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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Looking for Motive

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, February 14, 2005; 12:35 PM

When this White House -- or any White House -- is pushing an agenda, its public pronouncements are only part of the story.

It's a reporter's job to try to determine the unspoken motives behind the agenda. One way to do that can be to look at the agenda's most enthusiastic backers and examine what's motivating them. Another way is to step back and take a look at the big picture.


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Over the weekend, we were treated to an example of each.

Thomas B. Edsall wrote in Sunday's Washington Post that a "large network of influential conservative groups is mounting a high-priced campaign to help the White House win passage of legislation to partially privatize Social Security and limit class-action lawsuits."

What's motivating the business and trade groups in particular?

Edsall writes: "Some business groups have calculated that if the Bush Social Security plan fails, pressure will grow to raise payroll taxes to pay future costs of the program. Every percentage point increase would cost corporate employers about $50 billion annually.

"What's more, Wall Street and the financial sector stand to reap substantial fees from the management of personal Social Security accounts.

"In the case of tougher standards for lawsuits, business leaders are seeking to place firm limits on a legal system that in recent years has produced settlements that will cost tobacco companies $246 billion over a decade, and has pushed into bankruptcy more than 70 companies tied to asbestos litigation."

And Larry Eichel writes in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer: "The idea of replacing part of traditional Social Security with personal accounts has been kicking around since before Ronald Reagan was president.

"And those pushing it the hardest are not motivated by any great desire to restore the system to long-term solvency. They are driven by ideology and the chance to reshape the biggest of all government programs. In their view, America is better off the less money the government touches and the more control people have over their lives."

Eichel adds: "Some Democrats say they view the personal-account proposal -- which they denounce as expensive, risky and unnecessary -- as the first step toward the dismantling of the entire program. And the true believers on the right occasionally provide fuel for Democratic fears."

Republicans to Bush: Stay Fuzzy

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has warned the White House that voters are not yet ready to accept fundamental changes to Social Security as wary Republicans are cautioning the president to be as vague as possible about his plan.

"White House and congressional GOP tacticians said yesterday that they now see little chance that Bush will issue a detailed plan for partially privatizing Social Security the way he released specific proposals for tax cuts and other major initiatives."

Allen adds: "Worried about possible defections, administration officials have tried to reassure GOP lawmakers in several ways. For example, the White House produced a video of Bush's roadshow to show wavering Republicans that the president is working as hard on the issue as he did during his own campaign."

Media Strategy

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "For Team Bush, the communications goal is to get around national media the GOP believes stand between the president and the people. . . .

"From how the message is delivered, to who is in the audience to hear it, to who gets to ask questions about it, the White House goal is control. It's a critical effort for a president who must get Americans to give him a listen about proposed overhauls of basic institutions such as Social Security, health care and taxes."

And Herman reports that the infamous, alleged "do-not-admit list" for Bush's event in Fargo on Feb. 3 actually did come from the White House "advance" staff, in spite of the White House's earlier protestations that it had nothing to do with it -- but wasn't actually what it was made out to be.

Herman explains: "The locals operate under marching orders from the White House 'advance' staff. Earlier this month, James Burgum, an aide to North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, was one of the locals.

"Inside the box of tickets and other event materials he got from the White House was a list passed down by the advance team of people it deemed could be disruptive to the event, he said.

"Burgum said volunteers were told it was not a 'do-not-admit list.' What it was, he said, was more of please-behave list. The 42 people on the list, if they sought tickets, were to be asked not to disrupt the event."

Mary Jo Almquist also wrote more about this in the Fargo Forum last Saturday, but I missed it.

Are Dissenters Really Welcome?

Bush on Wednesday travels to New Hampshire for another "conversation on strengthening Social Security."

Beth LaMontagne writes in the Portsmouth Herald: "According to Ann E. Caplin, chairwoman of the Portsmouth Republican Committee, tickets for the president's speech Wednesday at Pease International Tradeport have been made available as of this morning through the New Hampshire congressional delegation offices. Blocks of the 2,000 available tickets have been set aside for people serving in the military, members of the local chambers of commerce, Republican Party officials and the general public. . . .

"This isn't a political event," said Caplin. "It doesn't matter if you are Democrat, Republican or independent. This trip is an appeal to all Americans."

Robert M. Cook writes in the Fosters Daily Democrat of Dover, N.H.: "Regardless of political persuasion, residents across the region will have a chance to see President Bush on Wednesday at Pease International Tradeport.

"Beginning on Monday morning, people can call any of the New Hampshire congressional delegation offices in the state and reserve any number of tickets to attend the president's town-meeting style event, according to Ann E. Caplin, chairman of the Portsmouth Republican Committee."

So is this a break from the precedent that ticket distribution is handled by Republicans alone? Well, no. Both of New Hampshire's congressmen and both of its senators are Republican.

