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THE SITUATION ROOM

Libby Pleads Not Guilty; Bush Travels to Latin America

Aired November 3, 2005 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


SUSAN LISOVICZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is the closing bell, the DOW ends up way off of its highs of the session, but up half a percent of 48 points. The NASDAQ up 16 points, or three-quarters of a percent.
Terrific news on the October retail sales, good news on the economy. Alan Greenspan was bullish. The only spoiler today was oil, which rose two bucks on this session.

Back to you, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much, Susan. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information from around the world are arriving all the time.

Happening now, Lewis Scooter Libby fighting a CIA leak indictment. The vice president's former chief of staff pleads not guilty. We'll examine the burden of proof and the political burden on the White House.

President Bush is on his way to Latin America right now. But can he leave his problems at home behind him? This hour, the troubles dogging Mr. Bush here and there.

And all Iraq, all the time. Democrats keep hammering away on the war and the White House. Are they shying away from the Supreme Court battle?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

This hour, Lewis Scooter Libby is free without bail. His arraignment today in the CIA leak case brought the once-powerful vice presidential adviser a step closer to a trial -- a trial that could prove embarrassing or worse for the Bush administration.

Our national correspondent, Bob Franken, is over at the courthouse. Our White House correspondent, Dana Bash is in Argentina where the president is due to arrive a couple hours or so from now.

First, to you, with an update on what happened today, Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The trial is probably quite a ways away because of the various legal complexities that are involved.

Lewis Scooter Libby has made it clear, through his new lawyer, Ted Wells, that he intends to fight, that he is going to stick with his plea of not guilty that he entered in the court today. He personally went up to the podium, instead of his lawyer, and said not guilty. Then, he had to go through the process. It is sort of a degrading process for somebody who had been so high up at the White House. He had to be fingerprinted. He had to have his mug shot taken. He had to go through the ordeal of going past the usual cameraman scrum that accompanies somebody who is in such a prominent position.

But Scooter Libby says that he's going to fight the charges that grew out of the investigation that resulted after the disclosure of Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative.

Wolf.

BLITZER: What does all this mean for Karl Rove right now, the deputy White House chief of staff, the president's top political adviser? He's not on the trip with the president to South America right now, but you're talking to people all over town. What are you hearing, Bob?

FRANKEN: Well, first of all, that is a huge loose end. Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff, chief political adviser of the president, does not know yet whether he's going to be indicted, because the special prosecutor says he does not know. Rove's lawyer says they're negotiating that.

So there is certainly this limbo that Rove is in. And, there is growing talk in Washington which sometimes becomes self-fulfilling prophecies, that some people in his own party are saying that Rove may be a liability and needs to consider leaving the White House team.

BLITZER: Bob Franken reporting for us. Bob, thank you very much.

Now to the president of the United States and his travels. There's an old, but unofficial adage over at the White House. When the going gets tough, the president gets going. Certainly the case during the Clinton administration, which I covered.

Dana Bash is covering Mr. Bush's trip to Latin America right now. She's in Mar del Plata in Argentina. Dana, what's going on?

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: A very windy Mar del Plata. And you said it exactly right. Look, the White House certainly could not have -- didn't time this summit to come at this particular political time for the president. But it couldn't have come at a better time.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): A 10-and-a-half hour flight to a destination 5,500 miles from Washington. Escaping to the world stage is an old trick of the presidential trade.

BRUCE BUCHANAN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: It does put him in a different venue, talking about other issues and it permits him to portray himself as doing the country's business.

BASH: Ronald Reagan, amid Iran-Contra, tried to polish his image by showing leadership at Soviet summits. But when problems at home reach a fever pitch, distance usually doesn't help.

QUESTION: Mr. Starr says it has no effect on his investigation. Is that your view, Sir?

BASH: The Lewinsky scandal followed President Clinton around the world. Mr. Bush himself was dogged by questions throughout Africa in 2003, after admitting his State of the Union case for confronting Iraq included flawed intelligence.

QUESTION: Can you explain how an erroneous piece of intelligence on the Iraq/Niger connection got into your State of the Union speech?

BUCHANAN: No matter where you are, whether it be on a foreign trip or sitting in the Oval Office or sitting at your ranch in Texas, there's no evading that responsibility.

BASH: The president hopes to use the Summit of the Americas to tout the benefits of democratic reforms and push Latin countries to allow more free trade.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back up, please.

BASH: But an open question is how much the indictment of a senior White House official and the CIA leak case hurts Mr. Bush's credibility in conducting foreign policy.

His national security adviser took that one carefully.

