Post Politics Hour

Jim VandeHei
Washington Post White House Reporter
Friday, October 14, 2005; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post White House Reporter Jim VandeHei was online Friday, Oct. 14, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

The transcript follows.

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Jim VandeHei: Good morning. lots to discuss today, so let's roll.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: People seem to be concluding that Karl Rove testifying today means he's in deep trouble. But considering the fact that he volunteered to do so, isn't he operating from a position of strength? If Rove were in trouble wouldn't his lawyer be telling him not to say anything since what he says could be used against him in the future?

Jim VandeHei: There are a number of explanations that range from the innocuous to the possibly criminal. The simple fact is: we have no clue. It is never a good thing to be called before a grand jury when you work in the White House, especially for the fourth time. It is possible Rove is there to set the record straight, clarify some facts. But it is also possible Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the case, is trying to determine if he has been truthful in his prior testimony and whether he was involved in a scheme to discredit Wilson in part by unmasking his CIA operative wife. we will know soon enough.

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Osh Kosh, Wis.: Why are reporters like you so cynical? The President had a genuine conversation with our brave boys in Iraq and you treat it as if it were just a political show.

Jim VandeHei: Since I am from Oshkosh, I assume this is my Dad. leave me alone.

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Hickory, N.C.: I watched the White House briefing yesterday when Scott McClellan accused the media of focusing on Ms. Miers' religion - the point you attempted to make with McClellan, that the White House is responsible for the religion litany, went on deaf ears. Speak to us about the frustration level of journalists when questions go answered and are replaced with talking points.

Jim VandeHei: It is very frustrating when the White House refuses to answer questions or attacks the motive of people asking questions instead of providing information. I think for those of you who watched the press briefing yesterday the frustration was evident. Still, it is Scott's job to deflect criticism and spread the White House talking points. It is our job to challenge him

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Chicago, Ill.: How can you sit in the White House briefing room and listen to Press Secretary Scott McClellan lie day in and day out without going crazy?

Jim VandeHei: I am getting flooded with questions about the press briefings. They are the biggest opportunity Scott has each day to spread the president's version of events and beat back criticism. The process is inherently confrontation because he does not want to tell us answer to questions we want and need answered. The truth is, we rely little if at all on the information from the briefings for our stories. Instead, we spend our days on the phone will people inside and out of the White House trying to figure out what is really going on.

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Fort Hood, Tex.: Abramoff prosecution has so many contacts that are seemingly regretting their associations nowadays...How many more persons do you think the administration might lose to this investigation

Jim VandeHei: I have no idea -- and that is what scares White House officials most. They like to control events and anticipate setbacks and no one knows which direction the investigation will go. Already connections to Abramoff have cost two White House officials there jobs: the top procurement officer was arrested and the nominee for the number two job at Justice withdrew

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Seminole, Fla.: Has it occurred to anyone that we might have a possibility of cover up starting with POTUS himself on dissemination of purposefully wrong info to press?

Jim VandeHei: I have never heard any one in the case suggest Bush himself was involved in the leak. The prosecutor did talk to Bush and it appears, based on my reporting, he did not know what was going on. But let's wait and see what the prosecutor has to say. The grand jury expires Oct. 28, so we should know something by then.

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The Bubble Man is Back...: After all that has been said and written about Bush being in a "bubble", why would his staff "stage" the teleconference with the soldiers? Were they afraid of a "Rumsfeld" moment of being questioned by "unscreened" soldiers? The entire situation just gives more credence to the bubble argument and isn't too far-reaching to the "crony/yes-man" argument that Miers is dealing with right now.

Jim VandeHei: lots of interest in yesterday's staged event. They stage these things so the message Bush wants delivered is delivered. They don't want any curveballs. In this case, they got caught. The tape was rolling early and it was plain to see the soldiers were being coached. McClellan denied this, for the most part, but the pentagon put out a statement last night essentially apologizing for creating the perception of a staged event

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Herndon, Va.: I saw in Dan Froomkin's column yesterday that the latest NBS/WSJ poll pegs Bush's approval rating at 2% among the 89 blacks polled. That seems pretty hard to believe. What would the odds have to be for the pollsters to happen to call Condi Rice???

Jim VandeHei: I was amazed when I saw that number. the RNC under its new chairman has devoted much of the year to reaching out to black voters. The president won slightly more than one out of every 10 votes from African Americans, so the RNC must be worried about those numbers

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E.J. Dionne is right...: What happened to the "War on Poverty?" It does appear to have been pretty short. And better yet, what is the status of that "Bi-Partisan" Katrina Commission? Is it over? Are they going to issue an report similar to the 9/11 Report? Or in the end, was it all just a show and distant memory?

