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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org. You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.


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The transcript follows.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone. My column today was about some of the fault lines that have emerged during Bush's European trip.

But I'm eager to respond to your questions and comments about anything White House-related. Bring it on.

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Springfield, Ill.: The white house is putting a good spin on the Europe trip. Given that Russias Putin was behind the election rigging in the Ukraine, what type of spin will they put on the Putin meeting?

Dan Froomkin: That's only one of the conundrums facing the White House with regard to Russia. See today's column for more. I'm particularly fascinated by the potential for Putin to throw Abu Ghraib -- and the contested 2000 election -- in Bush's face if Bush gets pushy on Putin's anti-democracy moves.

But I don't think it will happen. I think they'll be all smiles in public -- and there'll be some furious spin by both sides for their audiences.

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Houston, Tex.: Why on Earth does Bush call other world leaders by their first name in public? Won't an aide tell him it is in bad taste? Idiots.

Dan Froomkin: Hey, pal, you're from Texas. Isn't that the way people talk there? Isn't he just bringing a little Texas charm into the fusty world of state visits? I'm sure some people find it downright charming.

But the fact that it is apparently rarely -- if ever -- reciprocated might indeed suggest that it is not appropriate.

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Burlington, Vt.: Hi Dan -- When I heard it on the NPR news last night, I thought that the loud, spontaneous laughter after the president's "US won't attack Iran, but all options are still on the table" was rather a big deal, as you implied in today's column. Yet this morning NPR (and reportedly others) edited their broadcasts of the Bush quote, and the laughter was gone. If the reaction of Europe to our leader and our foreign policy is derisive laughter, I kinda think we ought to know. And now my question: Are you bringing home Belgian chocolates?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not on the trip myself, wasn't in the room, and suppose it's possible that the reason the laughter hasn't been widely reported (though it was mentioned in the New York Times and a few other places) was that the audience wasn't considered representative. (And it's quite possible the loudest guffaws were from the traveling press.)

But I also think that things like that are easily overlooked by journalists who are seeking harder news, and have limited space (or airtime) to deal with tangents.

That said, I would have liked to see someone ask one of the briefers about it.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: The abuse of background-only briefings by White House staff constitutes yet another way for this administration to manipulate the media.

I suggest a simple solution: give each of the handful of regular background-briefers his own anonymous designation. Karl Rove, the chief abuser of this technique by all accounts, could be always called "highly placed White House source," while Andrew Card could always be "unnamed West Wing figure." If all of the White House press used this system (a big "if", yeah) we would at least know who's floating the trial balloons and cranking on the rumor mill. Whadya say, Dan?

Dan Froomkin: Having waited a long time for the press corps to overtly revolt against this vile tradition, allow me to suggest another possibilty: What if White House reporters just started anonymously outing the anonymous briefers to bloggers? Just an idea.

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Dan Froomkin: Incidentally, I don't understand why the White House is no longer routinely publishing the transcripts of the various briefings (background or on the record) that it conducts, transcribes, and sends out to the press mailing list.

I publish them when I have time. Here, for instance is the latest one, from just a few hours ago, quite remarkably on the record, from national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

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Rockville, Md.: Apparently James Guckert (aka Jeff Gannon) was in the White House press room before Talon News was an organization. Scott McClellan was quoted, I believe, as saying that he got the pass those days through GOPUSA. Now with a name like that, why did they assume that was a news organization? I think there are still a lot of questions as to what the threshold is for getting into the White House press room. Any additional insights on what constitutes a "media organization"?

Dan Froomkin: Eric Boehlert has a story today in Salon that talks more about this, and about how Joe Lockhart, from the Clinton White House, thinks political organizations don't belong in the press room.

Boehlert also describes the credentialing standards set by the Standing Committee of Correspondents on Capitol Hill -- which seem pretty reasonable. Meeting their standards is a prerequisite for getting a White House "hard" pass.

But of course Guckert did a clever end-run around the hard pass, simply asking for permission to visit each day.

Barring that kind of abuse may be one thing the White House will consider now.

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Rolla, Mo.: The audible laughter to Pres. Bush's response to the possibility of military action vs. Iran may seem like a minor point, but it seems very relevant to how skeptical Europe is to his overtures. Very few MSM outlets in the US (I am thinking maily of broadcast news) let on that this incongruous answer was met with laughter. In fact, my bet is that most Americans did not pick up on this as being an absurd response.

