- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

The Bush administration insisted yesterday that it had maintained a hands-off policy throughout Sen. Trent Lott's ordeal and did not orchestrate his ouster as majority leader, but it was the deafening silence that helped seal the Mississippi Republican's fate.
"The White House made it very clear that it would not and did not take part or play any role in the decisions that are the prerogative of the senators to make," said Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary.
President Bush expended no political capital to save Mr. Lott, condemning the Mississippi senator's racially charged statement as "offensive" and "wrong" but never personally saying the senator should remain in the Senate's top post.
Instead, the president directed Mr. Fleischer to say so. Mr. Bush's repeated dodges on the topic included this exchange yesterday: Reporter: "Trent Lott question?" Mr. Bush: "I would have, but we ran out of time."
Yesterday, White House advisers breathed a sign of relief at Mr. Lott's decision to resign as majority leader, having determined this week that he was beyond redemption.
"I think 72 hours ago we realized the situation had become critical," said one administration official, who asked to remain anonymous. "Could we have done more? Sure, but the exposure simply became too high.
"The Senate picks its leaders, with or without input from the White House. We left it at that," the official said.
Mr. Bush achieved at least two goals by staying mum on Mr. Lott's fate. He appeared to stay out of the internal matters of the Senate, where lawmakers believe they alone should decide their leaders. And he did not back a losing effort to save Mr. Lott's job, which could have hampered implementation of his agenda.
Mr. Lott's fall began Dec. 5 at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, when he said the nation would have been better off if Mr. Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, had won the presidency in 1948, when he ran on a mostly segregationist platform.
The White House relief was evident yesterday, two weeks after the Lott story broke and rode front pages daily across the nation.
"Very shortly the questions will all return again to matters of policy," Mr. Fleischer said at his daily briefing after fielding more than a dozen questions on Mr. Lott.
Mr. Bush was meeting with the National Security Council in the Situation Room when word about Mr. Lott's resignation began circulating in the White House. It was confirmed by a phone call to Mr. Lott's office by Nick Calio, the president's congressional liaison. Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. informed the president of the turn of events when his meeting concluded about 11 a.m.
Senior Republicans said Mr. Lott's decision caught many senior White House officials by surprise, including top political adviser Karl Rove and political director Ken Mehlman, who were not given notice by Mr. Lott's office.
After Mr. Bush said Dec. 12 that "recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," he went mum on the matter. Mr. Fleischer denied reports that White House aides were working to oust Mr. Lott, but some administration officials said several aides were talking with senators to assess the damage.
Privately, senior Republicans and some Bush aides thought Mr. Lott had little chance of keeping his post. Though one official said neither the president nor any administration member actively pressured Mr. Lott to relinquish his leadership post, the official said: "No one tried very hard to save him, either."
The White House strategy was clear from the start: Mr. Lott would have to save himself.
"The message that the White House is sending is, 'no comment' means no comment," Mr. Fleischer said Tuesday.

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