Document Dump

Hey, it's a tradition because it works.

The White House often dumps unpopular documents on the press late Friday, because Saturday's newspapers and news broadcasts have the week's smallest audiences -- and hopefully all is forgotten by Monday.

Peter Baker and Christopher Lee wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "President Bush's budget plan calls for elimination or drastic reduction 68 federal programs that he has never targeted before, including vocational-education grants, emergency medical services for children and assistance to local law enforcement agencies, according to a list the White House released yesterday. . . .

"The White House released the list of program cuts in response to congressional requests, sending it to lawmakers late on a Friday afternoon, when it would receive relatively little attention heading into the weekend.

"The timing underscored the political calculations involved as Bush attempts to fulfill his vow to cut the federal deficit in half by 2009 while still paying for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and financing his ambitious proposal to restructure Social Security. While it may be politically advantageous to announce that 154 programs would be eliminated or reduced, it becomes far dicier on Capitol Hill once they are identified."

Here's the list of major reductions and terminations in the 2005 budget.

Time Bomb

Why are congressional Republicans starting to bristle at some of Bush's budget proposals? Maybe because they're looking a little further ahead than just the next four years.

Jonathan Weisman and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post that "the numbers released in recent days add up to a budgetary landmine that could blow up just as the next president moves into the Oval Office.

"Congress and the White House have become adept at passing legislation with hidden long-term price tags, but those huge costs began coming into view in Bush's latest spending plan. Even if Bush succeeds in slashing the deficit in half in four years, as he has pledged, his major policy prescriptions would leave his successor with massive financial commitments that begin rising dramatically the year he relinquishes the White House, according to an analysis of new budget figures."

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News and World Report: "Bush's proposed $2.57 trillion budget for 2006 is arguably further out of whack than any offered in recent years. He omits costs for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, long-term expenses for the war on terrorism, and planned changes in the alternative minimum tax, each of which is expected to cost at least tens of billions over the next five years. He assumes that all discretionary spending beyond domestic security and the military will be frozen for five years. He wants to make permanent the massive tax cuts of his first term, further starving the government for money."

Matthew Cooper and Massimo Calabresi write in Time magazine about the budget's winners and losers.

"Best Hidden Giveaway: An $8.3 billion windfall, buried deep in Vol. 2, lets managed-care companies continue to cherry-pick the healthiest Medicare patients, though these firms get paid as if they carry older and sicker ones. Healthier patients cost less, but this budget keeps the status quo instead of adjusting Medicare subsidies as planned."

Dana Milbank notes an irony in The Washington Post: "According to an analysis of Bush's budget proposals, red states won by Bush in 2004 would experience cuts in federal grants in 2006 equal to 2.33 percent of their budgets on average. But blue states won by the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), in 2004 would lose federal grant money equal to only 1.74 percent of their budgets on average."

One Line Item's Story

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "After hearing graphic stories of suffering directly from persecuted young people who fled to the United States, President Bush intervened personally to sharply increase the number of refugees admitted to the country -- undoing the severe limits placed on such admissions for security reasons after the Sept. 11 attacks. . . .

"The meeting with the refugees occurred in a Washington hotel before the president spoke to a conference about his faith-based initiative. The private session was supposed to last 20 minutes, according to one participant, but went on for an hour. . . .

"A 21-year-old Liberian woman, Veronica Braewell, broke down in tears as she told Bush about her experience at age 13 of being left for dead on a pile of bodies by militants, of having watched them slice open the bellies of pregnant women and kill unarmed schoolchildren.

"As she sobbed, the president handed Braewell a handkerchief and embraced her, Braewell recalled in a tearful interview from her home in Allentown, Pa."

Bush "also spoke with a 22-year-old college student from Sudan. Elijah Anyieth told the president about the seven years he spent in a refugee camp in Kenya -- often with just an ear of corn a day to eat -- and described his escape on foot from his warn-torn country after the death of his parents. . . .

" 'He said that my story shows why the American people like to help people's lives,' Anyieth said. 'From the moment he said that to me, I knew that he was going to do something.' "

Here's the list of roundtable participants Bush met with that day, and here is the text of his apparently unscripted remarks right after the meeting.

Today's Calendar

It's not on Bush's public calendar, but Guy Dinmore writes in the Financial Times: "President George W. Bush will meet Jakob Kellenberger, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), today to discuss a range of humanitarian issues.

"The ICRC said the White House had proposed the meeting, which comes amid mounting allegations of torture and inhumane treatment of detainees held by the US in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba."

The Associated Press reports: "The confidential talks are set to focus 'on a range of humanitarian issues,' the ICRC said, without elaborating. But it appeared likely Kellenberger would raise the organization's concerns over handling of terror suspects detained at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"In November, the ICRC said U.S. officials had failed to address concerns about significant problems in the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo."