Dan Froomkin: Well, even without the laughter, it's a bit startling, isn't it?

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New York City, N.Y.: For me, it's all about the hypocrisy. As you often point out, the administration builds a bubble around the president allowing virtually no dissent, yet those same bubble creators allow a gay-porn star (aka Gannon -- okay, I am being harsh by the gay porn star comment) to walk freely around the White House. And I don't have a problem with Gannon either -- anyone, should have access to the President and that is my point. Is enough being done and what can we do to pressure this administration to stop creating these bubbles on his official trips. These are tax-payer financed trips -- shouldn't we all be allowed to attend and voice our dissent and/or praise? Many thanks.

Dan Froomkin: I first wrote at length about the bubble in my Feb. 8 column, and have since then chronicled several more examples of people being turned away, or even ejected, based on what appears to be their lack of overt support for the president.

I thought it was an interesting story, and still do. I'm not sure why it hasn't gotten more attention, to be honest.

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Albany, N.Y.: How would you assess the reaction to David Kuo's piece that the Bush Administration isn't terribly serious about the faith-based initiative beyond its obvious appeal to the Christian base? Is anybody in the Christian base upset about this argument, and do you see any substantial ramifications?

Dan Froomkin: I think that should have been more than a one-day story. But it wasn't.

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Houston, Tex.: Dan, I find it alarming that Bush insists on first-naming foreign leaders who don't reciprocate. It smacks of disrespect and condescension, analogous to the nicknames he bestows on people here at home.
I can't believe this practice does anything to mend fences with Europe. What has been the press reaction to it?

Dan Froomkin: I haven't seen anyone but me take much note of it, actually.

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Washington, D.C.: What's the buzz about EU weapon sales to China?
That was mentioned as one of the few public rifts. However, has anyone in the administration said what they will do against this serious threat to US security besides bluster?

Dan Froomkin: Well, as I note in today's column, Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times that the House could get pretty huffy about it -- and maybe even try to limit arms sales to Europe.

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Lexington Park, Md.: After meeting so much opposition, do you think the President will come back from Europe with a retooled message about Social Security?

Dan Froomkin: Well, ordinarily I would say no. Thus far, Bush has stuck to his simple message and repeated it endlessly.

That said, sometimes when you least expect it, he reverses course, gets all nuanced and makes it look like he never really changed his mind about anything. So it could happen.

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Virginia: Question: In today's story by Al Kamen, he suggests that George Bush drank wine with president Chirac. Is this true? If so, has anybody talked to him about this? One cannot quit drinking and just casually pick it back up. As we say here at AA, once an alcoholic always an alcoholic. I hope he hasn't it's a nasty demon to kick and it just takes once to fall off that wagon.

Dan Froomkin: Real Kamen carefully. He doesn't say Bush drank. He just said there was a wine list.

Incidentally, the Financial Times now reports: "More details have emerged from Bush's dinner with French president Jacques Chirac. While French, rather than Freedom, fries were served, French wine was not. It was Californian.

"However, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president who hosted Bush last night, served up Bordeaux and some 1997 Bollinger along with the nouvelle cuisine. Not that Bush, a teetotaller, would have noticed."

Case in point, at today's "toast" with German Chancellor Gerhard Shcroeder, Bush started off: "Gerhard, before I raise my imaginary glass -- "

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Washington, D.C.: The NY Times had a story Sunday about the end of the PDB in the wake of Negroponte's appointment. That story was buried in the front page section. Then today comes the Post story about the removal of a chapter from the Council of Economic Advisors report, also somewhat buried in the same section. It seems that we are seeing a further disintegration of the role of knowledge and analysis for decisionmakers and a move toward only nodding heads of agreement. It also appears as if the administration wants to be able to hide behind this new "rosy-scenario all the time" structure if and when something actually happens. This is obviously very dangerous for the security of our country. Why isn't this been covered in more detail?

washingtonpost.com: Dropping Report's Iraq Chapter Was Unusual, Economists Say (Post, Feb. 23)

Dan Froomkin: What is it they say about us reporters? Give us two facts and a deadline and we call it a trend?

One problem with your analysis, however, is that you misread the New York Times story in question. What Douglas Jehl wrote was that Negroponte is taking over the task of authoring the President's Daily Briefing -- not eliminating it.