Jim VandeHei: I can not recall a time when there were so many major stories (catastrophes, scandals and debates) at the same time. One result is major problems such as the response to Katrina do not get as much attention as many think they warrant. It is amazing to watch elected officials, who dedicated their lives to helping the victims after Katrina hit, move on to other issues so quickly.

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Washington, D.C.: Did you really expect the President's talk with the soldiers to be a free flowing give and take? This is the military, they never question anyone in their chain of command in public, and rightly so, otherwise how could they maintain discipline? There are good reasons to question the conduct of the war, but we shouldn't want or expect soldiers in uniform to do so in a public venue when speaking with the President.

Jim VandeHei: I don't think anyone expects Bush to engage in a debate with soldiers. But I also don't think the public expects the White House to cook up an event with taxpayers dollars that purports to be a free exchange of ideas and and bill it as such. We all know most public event for politicians are staged. This is just a rare example when their video evidence of how it is done.

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Falls Church, Va.: Scott McClellan is beginning to really take some heat during the daily press briefings, but what he said yesterday to Helen Thomas really went over the line.

This administration has seen Helen as a real thorn in their side since Day 1, but there's really no justification for McCellan saying "Well, Helen, the President recognizes that we are engaged in a global war on terrorism. And when you're engaged in a war, it's not always pleasant, and it's certainly a last resort."

You're thoughts?

PS. The transcript of this piece of the briefing can be found at Editor & Publisher ( Scott McClellan Says Helen Thomas Opposes 'War on Terrorism' ).

Jim VandeHei: I don't think it is Scott's job to take personal swipes at reporters, which he did yesterday. That said, Helen is very tough and very negative towards Scott and Bush and frequently makes hostile comments during these briefings.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Any word on the content of Karl Rove's testimony today before the grand jury?

Jim VandeHei: not yet.

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Washington, D.C.: Considering all the bad news for Bush and the Republicans, the Democrats don't seem to have a plan to capitalize on this. Who in the party will stand up and bring them out of the wilderness?

Jim VandeHei: The Democrats inability to come up with an agenda is the saving grace for the GOP, according to many Republican strategists. The Democrats remain divided, often bitterly so, over the future of the party. Consider the vote on John Roberts: 22 for, 22 against. Don't get more divided than that. Still, if the public loses faith in Republicans, who control the White House, House and Senate, the Democrats could benefit from not being Republicans. There is some polling evidence that voters want new leadership in Washington, but look closely at those numbers and they still have no clue what Dems stand for.

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Galveston, Tex.: How bad is the "insider-trading" scandal facing Bill Frist? Why did the Senate ethics committee allow him to keep such holdings in the first place? Please shed some light on this topic if you can. Thank you.

Jim VandeHei: Like all these scandals, it is bad only if he did something illegal. we don't know if he did. politically, it is a problem. remember the image he was trying to cultivate is the squeaky clean doctor.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: 89 black Americans is hardly a representative sample, but to only get two people out of that group to admit to liking Bush is pretty heinous, margin of error or not. The Katrina response gave the GOP an excellent chance to connect with black America, and they completely blew it. It seems they are worse off now than they ever were.

What coalition of American voters do Republicans lose next, women, working class families, Hispanics?

Jim VandeHei: I did not know the sample size was that small. If so, I would not take the 2 percent number to the bank. that is way too small to draw firm conclusions. as for the larger point, politics is about building winning coalitions of voters. Karl Rove's grand plan was to lure more women, Hispanics, blacks, Jews, etc into the GOP fold. It seemed to be working - and still may be - but the past few months show how quickly things change in politics. Bush has done a lot to reach out to blacks, to little avail. Consider the number of African Americans in high positions and the expansion of faith-based programs which are very popular with many black church leaders in the big cities.

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Burke, Va.: Any thoughts, comments on the politics of the new Bankruptcy Law? This was something that was widely disliked, yet it still passed with a lot of Republican support and a little Democratic support.

Jim VandeHei: I don't have the numbers, but it did have some strong democratic backing. It is the perfect example of the split inside the Democratic party between those who fancy themselves moderates with pro-business records versus those who think laws like this one help the rich and hurt the poor. if you step back and think about the laws that have been enacted this year - bankruptcy, energy and CAFTA (the trade law) - the common denominator is a chunk of Dems broke away from their leadership and sided with a nearly united GOP.

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Rockville, Md.: Why DO you sit in the White House briefing room and listen to Press Secretary Scott McClellan? It seems to me that since they just spin the "line of the day" it MIGHT be more effective if no one showed up for a few days.

Now that might make the Bush house wake up.

Jim VandeHei: Because John Harris, my boss, makes me. Kidding. They are useful in that provide insight into the story the White House is trying to tell and the rhetorical devices they use to do so.

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New York, N.Y.: To what degree do you think the White House will be able to maintain in-house discipline if Rove is indicted?

Jim VandeHei: I think that discipline is slowly eroding. Republicans are much quicker to criticize the White House and you are starting to see some aides share their concerns about other aides. You would think that is common. But not in this White House. one of its great operating strengths is the discipline and loyalty from the top on down. Rove, in many ways, is the man who holds this operational paradigm in order

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Austin, Tex.: Do you think Bush himself is fully aware of just how "staged" most of his public appearances are?

Jim VandeHei: I am sure he knows there will be no surprises.

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Baltimore, Md.: If it comes out that Rove and/or Libby did indeed commit the lesser crimes talked about--perjury, conspiracy, etc.--do you agree with the assessment that this sort of thing is par for the course in Washington? Or do you get the sense that these alleged crimes are above and beyond the usual?

Jim VandeHei: it really depends on what, if any, the crime is. trying to discredit critics is biz as usual in this town as is trafficking in information about political threats. you should look at Richard Cohen's column for yesterday if you want to hear the argument on why this is much ado about nothing.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: With Fitzgerald calling more than one major witness back to the grand jury this week, has the impression shifted at all away from him being in the final stages or the investigation, or could enough new evidence have come to light that the grand jury could be extended?

Jim VandeHei: the grand jury could be extended. I don't know if it will be. the assumption among the lawyers is this is about to be wrapped up.

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Washington, D.C.: What did you make of McClellan's attack on Helen Thomas--saying he "knows" she is against the "broader war on terror"?

Jim VandeHei: She is columnists, so here views are well known. I don't know how he would know she is against the broader war on terror.

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Fairfax, Va.: There have been Post stories about the disarray among Democrats, but other than Terry Neal quoting David Sirota's take on the liberal/progressive perspective, mostly The Post provides the centrist point of view (articles by Edsall and Broder's column yesterday). Why don't we get more specific reporting on the nature of the Democrats' internal struggle other than just saying over and over that the struggle is the main obstacle to Democratic viability as an effective counterweight to the Republicans?

Jim VandeHei: we do. as any other organization, we have limited resources and right now we are focusing more on the party with the most power to write laws and effect people's lives. There will be plenty of time for politics and soul searching in 2006 -- and election year. Keep an eye on Dan Balz's stories - he has been at the forefront of dissecting the Dems internal fights.

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Link to DiRita Statement?: Was looking for a link to DiRita's statement re yesterday's staged video conference. Any change you could post it? Thanks.

Jim VandeHei: No. 1045-05

(703) 697-5131(media)

IMMEDIATE RELEASE October 13, 2005 (703) 428-0711(public/industry)

STATEMENT FROM PENTAGON SPOKESMAN LAWRENCE DI RITA

U.S. forces are proud of their service in Iraq. The service members who spoke with the President from Tikrit today are proud of the opportunity to discuss their service with the Commander-in-Chief.

The event was technologically challenging and required organization and preparation. The soldiers were advised as to the issues they should expect to discuss, and decided among themselves who would speak to each issue as it may arise.

The service members were excited about the opportunity to speak with the President. No one intended to tell them what to think or how to express themselves; going through likely questions in advance was meant solely to help the troops feel at ease during an obviously unique experience.

All of us at the Department of Defense are proud of the chance to serve the troops who serve the country, and we appreciate any opportunity to help them tell their story. On behalf of these fine young men and women, we certainly regret any perception that they were told what to say. It is not the case.

Subject: News Release, Mr. Di Rita's Statement, 13 Oct

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Morristown, N.J.: Do you think Karl Rove will bring enough embarrassment to the President that he will be asked to step down even if he is not indicted?

Jim VandeHei: I think Karl is invaluable to Bush, at least in the president's eyes. The only way rove would leave is if Bush is forced to let him go because of an indictment.

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Washington, D.C.: On Imus this morning, Kelly O'Donnell of NBC repeated the administration's spin that it had absolutely nothing to do with the staging of yesterday's photo-op with the troops. She says it was all the Pentagon's doing and the President's people were just as surprised as all of us were.

My question for you: how can Washington press corps continue to believe these sorts of things from this administration, and then repeat them on air? Are you all really that gullible?

Jim VandeHei: What happened is the defense department was in charge of coaching the soldiers, but I find it impossible to believe the White House communications team did not how the event would go down. They pay way too much attention to the president's public image not to know the details.

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Boston, Mass.: You mentioned the column by Richard Cohen yesterday. I was stunned by the amazingly broad--both visceral and well-reasoned criticism of his column. He was, and continues to be slaughtered in the blogs. Has this created any debate within The Washington Post Newsroom?

Jim VandeHei: there is very little discussion in the news room about columns. we are too busy working.

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Jim VandeHei: I have to apologize for going after my dad on the early email from Oshkosh. It was not him. It was one of my evil colleagues.

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Jim VandeHei: lets all folks. I need to wrap up a bit early - to get ready for Scott's next briefing!

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