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Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, March 15, 2006; 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, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, March 15, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Read today's White House Briefing: Interesting Times , ( March 15, 2006 )

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. Welcome to another White House Briefing Live Online.

The buzz this morning -- for the umpteenth time -- seems to be about an imminent White House staff shakeup. I have no reason to think the rumors are for real this time, although the number of people suggesting such a thing certainly continues to grow and grow and grow.

Here's a question for you: Who do you think Bush should bring in as chief of staff -- on the assumption that he sacks Andy Card. (Card, as the

Financial Times

notes today, "always tops the list of the bleary-eyed.") Alternately, who would make a good new "senior adviser"? Realistic suggestions only, please.

Speaking of questions, I'm thinking about doing another

reader-participation column

soon, and I'm mulling these possible questions to ask you readers. Which do you think would prompt the most enlightening responses?

In no particular order:

* What big idea could Bush embrace right now that would win widespread political support, and that is in keeping with his basic philosophies?

* Do Americans widely believe that Bush intended to go to war in Iraq long before he acknowledged as much in public? Do they care?

* What would Bush have to accomplish to rouse American ire against Iran to such levels that the public would support military action?

* How much are people's feelings about Bush affected by the information sources they rely on?

Today's column

is out, by the way, and my lead is about Bush's astonishing understatement yesterday, calling the botched rollout of his Medicare prescription drug benefit "interesting."

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Dan Froomkin: Oh, and in today's column I asked if anyone could explain why Bush would be known as "Abu Abdullah" among the elites of the Persian Gulf. The lines are open.

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Racine, Wis.: From today's WHB column...

"Anytime Washington passes a new law, sometimes the transition period can be interesting," -President Bush said.

I'm sure the English teachers among us will love the use of "anytime" and "sometimes" in the same sentence.

But my beef is this: When is the President going to stop referring to "Washington" in the third person. He's now in the middle of his second term, I think the whole "Washington is the problem; I'm the solution" act has really worn thin. After 5+ years in the office, the President should realize that he -IS- Washington, and he can no longer get away with the folksy outsider shtick. It's insulting to anyone who has a clue about how Washington works.

Dan Froomkin: I love it when my readers parse Bush statements even more rigorously than I do. Bravo!

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New York, N.Y.: As to Senator Feingold's motion to censure the president for his NSA spying program. Why does the media focus solely on whether the senator is doing the right thing, as opposed to focusing on whether the president is doing the right thing? Bringing up a censure motion is not illegal, spying on Americans without a court order is.

Dan Froomkin: What an interesting observation.

One short answer (and there are many): The media is a lot more attracted to horse race stories (easy) than investigative stories, particularly ones that we're finding hard to crack.

Can you imagine a major newspaper writing a story every day saying: Once again, in spite of our best efforts, we can find absolutely nothing new to report regarding the administration's highly controversial, mysterious, and quite possibly illegal domestic spying plan.

The irony is that in spite of the daily rewards for the horserace stories, the big rewards appropriately come from the investigative pieces. For instance, word came last night that "The $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting has been awarded to James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy for their investigative report 'Domestic Spying.'"

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Richmond, Va.: I called Harry Reid's office today to ask where he is at with the censure resolution and to state my position (emphatically FOR it!). His staffer was finishing my sentences--you want the "Democrats to be more aggressive against the President". Bingo. I felt like he has had a lot of calls--so many that he anticipates my words--but why are they so scared to act? It is NOT about national security, it is about checks and balances.

Dan Froomkin: You think reporters act like everything's a horse race, well we've got nothing on the politicians, and particularly Congress. My impression is that they judge pretty much everything according to what short-term effect it will have on the body politic. And conventional wisdom in Washington is that censuring the president would fire up Bush supporters more than it would fire up Bush detractors. I'm not at all sure they're right, but there you have it.

Dan Froomkin: You know, I take that back. They're not so much obsessed with the short-term effects on the body politic as they are on the worst, most nightmarish attack ad they can conjure up come their next re-election campaign. And they're very imaginative.

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Richmond, Va.--obsessed with censure: I know the Dems are scared censure will backfire, win Bush back some support and make them look weak on national security.