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Skaneateles, N.Y.: Dan, on the Gannon issue. I think someone from the Detroit Free Press had a good observation. How does the White House diligently screen out people with potentialy adversarial positions at these "town hall" meetings yet can't seem to find the same passion to restrict psuedo- journalists like Gannon? I guess I know the answer to that but at some point (please!!!) the White House has to have their wrists slapped nez pas?

Dan Froomkin: I'm glad you mentioned that editorial. I thought the questions it raised -- as well as the questions Boehlert raised -- are much more important and interesting than a lot of the others running around out there.

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Washington, D.C.: Reading today's column, it seems like Bush is once again demonstrating that his idea of diplomacy is telling Europe and Russia what he expects of them. Any word of any concessions that he might be willing to make? I know global warming has become an issue that the EU seems determined to make America come around on sooner rather than later.

Dan Froomkin: So far, the simple act of visiting jovially, alleging that he is listening, and expressing theoretical support of multilateral action in certain instances are apparently being considered such a concession by White House officials that they now feel it is Europe's turn to make concessions. At least that's my read of this story today in the Financial Times by James Harding and Daniel Dombey.

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Washington, D.C.: Don't the leaders who aren't calling Bush by his first name because they realize it's inappropriate, also realize that by allowing him to do it while still referring to him as President Bush, makes them seem subordinate to him? If I were a world leader and I was irritated with America in general and Bush in particular--as many of them seem to be these days--I'd be letting the "Georges" fly freely. I might even slip a "Georgie" or two in for good measure.

Dan Froomkin: Well, leave that to Vladimir.

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Lexington, Va.: I have been expecting more about Bush saying that the treasury bonds in the social security trust fund were just worthless IOU's but I haven't seen anything. Did the White House take back that statement?

Dan Froomkin: No, I believe Bush has repeated it several time since I wrote about it the issue on Feb. 11.

I think it's a helluva story. But apparently it's a little dry.

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Bethesda, Md.: How concerned really was the WH Press Corps over the guy who was I guess posing as a reporter and who managed to ask the president a question?
Who do they complain to when something like that happens, especially since they don't actually work FOR The White House? How much say do they have in who gets credentials?

Dan Froomkin: Well, some people were concerned enough to take him aside. (See my Feb. 10 column.

But as I wrote on Feb. 15, the corps is a pretty live-and-let-live sort of bunch.

They have no say in credentialing.

But in retrospect (and I was writing about Gannon's outrageous softballs more than a year ago) it might have been a good idea for someone to go to McClellan and suggest that a guy who isn't a real journalist, works for a partisan Web site, comes in every day on day pass, and asks questions that typically aren't really questions and are just a big waste of everyone's time maybe shouldn't be called on every day. Or something.

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Bethesda, Md.: Why isn't anyone at the Post writing about the obvious danger in John Negroponte controlling the intelligence the president sees? As Ambassador to Honduras this man whitewashed reports to President Reagan of the torture and death squades rampant there. Isn't a pattern of "telling the administration what they want to hear" exactly what has us hip-deep in Iraq and $200 billion short? Appointing another yes-man with a history of lying is asking for more of the same.

Dan Froomkin: Negroponte has repeatedly said that Honduras is ancient history, and while places like The Nation aren't letting it go, it barely merited a paragraph in most mainstream writeups.

Here's the Nation's David Corn asking: "How many times can I write the same piece about John Negroponte?"

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Fairfax, Va.: I've spent most of my life overseas, as the child of a US diplomat and now as a diplomat myself. I have found that most foreigners -- especially Europeans -- are on a first name basis as quickly as we are. I doubt any world leaders have been offended by Pres. Bush's use of their first names.

Also, I thought David Ignatius' column had a most interesting quote by Walid Jumblatt, of all people, in reference to Lebanon's movement for political change: "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people vogting three weeks ago, 8 miullion of them, it was the start of a new Arab world".

Just thought a pro-Bush comment could be added to this forum.

Dan Froomkin: Fair enough! And here's a link to that David Ignatius column.

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Alexandria, Va.: Dan, keep up the great work.

And, thank you for the "alleged" you put in your discussion of the alleged assassination plot.

Do you find it odd that the indictment did not contain any charges against this kid for assassination, but the media reported that it did?

Dan Froomkin: Well, this one's certainly worth keeping an eye on, not just because of the vague allegations but because of the spectre of torture hanging over it.

