbler than Rahm and Axe of late. And he plans to go on TV and rebut the conventional wisdom about the decision to mirandize Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and try him in civilian court.

In other words, Brennan will be making the same defense of civilian law as Eric Holder has. Maybe, in the process, he’ll explain how Abdulmutallab’s testimony has already led the White House to put Anwar al-Awlaki on a kill list, just to look tough in the process!

So it seems that as Rahm and Axe try to set up and scapegoat Holder, one of the grownups is about to go on TV and own not the KSM decision, but certainly the decision to sustain our system of civilian law.

Axelrod: Obama Wouldn’t Even TALK to that Corrupt Guy

Last month, David Axelrod told reporters that Obama had talked to Blago about his replacement in the Senate.

The transition team just sent out a statement saying that is incorrect.

I was mistaken when I told an interviewer last month that the President-elect has spoken directly to Governor Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy. They did not then or at any time discuss the subject.

I guess the operative phrase there is "spoken directly."

At least that means we won’t hear Obama on tapes introduced at Blago’s trial.