Post Politics Hour

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, November 15, 2005; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest buzz in politics? Start each day at wonk central: The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post national political reporter Peter Baker was online Tuesday, Nov. 15, at 11 a.m. ET . Baker is currently traveling with the President and discusses his trip live from Kyoto, Japan.

The transcript follows.

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Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us today. I'm chatting with you live from Kyoto, Japan, where President Bush has arrived for the first stop of his week-long Asia tour. It's the middle of the night here but still lots to talk about, so let's get going.

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washingtonpost.com: Bush Shifts Focus With Trip to Asia , ( Washington Post, Nov. 15, 2005 )

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Little Rock, Ark.: Yesterday, the President stated in his speech while in Alaska, that Congress had the same intelligence as did the White House. Is this a true and accurate statement? How much access does Congress have to debate on intelligence compared to the White House?

Peter Baker: This is an excellent question and already a point of some debate. My colleagues Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus addressed this in an analysis over the weekend that pointed out that the president has access to far more intelligence than members of Congress who are dependent on the executive branch to release it to them. At the same time, of course, many members of Congress did have access to the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which compiled the consensus view of the intelligence community, which at the time by and large did conclude that Saddam Hussein had weapons program.

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washingtonpost.com: Asterisks Dot White House's Iraq Argument , ( Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2005 )

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Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.: Hi!

Was Bush's trip to Asia a planned event for some time, or did it become a part of the schedule when the recent drop in the President's poll numbers hit the news?

Peter Baker: It's been planned for quite some time and is built around the schedule of the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC. But its timing by happenstance does provide the president an opportunity to talk about something other than the various issues that have been so damaging to his public standing in the polls lately.

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Fostoria, Ohio: What does the administration really know about the severity of global warming and how much aren't they sharing with the public?

Peter Baker: An interesting question. The city of Kyoto, where the president is now, of course is the place where dozens of nations negotiated the famous environmental treaty in the 1990s committing developed nations to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. President Clinton signed onto the treaty but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification and President Bush ultimately pulled out altogether. It's not a topic he's likely to raise here in his meetings.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Posting early to make a few points for those who want to read too much into last weeks election.

1. Since 1981, the Democrats have elected 4 governors in Va. to 2 for the Republicans.

2. Democrat governors in Va have moved steadily right in order to get elected. Warner and Kane ran on platforms to the right of many Northeast Republicans.

3. The last two GOP candidates ran horrible campaigns. Kilgore's effort in Northern Virginia basically consisted of mark time until after Labor day, confuse volunteers with a disorganized grass roots effort in September and October, pray the RNC's vaunted 72 hour campaign can make up for eight months of wasting time.

What do The races in Va. and N.J. tell us about national trends? Nothing at all.

Peter Baker: Fair points. We all look to such off-year elections for clues but they're not really predictive of the future, as history has shown us. The significance they have, though, is giving a small taste of the broader political environment in which candidates are running these days. Already you're seeing some Republicans citing Virginia to back away from the president or argue that candidates might need to do so next year. And so rightly or wrongly such election result also help to shape the broader political environment, at least in a small way until something more interesting comes along to consume the political world.

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Fairfax, Va.: What do you believe differs Cuba's communism from China's communism in that the U.S. is cold to Cuba but warm to China in matters of diplomacy and trade?

Peter Baker: A provocative question that challenges the policy under the last several presidents at least. The easy answer, of course, is $230 billion in trade conducted between China and the United States last year -- most of it going one way. Cuba does not hold such power over the U.S. economy.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Why do you thing the press & the public allow their attention/focus to be so easily shifted and finagled by trips like this (blatant ploys to shift the press and public's focus away from what's important)?

Peter Baker: Oh, I'm not sure they do. Obviously we're going to cover an important trip by a president as thoroughly as we can. But we walk and chew gum at the same time, and there will still be plenty of coverage of other important issues. I notice just a week after the president's Latin America trip that folks still manage to spend quite a good amount of time talking about the CIA leak case, Iraq intelligence and other issues.

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New York, N.Y.: President Bush has been taking swipes at the opposing party in speeches at military bases. How common and appropriate is it for the commander-in-chief to turn a military base into a partisan rally?

Peter Baker: A good question. Presidents give speeches at military bases all the time that further their political aims and promote their political points of view. But the speeches President Bush has given in the last few days have been notably sharper than usual for such a non-partisan locale, singling out Democrats, and even specific Democrats, for criticism.

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West Palm Beach, Fla.: Peter,

Will you we going to Mongolia with the President?

This is not a facetious question, but why is the President going to Mongolia?

The CIA Fact book states "Economic activity in Mongolia has traditionally been based on herding and agriculture."

Is the President seeking to stock his Crawford, TX ranch with Mongolian wild bactrian camels?

Peter Baker: Camels in Crawford! Now there's an idea. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Mongolia recently and was given a horse, which he named Montana. As I understand the arrangement, he then paid a local a small sum of money to keep the horse for him, at least until he can figure out how to get it back to the States, if he does seek to claim it. As for President Bush, he'll be the first president ever to go to Mongolia -- maybe that's the appeal? Aides say he wants to show appreciation for the fact that, proportionately, Mongolia sends more troops to Iraq than all but two other allies. Guess this is what he needs to do to keep the remainder of his coalition together.

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New York, N.Y.: In the Cuba vs. China question you failed to mention the obvious difference: Florida's 27 electoral votes. Why skirt around the issue?

Peter Baker: Another fair point. Conventional wisdom holds you can't win Florida if you're not tough on Cuba because of the Cuban American population. Obviously to some extent Al Gore suffered in Florida in 2000 from the Clinton administration's handling of the Elian Gonzales case. China policy holds no such consequence in an electoral sense, but the business community that favors good relations with Beijing wields a lot of influence in Washington.

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Washington, D.C.: In light of President Bush and Vice-President Cheney's insistence on exempting the U.S., specifically the CIA, from a ban on torture, do you think the issue of human rights will still come up in Mr. Bush's meeting with the Chinese delegation? Will the Chinese delegation ignore the comment like they normally do or choose to point out Mr. Bush's support of human rights abuses? Will Mr. Bush's and Mr. Cheney's actions on this torture issue completely delegitimize the U.S. as a proponent of Human Rights?

Also, what issues will Mr. Bush address in Japan? Mr. Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni shrine? The right of a woman to ascend the throne of Japan? Okinawa airbases?

Sorry for barrage of questions, but this administration has not been active in one of the most powerful regions in the world, so there are many issues to address. However, I don't know which ones will be brought up.

Peter Baker: The president will give a speech here in Kyoto in about 14 hours discussing democracy and freedom in Asia, presumably aimed mostly at China. And the president will bring up human rights while in Beijing, according to aides. But it's not likely to be the main focus of those talks. And human rights violators do point to U.S. policies lately to justify their own actions. On Japan, I'd be surprised if the president brings up any of those topics you mentioned, though reporters might at a mini-news conference he'll hold with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi later today. They're all especially sensitive matters here and most of them not directly tied to the United States. On the airbases, the United States and Japan just sealed a new agreement rearranging the U.S. troop presence that may lower the footprint, if you will, that aggravates the Japanese public at times.

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Corona, Calif.: Earlier, you commented about '$230 billion in trade conducted between China and the United States last year -- most of it going one way.'

Is that a true 'trade' figure or is it the cost of the U.S. outsourced production in China?

Peter Baker: An interesting question that I don't really know the answer to. Here's the government web site that we got the figure for. It gives its own breakdown of trade, including various goods and agricultural and industrial products:

http://www.bea.gov/bea/newsrelarchive/2005/trad1305.xls

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Louisville, Ky.: The first questioner asked if George W. Bush and the Congress shared the same information. You gave a long and nuanced answer. It seems you could have saved some time by just saying "no."

Peter Baker: Everyone's an editor!

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Sewickley, Pa.: How much do you think the Internet has affected our political discourse? The President gives a speech criticizing his opposition. Within hours (if not minutes) Washington Post columnists and many others deconstruct the content highlighting the fibs and distortions. Is this significant to the average voter? Do see it as a big change?

Peter Baker: It's a cliche, but it's true that it's revolutionized our ability to do our job and the way we do it. Just this chat is a great example of that. Much as some readers are angry at the "mainstream media" these days for various sins, real or imagined, we actually have more back and forth with our readers than ever before because of the Internet. That's incredibly healthy.

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Washington, D.C.: Regardless of the intelligence and who had it and when, the biggest problem in the Iraq war is the flawed planning and flawed execution of any in-place plans that the administration executes. OK, we get it. A lot of Dems voted to go to war based on the information they had. That information turned out to be wicked flawed. If the Bush administration skewed the info, that is one thing. If everyone decided to go to war based on the flawed info, then it is still up to the administration to form a workable plan and execute it accordingly. The failure in Iraq is more so a failure to plan and execute. Shouldn't this be the focus of the discussion?

Peter Baker: A provocative point -- how much should we be looking back and how much should we be looking forward? For journalists, as well as politicians, it's a tricky balance to find.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: There have been a number of inconsistent reports recently about Karl Rove's status in the Fitzgerald investigation: some saying he's pretty much in the clear, and the investigation of him should be wrapped up soon, some saying that Fitzgerald was going in for a longer haul and that Rove remained in danger. Any sense of which is accurate? Also, The Washington Post recently had a very interesting story reporting informed speculation that Libby may have lied in order to cover up Cheney's role in conspiring to damage the Wilsons. Is there any evidence that Cheney remains legally in danger, or is the danger to him solely political?

Peter Baker: Well, frankly, if the reports are inconsistent it's because we really don't know and Patrick Fitzgerald isn't telling. Everyone is trying to read the tea leaves as best they can. It's clear that Karl Rove faced some serious legal jeopardy but his lawyers made a concerted effort to persuade Fitzgerald that his behavior was not criminal. As for Cheney, as you point out, my colleagues Jim VandeHei and Carol Leonnig wrote a fascinating piece over the weekend looking at what the prosecutor already knew by the time Scooter Libby talked to investigators and discussing the possible reasons why he might have provided inaccurate accounts, one of them being a desire to protect Vice President Cheney. But at the moment, there's no indication that Cheney himself is in any legal trouble.

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Jersey City, N.J.: Is it true that Condi Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq (instead of having a scheduled and announced visit) was to thwart insurgents from attacking her convoy?

If so, what does that say about security in Iraq? If not, why the surprise? Was it a stunt?

Peter Baker: She did make an unannounced visit to Iraq. Pretty much any visit by a top administration official, from President Bush on down, is a "surprise" visit for security reasons. And it's fair to say it does say something telling about the security situation on the ground.

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Long Beach, Calif.: Greetings from California,

Should The Post make it clear, via an editorial, that Dana Priest is NOT the problem, and her fine expose of the "black sites" is a source of pride for The Post, not one of shame?

Peter Baker: On the news side of the Post, we make it a point not to tell the editorial folks what they should or shouldn't do. But your broader point is absolutely right, Dana Priest is an inspiration to all of us at the Post -- she's brilliant, brave, indefatigable, determined and exceedingly fair and accurate. She digs out stories no one else does, stories that tell us what our own government is doing, and she does so with enormous integrity and honor. If we approve of what the government does, so be it. But we should have the information to make that judgment, and she gives it to us without fear or favor. She's one of my journalistic heroes.

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"Swipes": Are you saying that the President isn't supposed to defend himself? But it's OK for John Kerry to attack him, especially when he was hyping up his vet creds in '04, notably among veteran groups (esp. after the Swiftboat attack ads)?

Peter Baker: Maybe I can let you two get together to duke it out? Seems to me the president has every right to defend himself. It is interesting, though, that in doing so he's choosing to single out specific Democrats for rebuttal, something the president doesn't typically do in his speeches. And doing so at military bases invariably will raise questions. But the tone on both sides in recent days has increasingly come to resemble the campaign you refer to.

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Columbus, Ohio: When do you sleep Peter? You're up talking to us in the middle of the night, and I assume you also have to file stories and follow the President around all day. It must be exhausting!

Peter Baker: This must be a relative. Thanks for the thought. And since it is 2 a.m. here, I'm going to go ahead and wrap this up. Thanks to everyone for another great chat. Wish I could have answered more of your questions, but keep them coming. Tune in tomorrow for my congressional colleague Chuck Babington, and have a great day.

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