STEPHEN HADLEY, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Scooter Libby is a fine person. And he has served the president, the vice president well.

The president makes foreign policy. And it is the president who's going on this trip.

BASH: Mr. Bush is used to encountering protest abroad, where his policies are unpopular. Massive demonstrations are planned in Argentina. Now, some experts believe his weak standing back home may embolden other leaders to challenge him more freely. But others predict he may find some unexpected understanding.

ROGER NORIEGA, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: These presidents have troubles, too. These other folks have troubles, too. President Bush's counterparts are probably going to feel a great deal of empathy, frankly, for him.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (on camera): Now, Mr. Bush is trying to project an image of good spirits. He even made a joke earlier this week with a round table of foreign journalists about government leaks.

Humor, Wolf, as you know, just like international travel, is a time-honored standby for a president in crisis.

BLITZER: Dana, there was a front-page story in the "Washington Post" today, raising some questions about Karl Rove's longevity over at the White House. What are you hearing?

BASH: Well, first of all, in talking to senior officials at the White House in and around Karl Rove circles, if you will, they insist that at this time, he does not have any plans to leave. But when you take a step back, just like you were talking about with Bob Franken, the White House certainly was relieved about the fact that Rove was not indicted last week.

But, it is yet one of the many things that makes it very hard for them to turn the page, to turn the corner away from this leaks investigation, to really move on for the president politically.

We do know that Republicans have been calling for new blood in this administration. Many of those calls, perhaps, are focused on Karl Rove. But as I said, they are saying at the White House that at this point, there's no plans for him to leave. We do know, however, Wolf, that there is talk at this time about change in staff at the end of the year or towards the beginning of the year at some high levels.

BLITZER: Dana Bash is covering the president's trip in Argentina. First stop on the South American trip for the president. Thank you, Dana, very much.

The president may be out of the country, but Democrats are certainly not letting up on him, or his Iraq policy. In fact, they seem to be hitting as hard as ever.

Our congressional correspondent, Ed Henry, is joining us now live from Capitol Hill with more on the attacks and the strategy behind those attacks.

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in fact, Scooter Libby was barely out of court before Democrats pounced once again.

Today, it was House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, introducing a resolution demanding a swift investigation of allegations that the Bush administration twisted intelligence in the buildup to the war in Iraq. That resolution, of course, failed.

A spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert said this was really just a cheap attempt to grab some headlines like Senate Democrats did a couple of days ago when they forced that chamber into a secret session to debate that same matter. But the bottom line is, Nancy Pelosi got a chance to fire away and keep the heat on the White House.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: I think it brings shame to the House for this Congress to be engaged in a cover- up when it comes to reviewing what's happening in Iraq. And I appeal the ruling of the chair.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Now, back over in the Senate, Democratic Leader Harry Reid also keeping the heat on. He fired off a letter to Vice President Cheney demanding that he clean house in his office, fire more staffers, not just Scooter Libby, who had resigned in the wake of the leak case.

Also, a group of House Democrats sending a letter to the vice president a short while ago this afternoon, demanding he come up to Capitol Hill and testify about his own role in the CIA leak case. Fat chance of that, of course.

But the bottom line, Democrats firing one missile after another, hoping just anything here will stick. That's in part because they do not see themselves getting much traction against Samuel Alito, the president's pick for the Supreme Court. They think the White House is vulnerable on Iraq and they're going to keep hitting.

Wolf.

BLITZER: What else are you hearing about the confirmation battle, if there will be a battle, over Samuel Alito?

HENRY: Well, interesting development today. The Gang of 14 moderates, seven Democrats and seven Republicans, who averted a nuclear showdown earlier this year on lower-court nominees, met for the first time today about the Alito nomination. They came out and basically said they're not going to make any grand pronouncements as a group. They're going to wait and see how the hearings move forward and what not.

But individually, members, these moderates are coming out, some of them, and basically saying they do not see extraordinary circumstances that would justify a filibuster. That's going to make it hard for Democrats to launch one.

Here's moderate Democrat Joe Lieberman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: If any of us ever come to a point where we are thinking that we may in this nomination have seen something that looks like extraordinary circumstances, that we will come back to the group and reason together. That's the spirit in which the Gang of 14 came together. But none of us has reached that point.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: The next question, of course, will be when will these confirmation hearings start? Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has been keeping his cards close to the vest, but he told me today he wants these hearings to start in December. But he admitted he thinks it will be hard to actually get a floor vote, a confirmation by the end of the December. He thinks that's more likely in January. That's not going to be well received at the White House or among conservative activists. They're privately telling me they want this done by the end of the year because they're concerned about Sandra Day O'Connor staying on the court through the end of the year and maybe ruling in some key cases.

Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ed Henry, thank you very much.

Here's something you might want to know about Samuel Alito from his case files. The Associated Press interviewed five current and former judges who worked with Alito in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Their assessment: Alito is unquestionably conservative and would lightly favor new restrictions on abortion. But they say he has great respect for precedent, and in their opinion would not be likely to overturn Roe versus Wade.

Time now for Jack Cafferty once again. Your second chance, Jack, to sound off a little bit, I guess.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Wolf. California Representative Duncan Hunter wants to build a fence along the entire U.S. border with Mexico to stop illegal immigration. He wants to create a two-layer fence with lighting and sensors that would run the entire 2,000 miles, all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. One group estimates the cost at about $8 billion. Critics say a fence wouldn't be enough to stop people's -- quote -- "resourcefulness" -- unquote.

Here's the question. Is building a fence along the U.S./Mexican border a good idea? Email us at CaffertyFile@CNN.com.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jack. Duncan Hunter was on this show the first hour of THE SITUATION ROOM.

Coming up, a new low point for the president. We're looking at all the latest polls to see if things are bad for Mr. Bush politically as some contend.

Also ahead, the morning after pill. That's coming up in our "Culture Wars". Lawmakers are taking a stand on that controversial form of birth control and blasting the Bush administration.

And Congressman Tom DeLay gets a break, and yet another headache all at the same time. His tense political drama keeps unfolding. We'll have some details right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. A new poll out today shows President Bush's job approval rating hitting a new low of 35 percent. The only recent president with a worse rating in his second term, Richard Nixon. But that doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.

Here to tell the whole story is our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, as he always does. Bill?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, the whole story is our poll of polls. Let's take a look. Five national polls released over the past week. President Bush's job rating ranges, his approval ranges, from 41 percent in three of those polls, including two done by the Gallup organization, 39 percent in the ABC News/"Washington Post" poll, and that 35 percent figure you just mentioned -- yikes -- in a CBS News poll.

On the average, 39 percent approve of the way President Bush is doing his job. Notice that all five -- all five polls show a majority of Americans disapproving of the way the president's doing his job. The average is 56 percent disapproval, and this is one year after Mr. Bush was reelected with 51 percent of the vote.

BLITZER: Where is the president losing support, Bill?

SCHNEIDER: Well, let's first of all take a look at the president's support by party in the CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll. Notice in this poll that Democratic opposition at 89 percent, in the lower right corner there, is higher than Republican support for the president at 80 percent. Also notice in the middle that independents have turned against President Bush, 62 to 35.

Now, look at President Bush's support by ideology. Almost a third, 32 percent of conservatives, have become critical of the president. And moderates, who comprise nearly half the public? Sixty- two to 35 against President Bush. Bottom line? President Bush is losing the middle, independents and moderates. Those are the swing voters.

Wolf.

BLITZER: If you're sitting in the White House, those numbers have to be very disturbing. Thanks very much, Bill Schneider for that.

In the "Culture Wars", frustrated lawmakers make a new push for a ruling on the so-called morning after birth control pill. The Food and Drug Administration has indefinitely postponed a decision on whether the pill can be sold without a prescription. So today, several House members introduced a bill that would force the FDA to make a decision. If not, the pill automatically would be made available over the counter 30 days after the bill was passed. The bill's sponsors, including one Republican, say politics is getting in the way of science.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), CONNECTICUT: This administration is simply taking an outrageous position. They're denying sound science. They're denying basic FDA procedures with a safe drug that's not addictive that can be sold over-the-counter. And when all the scientists at the FDA said this drug should be over the counter, and the administration through political pressure decides to prevent it, then you need to speak out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's Republican Congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut. It's not clear how much support the bill will have in the full House of Representatives.

Still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the view from inside the courthouse. We'll speak with our own John King, who was in the courtroom when Scooter Libby faced the judge earlier today.

Plus, the CIA leak and the vice president. Is the scandal straining relations between Mr. Cheney and President Bush?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There she is, Zain Verjee at the CNN Center in Atlanta. She's about to take a closer look at some other stories making news. That was a really, really tight shot of you, Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: I know. I was a bit shocked there seeing myself leap out. Thanks, Wolf.

A convicted kidnapper and a convicted murderer who escaped from a South Carolina prison have been captured. Police say they caught up with the men at a motel about 110 miles south of the facility where they were seen last Tuesday. Officials aren't giving any details of the apprehension, but they did say another man was arrested and charged with harboring the two fugitives.