But really when Frist and others start telling Feingold he is emboldening the terrorists, the Iranians, isn't is time for the Dems to speak up?

Dan Froomkin: So you're saying that while many Democratic senators are saying that Feingold's censure resolution may backfire, it's more likely that the Republican's over-the-top response to Feingold might backfire instead? My head is spinning.

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Richardson, Tex.: Do you really believe that even the Bush administration is stupid enough to seriously consider invading Iran? We can't even finish Afghanistan and Iraq is a disaster and getting worse. Invading Iran would make Viet Nam look like a brilliant action.

Dan Froomkin: I think the most likely extreme scenario is not invasion, but air strikes. That said, I think Bush has a long way to go (maybe impossibly long) before a majority of Americans would think that's a good idea.

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Chicago, Ill.: It seems the President keeps on getting a free pass on remaining in a bubble by speaking to controlled and selected audiences? If he is out of touch as many suspect, why is this allowed to go on barely documented. Isn't it a mockery that the world's greatest democracy has a leader that can't come in contact with the people he leads?

Dan Froomkin: Ah, my favorite topic: The bubble.

There was, as usual, some scant mention in today's coverage of the fact that Bush's panel was hand-picked by the White House to agree with him, and that the White House engineered supportive audiences.

But I think it's amazing every time it happens.

I do so wish the White House reporters would consistently raise the question, in their articles: When Bush is trying to change public opinion, why won't he talk to and before people who don't agree with him already? Do his aides think his powers of persuasion would be insufficient to the task? Does he?

My favorite piece on my favorite topic not by

me

remains an article for NiemanWatchdog.org by University of Texas political scientist

Jeffrey Tulis

who wrote a year ago about how incredibly ahistorical it is for Bush to speak only with and to supporters.

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Savannah, Ga.: Do you think there is any real possibility that Karl Rove might be included in any shake-up of the team? It seems that a lot of these second term "mistakes" and seeming incompetence occurred after Rove was elevated to his new position. Maybe he's not the Master Magician everyone thought he was! And ,since the President is too loyal or too stubborn to replace anyone, do you think anyone might fire themself, acting in the President's best interests?

Dan Froomkin: The only way Karl Rove is leaving the White House prematurely is in handcuffs.

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: Dan:

From your column today: "Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said today he has no evidence the Iranian government has been sending military equipment and personnel into neighboring Iraq."

Wouldn't this make what Pres. Bush said recently regarding Iran a "lie?" Is there a reason that the media is reluctant to use that clear, plainly-spoken word that even the more obtuse of us could understand?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I'd like to know more about this. But so far, all we have is a vivid example of the different burdens of proof required for generals and presidents.

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New York, N.Y.: Rep. Henry Waxman has alleged in a letter to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card that President Bush signed a version of the Budget Reconciliation Act that, in effect, did not pass the House of Representatives. Further, Waxman says there is reason to believe that the Speaker of the House called President Bush before he signed the law, and alerted him that the version he was about to sign differed from the one that actually passed the House. If true, wouldn't this would put the President in willful violation of the U.S. Constitution?

Dan Froomkin: Hey, you're fast. You're referring to this hot-off-the-presses letter from Waxman.

It's a fascinating issue, and may conceivably turn into a big one, but right now it has WONK written all over it.

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Kettering, Ohio: Except with inside the beltway type and the established Bush-haters, the so-called "spying on Americans" does not resonate with the average American. I think Americans are much more interested in security and if someone receives a call from a suspected al Qaeda phone, they should expect that that is going to rightfully attract attention. Help me here, is this so hard to understand or does the hate-Bush crowd just running with another political jab?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you illustrate the problem that Feingold and others face. They would say the issue is not the spying itself, it's that we don't actually know how extensive the spying is, and the president is explicitly not allowed to do this stuff without a court order. But when it gets truncated down to the White House talking point -- if Al Qaeda is calling, we want to know -- then it's a total loser.

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Lodi, Calif.: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor gave a major speech last week at Georgetown University in which she criticized several prominent Republicans (without actually naming them: DeLay and Cornyn) and warned about the damage they and others were doing to the independent judiciary. I heard it on NPR (Nina Totenberg) but it got not real press. Why not?

