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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Bush Talk is All Business

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonopost.com
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; 12:34 PM

In a rare one-on-one interview, President Bush sat down in the White House library with CNBC anchor Ron Insana on Monday and talked at length about gas prices, Social Security, and the trade deficit.

Here's the transcript and here's the video in three parts: Bush talks about Social Security in part one, gas prices in part two and China and the trade deficit in part three.

Among the things I gleaned from the interview: Bush may be hoping for the Saudis to come to his rescue on gas prices; he'll insist on personal accounts being part of any new Social Security legislation, but not necessarily as "carve outs"; and even on the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, he doesn't have much interest in dwelling on the issue of domestic terrorism.

Gas Prices

Here's one fascinating exchange:

"Insana: [Y]ou've expressed your concern about rising oil prices. There are some people who worry that even as we wait for your energy bill to be passed we could see a $3 or $4 price-per-gallon for gasoline this summer. Before the bill passes, is there anything you can do to bring down the price so that it's not going to be a burden to the average American come this summer?

"President Bush: A couple of points on that. First, you know, it took us a while to get to where we are today and it's going to take us a while to become less dependent on foreign sources of energy. Even signing an energy bill, you don't have an instant fix.

"Secondly, I fully understand high gas prices is beginning to really pinch a lot of our fellow citizens, and that's troubling. There are some things that we need to do in the energy bill, which is encourage more exploration, we need to look at refining capacity -- how do we help put regulations in place that will encourage construction of refineries so, at the very minimum, there's a steady source of supply of gasoline.

"Thirdly, obviously, internationally I'll be talking to our friends about making sure that they understand that if they pinch the world economy too much, it'll affect their ability to sell crude oil in the long run."

"Insana: Let me ask you about that specifically --

"President Bush: Sure.

"Insana: -- because Crown Prince Abdullah from Saudi Arabia is coming to Crawford at the end of the month.

"President Bush: Right.

"Insana: What are you going to tell him about that?

"President Bush: Well, I'm going to explain to him that, you know, a, a, a, high-price crude oil will hurt the international economy.

"Insana: Can he do anything about it? The Saudis are pumping flat out.

"President Bush: Well, they're not yet. I don't think they're pumping flat out. I do think you're right, I think they're near capacity, and so we've just got, got to get a straight answer from the government as to what they think their excess capacity is. I, I don't think 'flat out' is the right description. On the other hand, it is certainly not the way it was in the past, where they had, you know, millions of barrels of excess capacity. Nevertheless, there may be some things we can do. We can make sure that people aren't getting cheated, you know. In other words, that there's fair pricing, market pricing.

"But this is a -- this, this, this, this price of gasoline should be a wake-up call to the United States Congress to get an energy bill passed. . . . "

Insana pointed out that one reason for the high prices is the weak dollar. That's something Bush could do something about, right? "This government is for a strong dollar," Bush said, noncommittally.

Bush is scheduled to deliver a speech on energy today at a U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meeting today.

Social Security Watch

Back to the Insana interview, the CNBC anchor tried valiantly to get Bush to be a little more revelatory about his thoughts on Social Security. "I want to play a little game, kind of 20 questions on how you envision a Social Security compromise," Insana said.

But Insana was forced to give up way before 20. I'll summarize the results: Would you trade personal accounts for a permanent fix? No. Would you accept those account as add-ons? Not gonna say.

Oklahoma City Bombing

As Oklahoma City marked the 10th anniversary of the terrorist bombing there, Bush chose to attend the opening of the new Abraham Lincoln presidential museum in Illinois instead.

The awkward thing about Oklahoma City is that the whole issue of domestic terrorism in the United States tends to detract from Bush's post-war rationale that the best way to fight terrorism is to spread democracy.

Vice President Cheney did the honors in Oklahoma, making brief remarks notable for his non-use of any variation on the word "terror" -- except in reference to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The White House released a short statement from Bush, in which he did not use the word "terror" at all, instead saying: "Oklahoma City will always be one of those places in our national memory where the worst and the best both came to pass."

Bush was forced to confront the issue by Insana.

"Insana: Mr. President, today is the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and a lot of people are reflecting on that act of terrorism --

"President Bush: Yes.