The TSA is taking its fast track airport security program nationwide. Under the Registered Traveler Program, air travelers will be able to pass by random patdowns by submitting to a background check, paying a fee, and providing some biometric I.D. such as fingerprinting. It was previously tested at five U.S. airports. The nationwide rollout begins next June.

After criticizing a U.N. report citing evidence Syria played a role in the Rafik Hariri assassination, Syria is now saying it's starting its own investigation, that from Syria's state-run news agency. The country reportedly has started the probe and will interview all Syrians named in the U.N. report. The former Lebanese prime minister, Hariri, was killed by a car bomb on the 14th of February, and Syria has denied any involvement in the killing.

It's been another busy day for Britain's Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla. The newlyweds following up last night's White House dinner with visits today to the National Institutes of Health, the National Building Museum, and Georgetown University. Tonight they'll attend a reception at the British Embassy. Tomorrow they'll be heading for San Francisco with a brief stop in New Orleans for a look at hurricane recovery efforts.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, I take it there was an incident out at NIH, at the National Institutes of Health in suburban Washington, in Bethesda, that could have turned out to be a disaster. What exactly happened?

VERJEE: Well, the U.S. surgeon general tried to lead Camilla Parker Bowles, just before she was to give a speech, into the building. And as he was leading her in, he actually led her into a glass window and she almost crashed into it, but then realized and touched her nose and was quite startled with the whole thing and she started laughing. Then the Prince of Wales found it quite funny and it tickled him and he collapsed into laughter, as well. So, it could have been ugly but it wasn't.

BLITZER: It could have been awful. I once did that myself and had blood all over my face from walking. But you know what? Thankfully it didn't happen. Zain, thank you very much for that.

VERJEE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, fallout from the CIA leak. Will the scandal break down the strong ties between the vice president of the United States and his boss? We'll take a closer look.

Plus, Arnold Schwarzenegger's political problems. Will it take another actor to oust the terminator as California's governor? We'll find out in our "Political Radar," all coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now back to our top story this hour. Lewis Scooter Libby pleads not guilty to criminal charges that he repeatedly lied about his role in the CIA leak case.

Our chief national correspondent, John King, was in the courtroom here in Washington earlier today. He is joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. What was it like in there, John, as you were watching all these proceedings?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you could feel the tension in the air. It was -- in some ways, this is a legal setting. In some ways before the hearing started, it looked almost like the beginning of a presidential debate where both sides, if you will, sort of lingering on the stage, waiting for it to begin.

Mr. Libby's lawyers spoke to the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. And he was watching sort of curiously from the side. But they exchanged no glances, no greetings or nothing. Very professional in the courtroom. Mr. Libby spoke 15 words total, essentially just telling the judge he pled not guilty, waiving his right to a speedy trial.

BLITZER: You and I have known Scooter Libby for a long time, an exceptionally smart guy. He's gone through, obviously, some personal problems lately. His mother passed away. We see him on crutches. He broke his foot. Is there any explanation, if in fact these allegations are true, that he lied repeatedly about his role in all of this? What was behind it?

KING: Well, he says they're not true, and you get the first sense today of the combative tone the defense is taking. One of the questions was would he hire more experienced criminal attorneys. We found out the answer as he walked into the courtroom with his new legal team. He has very aggressive criminal defense attorneys now. The speculation in Washington is won't there be political pressure to ultimately cut some sort of a plea deal, but they were very defiant today. They say simply this is not true. Now, that posture -- in any trial, the posture of both sides tends to change once they go through the back and forth over motions, but it's going to be February until the next hearing, so this is going to linger for a while.

BLITZER: Politics plays a certain role in a potential trial. This, after all, is the District of Columbia, which is a very, very Democratic district. A lot of Democrats, presumably would be on a jury. I assume that's playing into the strategy of the defense in this particular case.

KING: Well, certainly if they go to trial, that is one of the questions you would face, would you have a Democratic jury. Another question is the timing of all of this. The next hearing in this case is in February. Because of the classified information, because of the First Amendment issues that could come up when the defense tries to question reporters, get their notes, perhaps their emails, if you play it out the way it was in the courthouse today, you're looking at a trial in the spring or summer of next year. Well, it's a congressional midterm election year. There are many Republicans -- The last thing they want is the Bush administration, the case for war in Iraq on trial in the middle of a congressional election year.

BLITZER: You've been looking into the whole relationship between Dick Cheney and his boss, the president of the United States. You've covered them for a long time. What are you picking up?