Dan Froomkin: Jack Shafer raised that very question in Slate on Monday. He writes: "Obviously, the media should have. The press has its excuses. It doesn't like to form a pack to chase somebody else's story-until it's damn good and ready. The press is also lazy about breaking news on Friday-and doubly lazy about picking up a radio story. Your average reporter (and average media) has better things to think about on Friday than work. But if you assume that the press gave the O'Connor story a bye because they're part of the Bush's royal court, you're wrong."

As for me, my understanding is that her ire was directed at Congressional Republicans, not the White House. And I do my best not to make a mockery of my column's name.

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Louisville, K.Y.: Dan,

It's been a while since you were moved to the opinion section. Do you think your column has changed at all?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think the "move" to Opinions was a big factor. But some combination of having a baby and reading the incredible outpouring of support from readers after that bizarre ombudsman column in December may have caused me to pull even fewer punches than I did before.

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Columbus, Ohio: Given this administration's goal of almost absolute power for the Commander in Chief during war time and its amazing success with Congress in achieving that goal, are we possibly headed to a time where presidents would feel inclined to be perpetually at war? Is Iraq a lead-in to our eventual war with Oceania?

Dan Froomkin: Well, even Orwell never anticipated a "war on terror." Talk about perpetual. Terror is a tactic. You can't defeat a tactic. And you don't need to worry about an accidental victory either. So in short, Bush out-Orwelled Orwell.

That said, as I was sort of getting at in

yesterday's column

, I get the distinct feeling that the White House is casting around for a new villain.

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Albany, N. Y.: Do you have an optimistic rug? Or is yours more of a pessimistic, defeatist rug?

Dan Froomkin: I get the distinct impression that you are mocking our president's rug Oval Office fetish, as described by Peter Baker last week in The Washington Post. Bush really does love talking about that rug, almost as much as he loves talking about his buddy, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

But as it happens, I'm actually quite sentimental about my office rug, too. It's a blue Oriental that was on the floor of my grandmother's living room when I was a child, and now it's badly worn but I can't bring myself to part with it. Thanks for asking.

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Washington, D.C.: Many contributors both here and in Peter Baker's earlier politics chat have been critical of Democratic senators for not supporting Feingold. But if they believe that Feingold's resolution will strengthen Bush's support and make it harder to take back the Senate, isn't their lack of support for Feingold pragmatism rather than lack of courage? Shouldn't Democrats be focused on the 2006 election right now, not on a censure motion that has no chance of passing even if every Democrat votes for it?

Dan Froomkin: You guys are really trying to get me to stray from my area of expertise. But let me just say this: Yes, they think they are being pragmatic, not cowardly. But at the end of the day, do the American people really want pragmatic leaders?

I would say that the thing Bush has going for him the most -- still -- is the sense that people have that he is true to his values and has the courage of his convictions.

(Of course that's convenient, as nobody could really call Bush pragmatic these days.)

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New York, N.Y.: Do you have any sense of how much responsibility Claude Allen personally had for coordinating the Katrina response? I have seen conflicting information on this.

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that Allen was more a convenient mouthpiece for the White House than a mover and shaker, and that includes in regard to Katrina.

William Douglas

of Knight Ridder Newspapers wrote last October that Allen "said the president is responding to the needs of African-Americans in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast regions severely damaged by Katrina.

"'Just the mere fact you have pictures of the president on TV embracing grieving mothers, embracing pastors of churches that have been destroyed,' Allen said. 'That speaks about the personal character of our president, who is truly concerned about healing our nation.'"

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Little Rock, Ark.: The recent reporting on the arrest of former WH Top Domestic Advisor, Claude A. Allen, seemed to ignore the growing pattern and number of arrests and indictments in the executive branch. If my memory serves me correct, during the Clinton years the press would rehash any past problem every time a new one would come up. Fair or unfair?

Dan Froomkin: Fair. That said, this particular White House arrest is quite different than the others. Shoplifting -- even felony refund-fraud shoplifting -- has very little to do with lying and obstructing a criminal investigation (the charges lodged against Scooter Libby and David Safavian).