That said, the newspaper reports I saw phrased things very carefully. But I suspect the distinction was lost on most people.

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Bethesda, Md.: I didn't notice your bit about how the Europeans laughed at Bush in any of the US newspaper items I read. They pretty much led with the "not going to attack Iran" stuff but left off the laughing from the audience. European leaders laughing at the President when he contends we're not going to attack someone seems like THE STORY. Why did most everyone downplay or ignore it?

Dan Froomkin: OK. Bluntly: It didn't fit well into the algorithm that is your typical White House news story.

Also, for the record: Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times did mention it: "'This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous,' he said, then added, to some laughter in the room, 'and having said that, all options are on the table.'"

Anyway, it's one of the things I love about my column. I'm not expected to always lead with the traditional news lead. I make up my own algorithms as I go along.

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Washington, D.C.: Does Gannon now have his own blog and does he continue to report? It would be a shame to allow all that notorious noteriety to go to waste. Besides, the only real issue was his daily press pass. Everything else is just complaining by people who are opposed to conservative journalists who once advertised their services as gay escorts. That just shouldn't eliminate someone from the debate in the world where Janet Jackson can appear semi-nude on national television.

Dan Froomkin: Anticipating his own redemption, Guckert told Joe Strupp of Editor and Publisher that he fully expects to attend this year's White House Correspondents Dinner!

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Arlington, Va.: I'm glad to see that I wasn't the only one who found Bush's "ridiculous" soundbyte humourous. NBC news showed the clip last night, but not the laughter that you say ensued.

Anyhow, I was interested in Bush's follow-up comments that you quoted this morning, in which he says that "Iran is not Iraq." Have any reporters asked Bush to compare/contrast the two threats (Iraq in 2003, Iran now)? It seems to me that the two situations have several similarities (nuclear ambitions, repressed citizens, a threat to the region, etc.), but that the Bush administration has reacted very differently to these two threats.

Is Bush a realist now, knowing that he cannot fight another battle alone in Iran, or do you think he genuinely believes that Iraq in 2003 was a greater/more immediate threat than Iran now?

Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: That would be a good question. But yes, realistically, I think Bush recognizes the country cannot afford another ground war right now. (But the Air Force is free.)

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Shepherd Park, Washington, D.C.: Dan,

Love your writing; you've become must-read material for me these past few months.

My question: Has anyone asked the President about the apparant contradiction between the Administration's North Korea and Iran policies?

It seems that for negotiations with North Korea to succeed, the U.S. MUST work with allies in multilateral talks, but with Iran, the U.S. feels that it would be inappropriate to work with the Europeans in negotiations.

Dan Froomkin: Another fine question. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: Many, including the White House, suggest that the "media" as a whole is tilted in one way or another. However, the truth is (while, personally, I appreciate news and viewpoint as seperate entities) that we can find the news being told to us from whatever viewpoint we choose, liberal, conservative, ultra-conservative, etc. My question is, how does having the news told to us from the viewpoint we're comfortable with help us in any way?

Dan Froomkin: Like most "mainstream" journalists, I believe in accountability -- and I believe in the value of many voices. If you only hear the news from an overtly partisan source whose politics you share, it is likely that you will not be exposed to some very important stories.

But I guess I could see it as part of a healthy diet.

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Delaware: "I always get suspicious when people put any adjective in front of democracy -- People's Democracy, Proletarian Democracy, Aryan Democracy, Managed Democracy,"

Someone might want to remind Mr./Ms. Senior Administration Official that we (supposedly) live in a Representative Democracy. I guess we all shoud be suspicious.

Thanks for all of your great work Dan!;

Dan Froomkin: Funny. Thanks.

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Anonymous: The New York Times had an article today about how Bush will probably get a cool response from the Russians and how they might bring up problems in the U.S., like the 2000 election. I always wondered how Bush would be able to lecture other countries on democracy considering how he got into office. Has anyone ever mentioned that to him and what was his reaction?

Dan Froomkin: That was a fascinating story indeed by Steven R. Weisman.

It's amazing how he has avoided public confrontation about either the 2000 election or what is increasingly looking like widespread torture of Iraqis at the hands of our troops and spies.

What irony it would be if Putin brought them up.


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San Francisco, Calif.: I love me the Froomkin! You're my hero.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you, I think.

And with that outrageous softball, I bid you all adieu.

See you here in two weeks, and every day on the home page!

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