KING: Well, there's a lost speculation in town that somehow, Mr. Cheney's star is falling, that his stature will be diminished. The Democrats certainly see a target of opportunity. The president is overseas, as you discussed on the top of the show. Tradition is, you back off if you're the opposition party.

The Democrats are doing that, but one of the reasons they're doing it is because they want to take aim at the vice president. They think he is a liability right now inside the White House, and the vice president's close friends on Capitol Hill, I spoke to a few today, they say no way. They say this vice president is no stranger to crisis or controversy. He is a survivor and his role is critical in the White House. But remember, he could be a witness if there is a trial next year. That is a cloud that hangs over the White House, without a question.

BLITZER: You're going to have much more on this coming up during our 7:00 p.m. hour of THE SITUATION ROOM. John King reporting for us. John, thank you very much.

Let's check out some of our "Political Radar" right now.

Arnold Schwarzenegger very much on our "Political Radar" screen this Thursday. In a new Field Poll, a majority of California voters say they're not likely to back him Schwarzenegger for reelection next year. Voters appear cynical about the governor's call for the special election on his ballot initiatives as well.

Four current or possible Democratic challengers have a slight lead over Schwarzenegger in the poll, including actor-director Rob Reiner. But Reiner is just two points ahead of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Another Hollywood figure fares even worse. The poll shows Warren Beatty as the only would-be Democratic rival who would lose to Schwarzenegger if the vote were today.

In the Virginia governor's race, Democrat Tim Kaine and his aides are scratching their heads. They aren't sure why he's been endorsed by Michael Schiavo, who fought for the removal of that feeding tube of his brain-damaged wife Terry. Statement Schiavo blasted Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who opposed his efforts to allow his wife to die. But he didn't say much about the candidate he was endorsing, namely Tim Kaine.

And a payoff on Capitol Hill today by Texas Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn. Since their beloved Houston Astros lost the World Series, they had to make good on their bet with their Illinois counterparts. White House - excuse me, White Sox fans Dick Durbin and Barack Obama now are the proud owners of a basket full of tasty Texas vittles.

Coming up, Washington abuzz with legal activity. The vice president's former chief of staff in court facing criminal charges. Lewis Scooter Libby is the first White House official to be indicted in 130 years, and he says he's innocent.

And on Capitol Hill, senators are buzzing over a Supreme Court nominee. We'll talk about all of that in our "Strategy Session", that's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. Time now for our "Strategy Session".

Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Paul Begala and Republican strategist Ed Rogers. Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

Let's listen to Howard Dean. He's the chairman, if you didn't know, of the Democratic National Committee. This is what he said earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: I'm looking for a much greater ethical ground. This is a little like Watergate. The deed was done, and then the cover-up came. What Scooter Libby is being charged with is the cover-up, because that's easier charges to prove. But the truth is, that had the president not misled the American people about the war, this wouldn't have happened.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Ed, this is like -- let me quote, "This is like Watergate." That's what Howard Dean says. He has a tendency sometimes to speak his mind. He clearly is. ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, you can count on Howard Dean to have a maniacal look on his face and say some things that are way outside the bounds and over the top, and this is a good example of this. It's ludicrous on its face to suggest that this is Watergate.

BLITZER: If this is Watergate, the president is going down, because the president during Watergate went down, as you remember.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, John Dean, who was White House counsel for President Nixon -- no relation to Howard Dean. John Dean has written a book called "Worse Than Watergate," saying that this administration is, in fact, much worse.

Look, nobody died in Watergate. We're in a war because of the decisions Congress made based on the case the president made, which was based on faulty, I think, purposefully deceptive information. So yes, I thought Dean was perfectly within his rights to do it.

The question is, how will the president handle this? Will he handle it like Nixon, paranoid and frightened and hunkering down? Or will he handle it like Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton, all of whom had crises in their presidencies, all of who said, I'm sorry, it's my fault. I take responsibility. Bush should apologize and take responsibility.

BLITZER: Ed, you're a good Republican strategist. How does the White House handle a strategic crisis like is happening right now?

ROGERS: Don't take advice from the newspapers or from your political enemies like Paul Begala. Get serious, get focused, be methodical. The president doesn't have any problems that more peace and prosperity wouldn't solve. Good substance will be the best politics. Don't get distracted by what's in the newspapers, be very sure footed.

Methodically go about your business, a good fight over the Supreme Court nominee. Some better results and some better images coming out of Iraq, show that you're focused on the economy, show that you know and care about what gas prices are doing in this country. Peace and prosperity are the way out of this, not some quick political fixes.

