WASHINGTON -- The White House began a campaign yesterday to save the candidacy of Michael B. Mukasey for attorney general, with President Bush defending the nominee in a speech and in an Oval Office interview, where he complained that Mukasey is "not being treated fairly" on Capitol Hill.
With Mukasey's confirmation in doubt over his refusal to state a clear legal position on a classified CIA program to interrogate terror suspects, Bush took the unusual step of summoning a small group of reporters into the Oval Office to preview remarks he planned to make later in the day at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization here.
"I believe that the questions he's been asked are unfair," Bush said. "He's not been read into the program - he has been asked to give opinions of a program or techniques of a program on which he's not been briefed. I will make the case - and I strongly believe this is true - that Judge Mukasey is not being treated fairly."
The Oval Office remarks, the speech and Vice President Dick Cheney's separate address yesterday demonstrate just how much the White House has been caught off guard by the fight over Mukasey, a retired federal judge whose confirmation until recently seemed like a sure thing. But the effort also suggests that the White House believes it can combat criticism of Mukasey and his views by appealing to public concern about terrorism.
With leading Democrats such as Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York giving Mukasey positive reviews at the outset, the White House had hoped to use the Mukasey nomination to mend the bitter partisan feelings left by the resignation of Bush's former attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales. Now Schumer says he is undecided, the top Democratic presidential candidates say they will oppose the nomination, and any hope of bipartisan support has all but been erased.
The nomination has not moved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee - the panel is expected to vote Tuesday - and the committee could decide to keep Mukasey from receiving a vote on the Senate floor.
The biggest obstacle for Mukasey is that he has refused to declare whether he believes a particularly controversial technique known as waterboarding is illegal and a form of torture.
The warning shot may have done Bush some good, at least with Sens. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, both of whom have condemned waterboarding as torture. They issued a joint statement yesterday, saying they would vote for Mukasey. "Once he is confirmed, however," the statement added, "we strongly urge that he publicly make clear that waterboarding is illegal and can never be employed."
The senior Republican on the judiciary panel, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said yesterday that the White House is right to be concerned about Mukasey's prospects. Specter said he was trying to persuade the administration to brief Judiciary Committee members on the CIA program, so that "we can talk it out amongst ourselves and try to come to a consensus." But he said Bush's aides have not yet agreed; "They're noncommittal."
Among Democrats and their outside allies, support for Mukasey is clearly dwindling. The Alliance for Justice, a liberal judicial advocacy group that had spoken kindly of Mukasey at first, announced yesterday that it would oppose his nomination.
"Based on his record as a judge, we had every expectation that he could show some independence from the administration," Nan Aron, the group's president, said in an interview. "But his testimony and his answers indicate that he's really unwilling to distance himself from Bush's illegal, unconstitutional policies."
In the Oval Office meeting, Bush declined to address the issue of waterboarding, a centuries-old method that simulates the feeling of drowning. "The American people have got to understand the program is important, and the techniques used are within the law," he said.
Bush and Cheney made the war on terror and the CIA program a central theme of their speeches on yesterday, with Cheney suggesting the agency's efforts have spared Americans another terrorist attack.
"Because we've been focused, because we've refused to let down our guard, we've done - gone more now than six years without another 9/11," the vice president said, addressing the American Legion in Indiana.