"Insana: -- that occurred a decade ago, one that we almost forget in light of what's happened since. Can I get your reflections on that event and what it means still even to the war on terror, even if that's a domestic rather than international issue?

"President Bush: Well, I appreciate that, Ron. First of all, I know there are people who still suffer in Oklahoma and elsewhere who lost a loved one during that horrific bombing. I have some friends who were in the building, Secret Service agents that had come down when my dad was president, come down to Dallas and, and I hope their loved ones are doing well.

"Look, it goes to show that violence can erupt anywhere, any time, and, and as a society we've got to be diligent to those who would try to harm us. It also goes to show that terrorist acts not only come from abroad but can come here at home. The positive news in this instance is the City of Oklahoma came together in strong compassion and decency and care and hope for those who suffered, and our justice system worked. The two perpetuators to that crime are -- have been held to account."

Why Every Reporter's Name is 'Q'

In my last Live Online two weeks ago, a reader from Chatham, N.J., wrote: 'One of the things that frustrates me about White House press briefings is that, unlike reporters in the room, those of us who read transcripts have no way of knowing who is asking what question. At times I'd like to see how a person's questioning in a press conference is reflected in what he or she reports after the event, but with no idea which media outlet to check I can't -- and let's not even mention my reaction when I read a question like Jeff Gannon's with no idea who asked it. I have no idea why reporters' names and/or employers don't appear on the White House Web site.'

I thought that was a good point. In particular, when someone asks an overtly opinionated or off-the-wall question, doesn't the questioner's identity become relevant? Wouldn't this help the public hold the press accountable? Might this have accelerated Gannon's exposure as the political shill that he was?

But White House spokesman David Almacy explained to me why it's not going to happen.

The primary purpose of transcribing the press briefings, he said, is to get the text out to members of the working press who aren't in attendance -- and to do so as soon as possible, so they can make their deadlines.

"If we added an extra step to hunt down who asked each individual question, that would potentially delay that process," Almacy said.

In a nutshell, while the press briefing has become a bit of a spectator sport for a lot of us, the White House press office sees it as a way of getting its message out, pure and simple. To the White House, Almacy said, "It's the answers that matter, not the questions."

Fair enough, I thought.

Then on Thursday, when Bush spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the moderator asked everyone posing questions to identify themselves by name and newspaper. Which they did.

But when the transcript came out, their names weren't there!

It's one thing not to spend the time to track down reporters' names, I thought, and quite another to remove information from an official transcript.

So I called Almacy back.

And again, Almacy explained that it's just the need for speed at work.

"Although the reporters stated their names, there's still some due diligence there," he said -- making sure the names are spelled correctly, getting their affiliations exactly right. And that's just not a good use of time. "That would delay the process," Almacy said.

Introducing David Almacy

Almacy, by the way, is the new 'Internet and E-Communications Director' at the White House, taking over from Jimmy Orr, who left shortly after the election.

Almacy, 34, grew up in Bethesda, and most recently was senior adviser to the deputy secretary of education. Before that, he worked for GovTech solutions, a company that specializes in building government Web sites.

His primary job assignment is to manage the White House Web site "and to make sure that we're communicating what the president is doing . . . It's almost kind of an editor position, determining what goes up on the web site and when and how."

Almacy says the design of the Web site probably won't change, but the navigation is up for review. "Our view is we want the users to be able to find what they're looking for as quickly and easily as possible," he said.

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Send me your questions and comments.

Credibility Watch

Nedra Pickler's Associated Press story on Monday got a fair amount of pick-up in part due to this section:

"Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., said during an editorial board meeting with the Rochester, Minn., Post-Bulletin that Bush must overcome a 'credibility problem' to revamp Social Security.

"The congressman said many people think the president underestimated the cost of the Iraqi war, then overestimated the benefits of Medicare's prescription drug plan.

"'And now, all the sudden, they wonder why people are a bit skeptical of their . . . plan on Social Security,' he said. 'It's partly a credibility problem.'"

So is Bush suddenly facing a Republican revolt on the credibility issue? And just when did Gutknecht say this stuff?