BLITZER: When you worked in the Clinton White House -- and I covered the Clinton White House as you well know -- he often went around the world on major trips. The suspicion among the press corps, as you well remember was, you know, he's getting out of town because he's got too many problems in Washington. He'll do a trip to Africa, do a trip to China, do a trip to South America. Is Bush doing that right now?

BEGALA: I don't know. I didn't like the attacks then. Of course, the president was popular at home, so there was no need to go running around the world and to distract attention because people liked what he was doing. But I think this could be an important trip, too.

The president's problem is going to be this. When you go on those foreign trips, you have a scandal at home, you're meeting with the president of Argentina, or he'll meet with other South American presidents, and the questions will be about the scandal. If I were him, I would take off the table the question of pardons. He should say, I'm not going to pardon Lewis Scooter Libby no matter what.

BLITZER: Why should he do that?

BEGALA: Because there's going to be the concern out there in the public that the president's going to dangle out there for Libby so that Libby won't roll on higher-ups like Dick Cheney or George W. Bush. He should say, no pardons whatsoever, he should rule them out.

BLITZER: What do you think?

ROGERS: I wonder what a preemptive Clinton no-pardon pledge would have looked like at this point in time in his second term.

BEGALA: It would have been great.

ROGERS: Again, do I think that the president should, as a result of Paul's urging, take off the table any of his constitutionally mandated or constitutionally granted authority? No, I don't. Don't do anything like that. Don't get into gimmicks. Substance is the best politics. Good policy is the best politics.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: The president is going to pardon Scooter Libby.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS: That's ludicrous. There hasn't even been a trial.

BLITZER: Are you suggesting that Scooter Libby is ready to take a bullet, in effect, for the president because he knows he's going to be pardoned?

BEGALA: I think he's going to cut a deal. I heard John King saying, and I know he's right, that he's got new lawyers, very belligerent -- not belligerent but strong -- today, ready to fight. That's the wrong political posture for Mr. Libby, I think. It's good for Democrats.

Nothing would make me happier as a Democrat than to see a long trial and watch Dick Cheney have to testify under oath about their efforts to smear Joe Wilson and his wife. But that's not good for the country. It's certainly not good for the president. Libby's going to take a plead, here. He's going to plead guilty and then Bush is going to pardon him.

BLITZER: One of those moderate Democrats, a member of the so- called Gang of 14, who were trying to avoid any filibusters and nuclear options, referring to the nomination of Samuel Alito for the U.S. Supreme Court, he was on AMERICAN MORNING here on CNN earlier today, Ben Nelson. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BEN NELSON (D), NEBRASKA: Because there are a lot of hearings, a lot of analysis of his opinions. And at the end of the day, you expect people to tell you they're not going to be a judicial activist. But at some point, you have to develop enough trust. He certainly had a good start with me yesterday.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: It sounds as if Ben Nelson is ready to go along, at least initially.

BEGALA: His standard has been consistent. And that is, I don't want an activist. OK, we don't know the -- everything about Judge Alito's record yet. But he looks like a conservative activist. Here's how. He said, for example, Congress doesn't have the power to outlaw machine guns. He took a Congressional enactment, he wanted to overturn it. That's a pretty activist thing.

He had many rulings on family and medical leave and minimum wage, laws that Congress had passed, trying to not allow them to apply. That's activism. It's activism of the right. But Nelson has been consistent. He doesn't want liberal activists or conservative activists. So he could still have a problem with Alito.

ROGERS: Senator Nelson is right, Paul is right. It's a debate worth having. That's exactly what the kind of business Washington ought to get back to. The notion today that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were chasing around Dick Cheney over vice presidential staff appoints is just ludicrous on its face. And so good for Howard Dean, good for the Democrat leaders in the Senate and the House not being able to put any pressure on this administration in any kind of substantive way.

BLITZER: Good for Howard Dean? What do you mean by that?

ROGERS: I mean, again, just saying things that are outrageous, over the top, being off-message and being here again, having that good clear maniacal look on his face and saying things that are so far out of bounds that nobody takes him serious.

BLITZER: He speaks very highly of you, though.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS: At a certain level, he's OK.

BLITZER: Paul Begala, thanks very much for joining our "Strategy Session".

Up next, more trouble for Tom DeLay? A Republican judge backs away from the case against the congressman. And there are now new questions being asked about links to a controversial lobbyist here in Washington.