The only thing on Bush's public calendar is the swearing-in of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general. And here's the transcript of that event.

Gonzales Watch

The Associated Press reports: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has stepped aside from the Justice Department investigation into the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity.

"Gonzales had been involved in the case as White House legal counsel, testifying before a federal grand jury and giving advice about it to White House personnel."

Guckert, Gannon and the Facts

Joe Strupp, writing in Editor & Publisher, and blogger Tom Maguire, in his "Just One Minute" blog go a long way toward clearing up some of the misinformation out there about Jim Guckert, AKA Jeff Gannon.

Did Guckert actually ever get access to an internal CIA memo related to the Plame case? It seems unlikely.

Maguire, for instance, points out that Guckert's first mention of the memo apparently came several days after the Wall Street Journal had already written about it -- and that his mention of it, in an interview with Plame's husband, Joe Wilson, was almost word for word from the Journal.

In an interview with Strupp, Guckert said: "I never said I had it or had seen it."

And was Guckert subpoenaed by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the Plame case?

"Guckert said that contrary to many press reports, he was never subpoenaed by the special prosecutor and has never testified before a grand jury in the case. But he said he was interviewed by two FBI agents in his home for about 90 minutes last year," Strupp writes.

So, in fact, the only thing we know for certain is that Fitzgerald subpoenaed the White House for records about Guckert/Gannon -- like I said in my March 10 column, almost a year ago.

Gannon's Other Question

Strupp also reports: "Guckert first attended a presidential press conference in April 2003, he said, just weeks after starting with Talon News. He also attended another, for which he cannot recall the date, prior to the late-January conference that brought him to public attention. 'I was also once at a Rose Garden briefing after the announcement of the interim government in Iraq,' he said. 'It was impromptu. I thought [Bush] had pointed at me, but he was really pointing at someone else. But I shouted out a question, and he answered it.' "

Looking at the transcript and video of that June 1, 2004, news conference, it's pretty clear that this is Guckert's question:

"Q Mr. President, could you speak about Sudan, the peace agreement in Sudan and how that nation has turned away from terrorism?

"THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I appreciate that. The question is on Sudan. Recently, there was a signature on a document that took us a step closer toward achieving our objective. However, it is very important for the Sudanese government to understand we're watching very carefully, the hunger, the brutal human conditions in the western part of their country, and that we expect there to be an accommodation to the relief agencies as well as the American government to get aid to those people. We're closer to an agreement in Sudan, it's a very important agreement. And we will continue to work the issue really hard."

And, much like the other inaccurate, loaded question Guckert more famously asked Bush last month (see Thursday's column for more), this one, too, was bizarre -- apparently an invitation for Bush to take a victory lap regarding the Sudan peace deal. That deal was between the government and southern-based rebels -- while the much bigger story in Sudan was (and remains) the crisis in Darfur, where government-backed Arab militias have murdered tens of thousands of African civilians.

It was such an odd softball, in fact, that Bush didn't swing -- at least not completely.

More Troubles

Esteban Parra writes in the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal: "The former Wilmington resident who gained notoriety asking softball questions at White House press conferences has an outstanding tax bill from the state of Delaware.

"James D. Guckert, who reported under the pseudonym Jeff Gannon, failed to pay Delaware more than $20,700 in personal state income tax from 1991 through 1994, according to documents filed in Superior Court in Wilmington."

Medicare Watch

Peter Baker and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "President Bush warned Congress yesterday not to reopen the landmark Medicare legislation that he pushed through in his first term and threatened to veto any measures scaling back its benefits even as new financial forecasts show the cost soaring over the next decade. . . .

"For Bush, the forceful statement represented a rare invocation of the presidential veto as a weapon in a legislative fight with a Republican Congress. Through more than four years in the White House, Bush has never vetoed any bill. The unyielding language also signaled his desire to quickly quash any renewed debate over Medicare when he is traveling around the country trying to gather public support for his plan to dramatically change Social Security."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks.

Poll Watch

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush is getting failing grades from America's youngest and oldest voters -- key groups he needs to rally to help him get his Social Security overhaul through Congress, a new poll showed yesterday.

"Some 54% of Americans disapproved of Bush's job performance, while 45% said he's doing a good job. Most thought the country is headed in the wrong direction, The Associated Press poll found.

"Bush got his worst marks from people 65 and older, though young adults age 18 to 29 were not far behind in their disdain. . . .

"Without solid poll numbers, it will be hard to win support in Congress for Social Security changes, a White House official acknowledged."

WMD Commission Watch

Mark Hosenball and Tamara Lipper write in Newsweek: "The White House has now asked a secretive commission headed by federal appeals Judge Laurence H. Silberman to reassess the intel czar's post and clarify its responsibilities. Silberman's commission, set up by Bush a year ago, was assigned to study U.S. intel failures on Iraq and ways to stop nuclear proliferation.