I looked over on the Rochester Post-Bulletin's Web site for their story on the topic, and found one -- from March 31. That's almost three weeks ago. But it was behind a subscription firewall, so I couldn't see what it said.

This morning, on my request, the paper put the story by reporter Joshua Lynsen out where anyone can read it.

And you can see where Pickler got her material.

The Press Wants to Know

During yesterday's gaggle, reporters unsuccessfully pressed press secretary Scott McClellan to say how aggressive Bush will be with House leaders about reconciling their energy bill with his recent insistence that, as he put it last week, "with $55 oil we don't need incentives to oil and gas companies to explore."

As Justin Blum in The Washington Post points out, the House bill includes $8 billion in tax breaks targeted to the energy industry, with a large portion going to the oil and natural gas sector.

Carl Hulse in the New York Times also notes: "A little-noted provision backed by Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the majority leader and an ally of the oil industry, would bypass Congress's normal spending process to funnel up to $2 billion over 10 years into research for recovering oil and gas from the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico."

Karl Rove and the Press

Well guess who was in the audience Monday night when White House political and policy guru Karl Rove gave a lecture on the media?

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "For more than an hour, he lectured about everything that is wrong with journalism...

"The press is generally liberal, he argued, but 'I think it's less liberal than it is oppositional.'

"The argument -- similar to the one that former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer made in his recent book -- is nuanced, nonpartisan and, to the ears of many journalists, right on target. 'Reporters now see their role less as discovering facts and fair-mindedly reporting the truth and more as being put on the earth to afflict the comfortable, to be a constant thorn of those in power, whether they are Republican or Democrat,' Rove said."

Milbank writes: "Rove left himself and the administration blameless for the tense relations between the Bush White House and the press."

But Milbank notes some contradictions in Rove's thesis. For instance, he points out, "the Bush administration prides itself on keeping journalists in the dark about goings-on inside the White House." And: "Quoting the journalist Joe Klein, Rove said reporters should understand 'how easy it is to make mistakes' in government. But the president has been famously unwilling to acknowledge mistakes."

In other words, perhaps the Bush administration has forced the mainstream media into an increasing oppositional role by making it so hard for the press to discover the truth and by refusing to hold itself accountable.

Milbank also does a little research, and exposes the flaws in Rove's use of press coverage of Bush's education plan in 2001 as a case study in unremitting hostility and cynicism.

There's more about Rove's lecture in yesterday's column.

What the Press Should Do

Veteran journalist Sydney Schanberg writes in the Village Voice: "The press is now looking squarely at a perversion of government. The administration of George W. Bush has raised secrecy and information control to a level never before seen in Washington. . . .

"The press has been grappling with how to cope with this extreme control and distortion of news, some reporters and editors more than others. One possibility they might consider is civil resistance, as in quiet, nonviolent, respectful rebellion."

More Evidence Novak Has Talked

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "A federal appeals court yesterday rejected a request for a new hearing by two journalists who could face jail time as early as next week for refusing to disclose their confidential sources to a grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA operative's name."

Here's the text of the ruling, including a concurring statement from Judge David S. Tatel.

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times that Tatel "defended much of the secrecy attached to the case, including his decision to redact eight pages that were part of his concurrence in February, which presumably set out grand jury evidence supporting the need for the reporters' testimony. Lawyers involved in the case have speculated that the pages described Mr. Novak's mysterious role in the matter, and they have argued that the secrecy that has permeated the case violated the reporters' due process rights."

Tatel wrote: "Telling one grand jury witness what another has said not only risks tainting the later testimony (not to mention enabling perjury or collusion), but may also embarrass or even endanger witnesses, as well as tarnish the reputations of suspects whom the grand jury ultimately declines to indict. Strong guarantees of secrecy are therefore critical if grand juries are to obtain the candid testimony essential to ferreting out the truth."

Land of Lincoln

Warren Vieth writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush dedicated a new presidential museum today in Abraham Lincoln's adopted hometown and said Lincoln's ideals were a source of inspiration for policies his administration is pursuing.