And a Mexican border barrier stretching some 2,000 miles at a cost of some $8 billion. Does it make sense to you? Jack Cafferty is reading your email. He's standing by.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A new maneuver today in the case against Congressman Tom DeLay. Two days ago, DeLay won a fight to get a new judge to hear the money laundering and conspiracy charges against him. But today, prosecutor Ronnie Earle was the one who scored. He succeeded in ousting the Republican responsible for selecting the new judge. Now, the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, also a Republican, is expected to be asked to decide who will be on the bench for DeLay's trial.

The most pressing and damaging case against DeLay is playing out in Texas, but the still-powerful Republican is trying to dodge legal and political bullets on several other fronts, as well.

Our Brian Todd is covering the story for us. He's joining us now live. Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a once and possibly future House majority leader is dealing with legal and political problems that have roiled this town for several months. Today, he's got one more headache.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Tom DeLay was in no mood to answer our question.

QUESTION: Did your staffers improperly seek access to Gail Norton?

REP. TOM DELAY (R), TEXAS: I have no idea what you're talking about.

QUESTION: The Associated Press today, sir.

DELAY: I don't read it every day.

TODD: We asked the Texas congressman about a report from the Associated Press that two of his former aides tried to help lobbyist Jack Abramoff gain access to Interior Secretary Gail Norton. Abramoff represents Indian tribes and is being investigated by the Senate and Justice Department for allegedly bilking them out of millions of dollars.

The AP quotes emails from one DeLay staffer to the other in December of 2000 saying, "Do you think you could call that friend and set up a meeting?" The AP reports Abramoff was able to meet with the Interior secretary after some of his clients donated a quarter million dollars to an environmental group founded by Norton.

Contacted by CNN, an aide to Norton said the department refused a request for a direct face-to-face meeting between Norton and Abramoff and that the encounter reported by AP was an outside event that Norton was cleared to attend. The Interior official says he has no knowledge of any contribution to Norton's foundation, and he says the ultimate decision by the department on gaming issues involving Abramoff's clients went against Abramoff's side.

As for DeLay, his attorney says the congressman holds his aides to the highest of standards of conduct. And...

RICHARD CULLEN, ATTORNEY FOR TOM DELAY: It's not unusual and there's nothing improper and it happens on Capitol Hill probably hundreds of times a month for staffers to assist people in trying to get a meeting with an executive branch agency. It's a common occurrence. It's not something that a member, congressman or senator usually, involves himself with.

TODD: But according to the AP, federal and congressional investigators have obtained those emails as part of their probe of Abramoff.

JACK ABRAMOFF, LOBBYIST: Thank god Tom DeLay is the majority leader in the House.

TODD: The lobbyist once had close ties to DeLay, and the House Ethics Committee is expected to investigate a golfing trip DeLay took with Abramoff to Scotland, which may have violated House rules. Abramoff and DeLay have denied and wrongdoing.

For DeLay, this comes after his indictment by a Texas prosecutor on charges of laundering Texas state campaign funds. DeLay has denied wrongdoing in that case, saying it's politically charged. But he's had to step down, at least temporarily, as House majority leader. And his standing in the party is in question.

SCHNEIDER: And he's continuing to act behind the scenes? What we're hearing is, among a lot of Republicans in the House, there's some discomfort with that, there's some disgruntlement. A lot of them want to put distance between themselves, their party, and DeLay.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And observers say that may complicate DeLay's efforts to win back his position as majority leader. But an aide to DeLay told me this afternoon most Republicans still view him as an asset in pushing the party's agenda forward, and they are confident he will get his leadership position back.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting. Thank you, Brian.

Let's go back to the CNN Center in Atlanta once again. Zain Verjee standing by with a closer look at other stories making news. Zain?

VERJEE: Wolf, the pharmaceutical company Merck has won their second trial over its painkiller Vioxx. A New Jersey jury found that the company did not mislead doctors and consumers about the danger of using the drug. An Idaho man sued Merck, blaming Vioxx for a blood clot that led to his heart attack. Merck lost a similar trial in August with a Texas jury, awarding the widow of a man who took Vioxx $253 million.

Five U.S. Marines are accused of raping a Filipino woman earlier this week. And today, the Philippine government says it's going to fully investigate and to prosecute the marines. The government has asked the U.S. Embassy in Manila not to allow the five Marines to leave the country and to make the accused available to Philippine police as well as other legal authorities.

And Muslims worldwide are marking the end of Ramadan with prayers, visits to cemeteries, and festive meals. The celebrations of the Muslim holy month involve fasting, and Muslims refrain from smoking and sex from dawn to sunset.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thank you very much.

Jack Cafferty's back now with the "Cafferty File." He's got some responses to his question of the hour. Jack?

CAFFERTY: What do they refrain from dawn to sunset?

