White House Insiders
Thursday, May 13, 2004; 11:00 AM
What is the latest buzz within the Bush administration? How is the White House reacting to the growing Iraq prisoner abuse scandal? Should Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld resign?
Washington Post White House correspondent Mike Allen takes your questions and comments on President Bush, the current administration and covering the White House on Thursday, May 13 at 11 a.m.
White House Insiders is a new show featuring Washington Post staff writers Mike Allen and Dana Milbank. Every two weeks, one or both will take your questions on the White House, the president and the Bush administration.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Mike will be with us momentarily.
Good morning in online land! I was supposed to be writing out the summary of the story I plan for today for my editor, but I have been transfixed by the live television coverage of Secretary Rumsfeld's surprise visit to Baghdad. He is taking questions from the soldiers, many of them Guard and Reserve, and the first one was a toughie about the stated goal of reducing troop levels. He joked that anyone who gets up and asks first must REALLY have something on their mind. I hope you won't be as tough on me. Let's get started
To what extent do you think the administration is paralyzed by the mutually corrosive demands of conservatives who want accountability and conservatives who believe that admitting error is a sign of moral weakness?
Mike Allen: "The administration" is a rather big place, "paralyzed" overstates the situation considerably, and "corrosive" is your opinion. But you put your finger on an important and frustrating issue for the White House. Most conservatives want less government spending and a smaller deficit, but many of them favored the occupation of Iraq, which has turned out to be a rather expensive enterprise. However, consistency is in short supply in politics, anywhere on the spectrum. Besides, many supporters of the president would tell you that admitting error at this point might be more of a political issue than a moral one.
Mike, you've been hanging out in the White House for some time now. Based on that experience, is this a White House in crisis mode?
Mike Allen: They have televisions, so I think it is safe to say the answer is "yes." But there's almost always a crisis for any White House. Only the severity varies and let's just say they are not in denial about the ramifications of this one. The first court-martial will be held next week, and it is unclear to people close to the president when public attention will move to another issue. They recognize that they cannot change or evade the subject and realize that they will just have to ride this out while also talking about their other priorities. Today, for instance, the president is in West Virginia talking about high school initiatives. My colleague Amy Goldstein is with him. Tomorrow, I'm traveling with him to Missouri (yes, another swing state) for a commencement address.
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.:
Have you noticed how Cheney has yet to say anything about the prisoner scandal? Where is the Vice President on this one? Guess we know what he thinks of the whole thing, eh?
Mike Allen: So much sarcasm, so early in the day. The vice president appeared with the president on Monday to give his endorsement to his old friend Secretary Rumsfeld. The vice president also suggested on Tuesday that he is wary of publicly releasing all the abuse photos the Pentagon has. On the White House beat, we often contribute to other reporters' stories, and here's the message I sent in Tuesday for the photos story that day:
Vice President Cheney, in a telephone interview yesterday with Tony Snow of Fox News, said the release of additional photos "has got to be handled in an intelligent, reasonable fashion."
"It's not just a matter of, sort of whetting people's appetites to see sensational stuff here," Cheney said. "...I'd say there are a lot of equities involved here besides just satisfying the desires of the press that want to have more pictures to print. There are serious questions about people's rights, as well as our ability to be able to prosecute."
With more and more foreign and domestic newspapers and public figures calling for Rumsfeld to resign, what do you think it would take for the Bush to ask him to step down? It seems to me that Bush is loyal to a fault? Is there a poll number out there we should watch for? Thanks.
Mike Allen: The White House decided late Friday or early Saturday that it was in the President's interest to embrace Secretary Rumsfeld and he did so unequivocally on Monday. It appears very unlikely now that Secretary Rumsfeld will be publicly fired. He could still step down, and I wrote in Wednesday's paper that he was still considering that, if he concluded his effectiveness had been too badly undermined.
Fort Lee, N.J.:
Is there a feeling of relief among White House political operatives that Bush is still ahead of Kerry despite all of the "bad" news associated with Iraq?
Mike Allen: Relief, yes. Amazement -- there may be some of that, too. Senator Kerry was ahead by five points in a poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. But it is a fact that: 1) events have not eroded the president's support as much as you or I might guess 2) although the president's approval rating has fallen to a level some of his advisers consider dangerous, Senator Kerry has not risen commensurately. Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, wrote on the Op-Ed page of my second favorite newspaper yesterday that this should not necessarily comfort the president's aides (he didn't really write that -- that was my conclusion) because historically voters have first become disillusioned with an incumbent before later transferring their support to the challenger. Mr. Kohut wrote that was true in both 1980 and 1992.
washingtonpost.com: Pew Poll: Iraq Prison Scandal Hits Home, (May 12)
Greetings from a fellow TD alumn/escapee.
Based on your exposure to President Bush in
recent weeks, particularly during his campaign
swings, to what degree do you sense he is able to
maintain focus on the campaign vs. current
events/crises? And, would you attribute his focus
or lack of focus on how he manages information
(or has his staff manage it for him) or on his lack of
curiosity (as it is sometimes described)?