"At a White House meeting soon after his re-election, NEWSWEEK has learned, Bush asked commissioners to focus on 'the importance of making sure the intel agencies worked in concert,' says a White House official. A source close to the commission says the panel was doing a 'lot of work' on the issue and that this was a natural assignment for the group because any recommendations the panel comes up with have to take into account the role of the new intel czar. . . .

"Perhaps not coincidentally, two of the names most frequently mentioned as hot candidates for the intel-czar job are both members of the WMD commission: Judge Silberman himself and Adm. William Studeman, a former director of the hypersecret National Security Agency, which monitors international telecoms and breaks foreign government codes. Silberman is said to be a favorite of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's. Studeman served as NSA director when Dick Cheney was Defense secretary under President George H.W. Bush."

Silberman is also the man that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid once called "one of the most partisan people in all America."

See my WMD Commission page for bios of Silberman and Studeman.

Karl Rove Watch

Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff write in Newsweek: "For much of Bush's first term, not to mention the 2004 campaign, the administration denied what everyone in the capital knew to be the case: that, on policy, Rove was a man to see. Last week the White House made it official, announcing that The Architect of the 2004 victory -- indeed, of Bush's entire political career -- would become a deputy chief of staff, while keeping his existing titles of senior adviser and assistant to the president. . . .

"Andy Card -- known to fear the gravitational pull of Rove's close relationship with the president -- will remain as the chief of staff, they insisted; a source close to him said that Card will stay at least through 2006. Rove, insiders said, wouldn't want Card's job anyway, at least in its current configuration, which is more paper flow than policy."

Bush Gets a Rush

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Bush usually takes any chance to fly off to his Texas ranch or, at the very least, spend the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat sprawling across hundreds of acres in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains. Since taking office in January 2001, he has visited Camp David 87 times, according to a tally by CBS News' Mark Knoller.

"Not this weekend, though -- nor virtually any other this year."

So what's he doing while he's here?

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes for the Baltimore Sun that Bush is indulging his obsession with biking.

" 'He's become a biking maniac,' said Mark McKinnon, his media adviser and frequent cycling companion. . . .

"Besides burning calories at a 1,000-per-hour clip, cycling gives Bush an emotional rush that sometimes surpasses the one he got from running.

" 'He's obsessed with it,' McKinnon said. 'He now likes to do nothing but work out on his bike, and he does it with a frenzy that is reserved for people like Lance Armstrong.' . . .

"Bush, who isn't chatty during bike rides, save for what McKinnon calls 'hoo-hahing' and 'testosterone sort of towel-snapping remarks.' "

The Kiss

Al Kamen writes in his Washington Post column that "in Washington, the buzz continues about 'The Kiss.' No, not Gustav Klimt's famous painting. It's the big fat one an exuberant President Bush planted on Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's right cheek as he waded through the Capitol crowd after the State of the Union a couple of weeks ago."

It's at the 58-minute mark in this C-Span video if you really care.

East Wing Intrigue

Elisabeth Bumiller writes for the New York Times: "The East Wing has traditionally been the 'nice' wing of the White House, the decorous place where the social secretary, the calligraphers and members of the first lady's staff plan projects, guest lists and the centerpieces for state dinners. But lately, there has been the kind of upheaval that rivals any West Wing intrigue."

Bumiller writes that the first lady's press secretary, Gordon Johndroe, is expected to leave the East Wing in the next months for a new job.

The Bushes You Don't Know

And Johndroe's apparently getting quite chatty now that he's leaving.

He tells Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times all sorts of personal things about the Bushes.

The president has "loaded his iPod with his favorite country singers: George Jones, Kenny Chesney and Alan Jackson. He also listens to Aaron Neville, Creedence and Van Morrison.

"The first lady doesn't have an iPod but is a confirmed online shopper. 'She buys everything online,' said Johndroe. . . .

"She knows what Googling is and has discussed the effect of EBay on the economy with its CEO, Meg Whitman. For privacy reasons, the Bushes do not use e-mail. . . .

"The couple have not caught 'Desperate Housewives,' said Johndroe, but their daughters are fans of the melodrama on Wisteria Lane. 'Barbara and Jenna have talked to them about it, and they're worried that since they didn't start from the beginning it would be hard to jump in now.' "

And, finally, the Bushes have not seen "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central.

"But, said Johndroe, 'They are familiar with Jon Stewart and his comments about Crossfire.' (Last October, Stewart appeared on CNN's bipartisan scream fest and told co-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala their bickering was 'hurting America.') At least one of the Bushes approved of that message: 'Mrs. Bush shares some of the same sentiment that many of those shows on TV have become one side yelling at the other and the other yelling back,' said Johndroe, 'and no one has any idea what they're talking about.' "


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