VERJEE: You heard me. You head me, Jack. Don't you listen attentively and avidly to everything I say here in THE SITUATION ROOM from Atlanta?

CAFFERTY: No, I don't.

VERJEE: What? Smoking and sex. By the way, Jack, why is it that the royal family doesn't appeal to you?

CAFFERTY: This is only a three-hour show, Zain.

BLITZER: All right, guys. We're getting very tight on time. Go ahead, Jack.

CAFFERTY: California Representative Duncan Hunter wants to build a fence along the entire U.S. border with Mexico to stop illegal immigration. One group says it would cost about $8 billion. Critics say a fence wouldn't work, it wouldn't be enough to stop people's resourcefulness. They'd come anyway.

The question this hour, is building a fence along the U.S./Mexican border a good idea?

Damian (ph) in San Diego writers: "I'm a dual Mexican American citizen. I fully support immigration from Latin America. I think the fence is a great idea. If you stop illegal immigration, this country will quickly realize that we can't live without this labor force, and laws would quickly be changed to grant those same people work visas. And the deaths of many who attempted to cross and died along the way would stop." Mary in Maine writes: "The fence is costly and stupid. Just prosecute and heavily fine those hiring illegal aliens, and bill Mexico for the cost of feeding and transporting their citizens home. It'll probably raise enough money to fund Social Security for the next 80 years."

Joseph in Stamford, Connecticut, writes: "Building a fence around Texas might be more helpful to the country in the long run."

Joanne (ph) in Baldwinswill, New York: "$8 billion dollars to build a fence along the U.S./Mexican border would be getting off easy. I used to live in California and resented paying for the illegals' medical, education, and welfare. Build it."

And Chuck in Fredericksburg, Virginia: "No. Troops should be put in place of a fence. We have troops dying in Iraq to make the U.S. a safer place, and we allow illegal immigrants, invaders, if you will, to walk across our border".

Wolf.

BLITZER: Good emails from viewers. Thanks very much, Jack. We'll get back to you very soon.

The things you say during a deadly hurricane. The former FEMA director Mike Brown's name is in a new controversy over some email he sent in the midst of Hurricane Katrina. We'll tell you what's in the email.

And speaking of reputations, how is presidential adviser Karl Rove faring? New reports suggesting he should resign. We'll tell you who's saying that.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're getting an important development now from Capitol Hill on the potential confirmation hearings of the nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Samuel Alito.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Ed Henry, standing by. What are you learning Ed?

HENRY: Wolf, CNN has now confirmed through several congressional sources that these hearings for Samuel Alito will actually begin in January. This is a small defeat for the White House. They were pushing very hard to get these hearings going in December, maybe even the confirmation vote on the Senate floor.

It was ambitious, but they were trying to get it done by the end of the year. There are a lot of conservative activists outside, groups basically saying they want to get Samuel Alito on the high court this year, get the moderate Sandra Day O'Connor off the high court.

The hearings, though, are now going to start in January. That is a little bit of a victory for Democrats. They were pushing hard to delay these hearings. They said they needed more time to go through Samuel Alito's background. We're expecting official announcement in a few minutes from Senator Arlen Specter and Senator Patrick Leahy. We've confirmed it will start in January.

BLITZER: All right. We'll get much more on this coming up at the top of the hour. Thank you very much, Ed Henry, for that development.

Critics of the former FEMA director Michael Brown say newly revealed email show he was out of touch after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. In some of the email, he joked about his clothes and problems finding a dog sitter.

As you might imagine, the Internet is all abuzz about it. Our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton, is here with the situation online. Abbi?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the House committee investigating the federal response to Katrina has over 1,000 of these emails, 26 pages are available to us to read. We don't know what's in the whole group of them. What we're reading in these 26 pages is pretty interesting stuff, available at the Web site of Charlie Melancon, also at CNN.com.

Some of the stuff you can read for yourself. For example, this email sent on August the 31 to Michael Brown from a FEMA employee on the ground in New Orleans saying that the situation was past critical. The response, "Anything specific I need to do or tweak?" That, from Michael Brown.

Also, emails he received. This one from a coworker at FEMA, asking him to please roll up the sleeves, "It makes you look more hard-working on TV." A photo we found on the FEMA Web site from that same day showing that Michael Brown at least didn't heed that memo that day.

All these emails available online. Seems to be a lot of interest. This site from the congressman received a lot of hits today. It slowed down at one point.

We should add that we tried to contact Michael Brown for a response to this, but did not receive one.

Wolf.

BLITZER: Abbi, thank you very much.

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