"Bush sought to draw a connection between Lincoln's efforts to expand the concept of freedom by abolishing slavery and America's current efforts to promote democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries with authoritarian histories."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Bush said that the belief in liberty that motivated Lincoln to rise above the racist culture and abolish slavery is relevant outside the United States. 'Our deepest values are also served when we take our part in freedom's advance -- when the chains of millions are broken and the captives are set free, because we are honored to serve the cause that gave us birth,' he said."

Here is the text of Bush's speech.

It included a bit of a swipe at the New York Times:

"In a small way, I can relate to the rail-splitter from out West because he had a way of speaking that was not always appreciated by the newspapers back East. (Laughter and applause.) A New York Times story on his first inaugural address reported that Mr. Lincoln was lucky 'it was not the constitution of the English language and the laws of English grammar that he was called upon to support.' (Laughter.) I think that fellow is still writing for the Times. (Laughter.)"

David E. Sanger of the New York Times responded with this lead: "The world may little note nor long remember what George W. Bush said on Tuesday at the dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. But it is not every day that the 43rd president of the United States encounters the ghostly, lifelike renditions of the 16th, managing a war from the bedrooms that the Bush family now occupies."

And Sanger issued this clarification of the president: "In fact, while the quotation is correct, the article, published March 9, 1861, appeared to be quoting a critique of Mr. Lincoln's address that was published in The National Anti-Slavery Standard."

The New Pope

Bush made a brief statement about the new pope yesterday, saying: "He's a man who serves the Lord."

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "The new pope may not be as receptive as his predecessor to American political overtures. John Paul II was a religious diplomat of sorts, viewing Bush as a powerful Christian leader in a position to promote their shared values. The late pope also was interested in building alliances with conservative Christians, Rozell said.

"Pope Benedict XVI authored as a cardinal a 2000 declaration stressing the perceived superiority of Catholicism and suggesting that other Christian denominations were deficient."

But Bush and the new pope are certainly natural allies in some ways.

AFP reports: "German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican theologian who was elected Pope Benedict XVI, intervened in the 2004 US election campaign ordering bishops to deny communion to abortion rights supporters including presidential candidate John Kerry."

Bush and Lebanon

Bush held another TV interview on Monday, this one with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. Here's that transcript.

Bush reiterated his insistence that Syria "get completely out of Lebanon."

Denver Three Watch

Ann Imse writes in the Rocky Mountain News: "Colorado Congressman Mark Udall insisted Tuesday that the Secret Service tell him the name of the man who appeared to be an agent and ousted three people from a speech by President Bush in Denver.

"Udall had requested a report from the agency in a letter March 28, a week after the speech. He received a reply Monday, and all it said was that the man wasn't with the Secret Service."

Kieran Nicholson, in the Denver Post, quotes from Udall's response: "While it is certainly helpful to know that a Secret Service agent was not engaged in evicting a law-abiding member of the public from an event that was paid for and organized with taxpayer dollars . . . I am still interested in knowing the identity of the individual involved . . . to determine whether this person unlawfully posed as a law- enforcement official," Udall wrote.

Tax Watch

Tom Herman writes in the Wall Street Journal: "On tax day last week, millions of Americans had paid more in taxes for 2004 because of the alternative minimum tax. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney weren't among them. . . .

"Although the AMT originally was intended to target the wealthiest taxpayers, today most of the people it hits earn substantially less than do the Bushes and the Cheneys."

Where's Home?

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "They've got a house in rural Texas and a nice home-office setup on Pennsylvania Avenue. But for tax purposes, President Bush and his wife, Laura, claim a Chicago post office box as their 'home address.'

"On the 1040 they signed, which the White House released last week, the listed home address is 'Northern Trust Co., P.O. Box 803968, Chicago, IL 60680.'

"White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said Tuesday that's because Northern Trust handles the blind trust the couple uses for their holdings since Bush took office."

Bush Driving Students to the Left?

Holly Yeager writes in the Financial Times: "The number of US university students who hold traditional liberal views increased sharply over the past year, pushed by excitement over the 2004 election and dissatisfaction with George W. Bush's foreign policy, according to a Harvard University poll released yesterday."

Here's the executive summary of the poll, from Harvard University's Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Their Political Personality Test lets you measure where your political beliefs fit with college students across the country.


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