P.S. You guys should get Holmberg on the White
Mike Allen: The happiest time in my life was spent in Richmond with my friends at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Governor Wilder, Colonel North, Senator Robb, the Bobbitts--a theme park for reporters, to steal a friend's line about Rhode Island corruption. Mark Holmberg is a very gutsy and irreverent reporter. We can always use more of both. The White House will tell you the president stays focused on both the campaign and current events/crises, and that the public understands he will do both and expects him to do both. But I know that I hardly need to point out that they are not, um, unrelated. See you at Third Street Diner tonight for a limeade. (At least.)
Somewhere Out There, USA:
Colin Powell's piece in GQ is quite interesting. I can't wait for his version of the story to come out once he's no longer working for the administration.
Mike Allen: "Somewhere Out There, USA" -- the dateline equivalent of a "senior administration official." If I may be naughty for a second, you might say that between the GQ article and Bob Woodward's stunningly revealing books "Bush at War" and "Plan of Attack," one need not wait for at least part of Secretary Powell's version.
As far as Cheney you did not mention that he said for people to get off Rumsfeld's back about the prisoner torture scandal. Basically this White House feels they should be able to do anything they want without any Congressional oversight. Even a Republican was (Graham) was taken aback by the vice president's attitude.
Mike Allen: An administration official provided a quote by the vice president to Reuters, transmitted earlier Sunday morning, that said unnamed critics of Secretary Rusmfeld should "get off his case." On Saturday, an official gave a version to me and a New York Times reporter that did not include that phrase. The response from Congress, even some Republicans, was basically, "You talkin' to ME?"
There's some new guy asking questions
at the daily briefings who sounds like a
plant from the Bush administration. I think
his name is Jeff. Any idea who he is and
how he gets in to the briefings? This guy
makes Fox News actually seem fair and
Mike Allen: I believe you're referring to Jeff Gannon of Talon News, whose dispatches are available at GOPUSA.com
I read a series of articles this week that appeared in the Washington Times that were reports by Bill Sammon based on his newly published book that is intended to be supportive of President Bush, "Misunderestimated." In the middle article, Mr. Sammon writes about how the President gets his news and what he reads. Mr. Sammon writes: "Mr. Bush does not pay much attention to press coverage of his administration." The President is quoted as saying: "I don't watch the nightly newscasts on TV ... I don't read the editorial pages; I don't read the columnists." While the President says he is aware of the facts, apparently the source of such facts is not from what the President reads directly from news articles, but from extracts of news stories presented to the President by his aides including Chief of Staff, Andrew Card. Mr. Card is quoted as saying "He does not dwell on the newspaper, but he reads the sports pages every day ..." Finally, Mr. Sammon's report says that "Mr. Bush thinks that immersing himself in voluminous, mostly left-leaning news coverage might cloud his thinking" and the President is quoted as saying "I like to have a clear outlook ..." Mr. Bush's supporters have touted that one of his strengths are his strong beliefs, the certitude of his positions that are held without any doubts as to their correctness. However this article implies that if the President were exposed to differing points of view "it might cloud his thinking." This article is supposed to showing the President in a positive light, but what it indicates to me is that the only way the President can maintain the belief in the correctness of his opinions is to avoid exposure to other points of view. How can anyone objective person see this as a positive virtue?
Mike Allen: You get the award for longest question. Bill is a good friend and a great dad, and I'm looking forward to his book. The president gave Bill a long and meaty interview. But this idea of the president not reading the paper has become something of an urban myth that sprang from a comment he made to Brit Hume of Fox News. The president's aides show him certain stories, and tell him about others. Here is what the president told Mr. Hume: "I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories and get briefed by people who probably read the news themselves. I appreciate people's opinions, but I'm more interested in news and the best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world." So, you might say he has his own filter. Regardless of what the president reads or doesn't, we know that Mrs. Bush reads the papers and let's just say she does not withhold her opinions from him.
Talon News says that Gannon is a columnist and appears on talk shows to discuss politics (ie, give his subjective points of view).
I think this is fine, but if the White House refused to have Helen Thomas give questions because she was a columnist for UPI, then why do they allow Gannon to get a question everyday? My question is loaded, obviously.
Mike Allen: Ms. Thomas asks a question at nearly every gaggle and briefing.
Have you received any "off the record" comments from the White House regarding the President's latest low approval ratings emerging from the polls?
Mike Allen: Yes, and what they said is ...
C'mon, if I wrote about them on the Web, they wouldn't be very off the record. The Post has a strict definition of "off the record," which is that they not be used in any way.
But the president's staff is incredbily loyal and let's just say they are not exactly Chatty Cathys on this subject.
OK, this has been very fun. Thank you for all the great questions. I'm going to go to work now. To be honest I am gong to work for 10 minutes and then go to lunch. But I promise to work at lunch. Have a great weekend. Thank you for reading The Post and visiting washingtonpost.com
© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive