White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, November 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 answered your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Nov. 23, at 1 p.m. ET.

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

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to a Thanksgiving Eve White House Briefing Live Online. My column today is actually out more or less on time, for once. My lead item is about the erosion of trust. Based on the latest Harris poll, a very solid majority of Americans apparently feels that the Bush administration is being consistently deceptive, on a wide array of issues -- not just WMD.

President Bush and his immediate family are hunkered down in Crawford for the holiday weekend. It'll be interesting to see if Poppy drops by -- somehow, I doubt it.

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Arlington, Tex.: Dan, this story about the "planned" bombing of Al-Jazeera is already a disaster, even if it isn't true (it COULDN'T be true, could it?). Do you think the White House is taking it seriously? Do they realize how much damage it has caused to our already battered beyond recognition reputation? And what do you think they will do about it?

Dan Froomkin: I'm with Howard Kurtz on this one. He writes: "Every once in awhile, someone reports a story that just seems way out there. And you wonder: Could this possibly be true? Or is it plain old media sensationalism?"

I don't know what to make of it. I suspect it's possible he said it seriously, and more possible that he meant it as a joke. Either way is problematic. And no, I don't think it's going away soon.

As I wrote in my column today: Nothing arouses White House reporters more these days than a non-denial denial, and they got a doozy yesterday:

"We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the Associated Press in an e-mail.

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Iowa City, Iowa: Dan,

Am I the only one who remembers Vice President Cheney asserting before the invasion of Iraq that he was privy to inteligence that others -- including Congress -- could not see, and if they knew what he knew they wouldn't question the need to invade? I could swear he said that on one of the Sunday talk shows.

Dan Froomkin: Boy, that sure sounds like him, doesn't it? Any Googling monkeys out there? You have 56 minutes. (If you fail, I will poke around later.)

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Orlando, Fla.: Why aren't people asking if the administration changed the definition of torture rather than does the President approve of torture?

Should a special prosecutor be empowered to investigate war crimes?

Dan Froomkin: I think your first question is absolutely the one to ask. See, for instance, today's Washington Post editorial . Aiming its questions at CIA Director Porter Goss (who inherited this problem, rather that created it) The Post editorial board asks: "If an American pilot is captured in the Middle East, then beaten, held naked in a cold cell and subjected to simulated drowning, will Mr. Goss say that he has not been tortured?"

Today's editorial, it should be noted, was a companion piece to October 26's

Vice President for Torture

editorial. I wonder who's next!

As for your second question, I must admit I have been meaning to take a closer look at how a "war of aggression" is defined by international bodies. But even if Democrats somehow win control of Congress, I think they'll have other fish to fry first.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for being here, this day before Thanksgiving.

I am wondering, where is Scott McLellan? He has been missing in action for well over a week, except his personal attack of Rep. Murtha.

Also, what is your take on the Obama Watch? I think he is speaking out for a reason...

Happiest of Thanksgivings to you!

Dan Froomkin: Lots of people seem to think he is hiding. In fact, it is traditional for him not to give his usual daily briefing when the president is not at the White House. And the president hasn't been there much lately.

To answer your question literally, Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times reported to the pool yesterday from Air Force One, on its way to Crawford, that McClellan was on board and "brought along the first lady of the press office, Jill, as they celebrated their second wedding anniversary with a trip to central Texas. They were planning to drive to Austin tonight in lieu of a romantic getaway at the Waco Hilton."

As for Obama, I refer all questions about potential 2008 presidential candidates to my fellow washingtonpost.com columnist/blogger,

Chris Cillizza

. Possibly that answers your question, however.

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Sate College, Pa.: Dan,I didn't follow your column (if you were doing it at the time) during the Clinton Administration, but I'm wondering if you are particularly skeptical towards the current administration, or if you would approach any other administration similarly.

Dan Froomkin: I only started doing the column in January 2004. But I firmly believe that every presidency should be subject to the utmost scrutiny. This is especially the case as the president collects more and more power. And it's sort of The Washington Post's claim to fame, so I feel I'm in the right place.

And it has not escaped my notice that the skepticism regarding this particular president, among the general public, now appears to actually be greater than that among journalists.

Finally, I was prepared to continue doing this column in a Kerry presidency. I'm sure the column would have changed somewhat, but the focus on exposing the inner workings of the White House would certainly have remained.

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Garrett Park, Md.: I have noticed that President Bush and other administration officials have used the present tense in saying that "the United States does not torture" and "we do not torture." This is reminiscent of President Clinton's famous what is the meaing of "is" line of reasoning and seems to suggest that the White House is leaving open the possibility of future torture and not denying the existence of past torture. Any thoughts on this curious use of present tense?

(Awesome column, by the way.)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much. I wrote in my November 8 column that it wasn't at all clear what Bush meant by "torture". But several readers, and now you, have pointed out that it isn't clear what he meant by "we" or "don't" either.

I think it is imperative that Bush clear this up -- and I think that's precisely why he's avoiding giving a press conference.

When and if he does call a real press conference again, if the White House press corps does not insist that he make himself crystal clear about what he means -- by repeatedly restating the question, if necessary -- it will be a disgrace.

Incidentally, administration critic Larry Wilkinson, formerly Colin Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, spoke to

Anderson Cooper

on CNN yesterday:

"COOPER: President Bush has come out and said, categorically, the United States does not torture. Do -- is that true?

"WILKERSON: Well, I -- I think that confirms my opinion, my view, that the president did not know that this was going on."

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Brookline, Mass.: Dan, thanks as always for doing these chats.

I've been wondering -- in the face of so much failure and disgrace, is the Bush White House finally becoming clearly factionalized, with different parties jockeying for position to push Rove and Cheney aside and get the president's ear? Or were they careful not to hire anyone who had any free thinking ability?

I can't help thinking that if I were a young up and coming Republican staffer (and I'm neither Republican, nor all that young anymore), I'd be looking to take Rove down, big time.

Dan Froomkin: Well, we don't really know what's going on in there, but we are starting to smell smoke.

For instance, there's rumors of a Bush-Cheney rift. And a split along the Rove/Card axis.

I found the response to Murtha very telling. First, as CNN's

Suzanne Malveaux

reported, counselor Dan Bartlett came out and said the president politely, respectfully disagrees with Murtha and his position to pull U.S. troops. Then, hours later, comes this incredibly snide

statement

from Scott McClellan, likening Murtha to Michael Moore. That sounded a lot to me like it came from the new, Rovian war room described by

Julie Hirschfeld Davis

in the Baltimore Sun. And then Sunday and Monday, Bush and Cheney were back to being polite.

Evidently, factions are at work.

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USS Ship, Arabian Gulf: Happy Thanksgiving, Dan! I want to thank you for providing my daily dose of sanity while I'm deployed in support of the war on terror. I read your column religiously and like to discuss your points with anyone that will listen (a small audience on a Fox-News-Loving Navy ship).

Many things about this administration boggle my mind, but I'm most confused by their assertions that House and Senate Dems are nothing but wafflers who can't make a decision and stick to it because they once voted for the war and are now against it. Personally, I believe an admirable quality in a leader is the ability to change his/her mind when presented with new evidence (better intelligence, etc). I absolutely do not want a leader who refuses to change their mind, no matter what. That is what stubborn children do when they hear something they don't like.

Thanks for letting me vent. My husband (Marine deployed to Afghanistan) and I are proof that one can disagree with the administration and its policies and still be a patriotic American. When others choose to use their patriotism as a weapon, we live ours every day.

Dan Froomkin: Wow. Thanks for writing. I'm glad to be of service.

It struck me, while reading your words, that the commander who doesn't acknowledge the value of the occasional strategic retreat is indeed not someone you want to be your leader. I wonder if that's something Bush or Cheney would have learned had they ever been in combat themselves.

I wonder how Murtha's words are going over on your Fox-News-loving Navy ship.

Happy Thanksgiving to you, and stay safe.

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: Your column hit the nail on the head: The public is way out in front of the MSM on the trust issue. Also, it is way out in front on getting out of Iraq, and the issue of the "I" word (impeachment). Why does the MSM generally ignore its own audience? It's getting as bad as Congress.

Dan Froomkin: Excellent question. I don't think the MSM often ignores the public. Consider all the cheerleading after 9/11.

My suspicion is that what we're seeing within certain elites -- be they members of the MSM or the political establishment -- is nothing more or less than a reluctance to admit they were suckers.

Average folks seem to be having an easier and faster time acknowledging that than people who make their living knowing better than everyone else.

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Ottawa, Canada: Dan:

A weak, publicly ridiculed president (see Richard Cohen's piece from yesterday) is hardly in the best interests of the United States. A few weeks ago there was much conjecture about Rove, Card and others being replaced in a bid to bring new life to the president's last three years. Any news on that front?

washingtonpost.com: Iraq and the 'L' Word , ( Post, Nov. 22 )

Dan Froomkin: There continues to be talk about Bush cleaning house and bringing in a "wise man" to salvage his presidency. But that would be unprecedented for Bush, whose presidency is really defined (if not molded) by a small handful of loyal advisers. In fact, it wouldn't be salvaging his presidency, it would be a whole new presidency.

The word is that if this happens, it won't be until closer to Christmas. But I have a hard time seeing it happening.

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Beaumont, Tex.: I'd like to follow up on a point from your column today. When is the press (and the public for that matter) going to move from the "perception story" of the leadup to Iraq and the leak case to the "actual story?" This is a tough administration to crack for answers, but my feeling is that some hard digging and hard questioning will turn some of them up. Happy Thanksgiving!

Dan Froomkin: Well, as you note, it's a much harder story to cover.

But there are already a lot of data points out there, and every so often a few new ones. (See, for instance,

Murray Waas

's latest story in the National Journal.)

I would like to see major news outlets dedicate at least one reporter exclusively to

investigating

the White House. Doesn't that sound like a good idea?

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Columbia, Md.: When I heard that Bush had pardoned two turkeys at the White House I assumed one was named Scooter, but is it possible to pardon an "unnamed Official A?"

Dan Froomkin: Well, everyone know Official A is Karl Rove!

Some of the other names I heard being proposed, as I mentioned yesterday: Official A and Mr. X; Mr. and Ms. Run Amok; Brownie and Turdblossom. Also: Curveball and Waterboard; Joe and Valerie (would not be pardoned); Duck and Dodge; Bob and Weave; Slam and Dunk.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Love your chats.

My sense is that Bush has been slowly... emphasis on "slowly"... bleeding support ever since 9/12, with the occasional bump for accomplishing missions, finding Hussein, or looking not-so-bad when contrasted to Kerry. Yet the media coverage, in my opinion, has gone from the assumption that Bush is very popular, even fairly recently, to hounding him, based mostly on his approval ratings going from about 45 percent to about 36 percent. Is that your view, too? If so, does that say more about the media being unable to break free from its scripts, or about Bush's fantastic media operations?

In a way I guess this is a media-bashing question, because I'm asking if they're just sharks waiting to smell blood in the water before they recognize, hey, there's food here.

Dan Froomkin: Well, you make an interesting point. Ever since October 2002, the overall trend certainly has been down. See, for instance, this chart . And people often forget that disapproval actually outpaced approval for a good chunk of last summer.

But by any standard, the free-fall of the last two months has been astonishing. And yes, this has indeed finally penetrated the brains of journalists of the MSM. Who do, I must admit, have a fair amount in common with sharks sometimes.

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Bush White House CHanges: But don't second term Presidents, even succesful ones, usually bring in new people to avoid burn-out, if nothing else?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, absolutely. But not since Reagan has a presidency been more defined by the president's top aides. And I suspect Reagan didn't make that decision for himself.

Which raises the possibility of Laura putting her foot down. Might could happen.

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New York, N.Y.: Dan,

I very much disagree about the likelihood of Bush's cleaning house. Granted, he's reluctant to do so until WAY beyond the point it's obvious he should. But I think he's in a position where he's got little to lose - AND I think after the turn of the year, the "L" word (legacy) will become more pressing. He needs a new team (with a different style) to help smooth his way into a place in history (rather than a team to perpetuate a constant 'campaign').

Again, at this point, I think he has zero to lose.

Dan Froomkin: Yes, well you may be right. And like I just said, I suppose it's possible the "L" word might be Laura.

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Arlington, Va.: This might be more appropriate for Howard Kurtz, but I'm curious about your comment on the Wolf Blitzer follow-up. There seems to be a tension between the reporter's duty to report the facts and the desire to not appear biased when the interview subject is engaged in spin. Is a lack of willingness to challenge assertions a recent development? It seems to be especially relevant with the extended back-and-forth he-said, she-said about the Iraqi intelligence, Rep. Murtha, etc., and it's frustrating for me, at least, to see reporters acting as a mouthpiece rather than a part of the critical thought process. Am I off base? Do you have any thoughts on this?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I have long despaired over what I call the Punch'n'Judy style of journalism that has been dominating cable for years now.

I thought Blitzer's conduct in that particular interview was admirable. He wasn't debating Wallace on the issues -- he wasn't saying, no, I don't think we should be in Iraq -- he was simply trying to get through the spin, and not let her get away with statements that were misleading or evasive. That's what journalists should be doing, not just sitting there (cable) or doing stenography (print).

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Sandia Park, N.M.: Dan,

Why is it that so many liberal and moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill are seemingly holding back on legitimate criticism of the Bush administration's many policy failures? It can't be that they are unaware of the polls and Bush's dismal standing with most Americans. What are they waiting for? More smoking guns?

Dan Froomkin: See above answer re: reluctance to admit they were suckers.

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Seattle, Wash.: Hey Dan - Love the column.

Last week, the McLaughlin Group aired an interview with retired Gen. William Odom (who is a senior fellowHudson Institute and was previously the director of the NSA) in which he made a nine-point argument that all of the reasons supporters of the war site as to why we must remain in Iraq are, in fact, actually arguments for leaving.

I wonder if you happened to see this (or are familiar with his views) and, if so, why this argument hasn't gotten more attention?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words.

I am more than familiar with Odom's argument. He first made it on the NiemanWatchdog.org Web site, where I also work.

Here is

Odom's first piece

for us, in which he argued that all the terrible things the Bush administration says would happen if we pulled our troops out of Iraq are happening already.

He recently did a

follow up

piece for us, in which he wrote that the converse is true as well: Bush says he wants to bring democracy and stability to the greater Middle East -- but in fact the only way to achieve that goal is to get out of Iraq now.

I don't know why his views haven't gotten more currency. I think they should certainly be part of the debate. That's why I got him to write for us.

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Rockville, Md.: Dan--

Re: Cheney and the intelligence

In an interview on CNBC in June, 2004, asked if he knows information that the 9/11 commission does not know, Cheney replied, "Probably."

If the commission didn't have all the information, what are the odds that Congress didn't have it either?

In that same interview, he said, "There clearly was a relationship [between Iraq and al Qaeda]. It's been testified to. The evidence is overwhelming." Asked if Iraq was involved in 9/11, he said, "We don't know."

Given Murray Waas' article on the 9/21 PDB, I can see why Cheney thinks it is reprehensible to suggest that anyone misled us into war.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

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Rockville, Md.: Dan:

I enjoy your writing, but you make little effort to be nonpartisan. Or am I misreading you? I guess you get flack from both sides since we are so far apart.

Dan Froomkin: I am not partisan, in that I don't advocate for things -- except accountability. And I don't examine Democrats as ferociously as I do Bush -- because they're not in the White House. But I recognize that I am not to everyone's taste.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dan, very quietly the U.K. Independent reported yesterday that Iraq's oil industry will be handed over to some American and British companies, based on a plan drawn up by our State Department before the invasion. Is this what President Bush meant when he mumbled "the Iraqi oil will be for the Iraqi people"? Is there a literate adult left who does not realize this was an industry oil grab, discussed in early 2001 in the precious documents Mr. Cheney went to the Supreme Court to keep concealed?

Iraq's Oil: The Spoils of War , ( The Independent )

Dan Froomkin: Goodness, that was quiet. I'll have to read that.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Longtime huge fan -- your column is one of my favorite reads.

My question is, as all these revelations about how the administration gamed the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, why haven't the Downing Street Memos resurfaced? Not necessarily as a story in their own right, but as more of a data point, or an old story that has now been vindicated? I haven't see any mention of it in either the conventional media or the blogosphere.

Dan Froomkin: I do think it's about time for a retelling of the whole story, and from what I can tell, most of the facts support the Downing Street Memo version of things. (I have yet to see a single piece of evidence that Bush or his aides were, privately, even contemplating not going to war, for instance.)

Senator John Kerry mentioned the memo the other day, actually, which I suspect was a first for him. So maybe that's a sign.

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Dan Froomkin: OK, I have to run. Thanks for all the excellent questions -- I wish I had time to answer more. I wish I had answers for more!

I'll be back here in two weeks, and on the home page every weekday afternoon (except not tomorrow and Friday!)

Happy Thanksgiving to you all, especially all the ships at sea.

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