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Chesapeake Beach, Md.: Dan,

Why has no one taken the baton from Wass, who in the National Journal piece you referenced almost two weeks ago, made a pretty convincing -- and damning -- case that there is strong proof that the Administration knowingly misled the public about some of the alleged provocations for war with/Iraq? The story isn't new, but the apparent proof certainly was -- and warrants a broader look into.

Dan Froomkin: Beats the heck out of me. I was so fascinated by Murray Waas 's story that I wrote about it twice.

Is he so out in front of everyone else that they can't match him? Or is he wrong? It seems that his media colleagues have an obligation to tell us. Ignoring this story is unseemly.

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Richmond, Va.: Dan, I've been thinking about the quote you published from Jim Hoagland's Op-Ed piece and asking the readers to weigh in on it. I would consider myself a reluctant Bush supporter under the theory that a bad plan is better than no plan at all and the Democrats have had no plan, either for dealing with Saddam once and for all before the invasion of Iraq or for cleaning up the mess afterward. This does not excuse Bush for his own shortcomings, but does explain to some degree the lack of defections to Kerry for example ("I voted for the war before I voted against it"). My personal preference would be if George H.W. Bush was president right now.

More directly to your point, I believe that the reason a lot of Americans are willing to acquiesce to the expansion of unilateral execute authority that Bush has pushed is that the alternative seems to be the U.S. Court system with it's emphasis on excluding relevant, truthful evidence as a trial tactic to manipulate verdicts. The clearest example is the Moussaoui case - Judge Halts Terror Trial , ( Post, March 14, 2006 )

Given the choice between Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary renditions, NSA surveillance, and having someone like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed "beat the rap" in US Court, I believe that the majority of Americans are willing to curtail individual liberties (especially those of non-citizens) to avoid impeding the 'Global War on Terror'.

The obvious counter-argument is that this is a false choice, but no one has proposed the concrete changes needed to allow our courts to properly deal with terrorists and still use classified evidence. In a perfect world, we would amend FISA and establish a maximum security prison on US soil to hold the terrorists that we are shipping to other countries without fear that a lawyer like Johnny Cochran would be able to get them out on the grounds that yes, they are guilty but the evidence was obtained illegally (if the bomb doesn't fit, you must acquit).

Secondly, Bush's tactics still don't seem to rise to the level of say FDR's internment of all Japanese Americans or Lincoln's suspension of Habeius Corpus for an entire state (Maryland, I believe). There is a disconnect between the image of Bush as a new dictator, and his actual speeches that makes the arguments of his more extreme detractors (i.e. Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore, Ramsey Clark) hard to accept.

Ex.

President Bush Speaks to the National Newspaper Association , ( March 10, 2006 )

Lastly, I still agree with the fundamental post-9/11 strategic assessment Bush made of the need for change in the Middle East to address the root causes of terrorism. The Democrats for all intents and purposes seem to be advocating something in between Brent Scrowcroft type realpolitick and U.N. sponsored inaction.

White House: President Bush Discusses Iraq Policy at Whitehall Palace in London

Sorry for the length of this comment, but I thought your post deserved a more considered response than I saw on the WP blog pages. As a final note, if we ever do experience a WMD attack in this country at the level of 9/11, the current steps that Bush is taking to increase the surveillance powers of the executive will seem trivial in comparison.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the thoughtful post. (Shorter next time, please!)

You make some very good points.

I do think, however, that there are some false choices there. And I think that we could benefit from some history lessons. For instance, I would like to know how long on average it has taken leaders with absolute, secret powers to abuse them.

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Sewickley, Pa.: Dana Priest, the Washington Post National Security reporter, recently said that she thinks the government monitors her weekly discussions. Do you think your chat is monitored?

Dan Froomkin: I would certainly hope that government officials read Dana Priest's chats! And I expect they do.

I don't pretend to think that mine are nearly as essential.

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Washington, D.C.: Your column today quotes Bush on Medicare: "Anytime Washington passes a new law, sometimes the transition period can be interesting."

Ever notice that the word "interesting" is used mostly by people who are bored by whatever's being discussed, or by people who are boring (and sort of know it)?

Dan Froomkin: Interesting.

(Just kidding!)

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Madison, Wis.: Rep. Waxman is so astute, and such a thorn in the sides of most everybody else in Congress and the administration, he and Feingold would make a very interesting, if entirely unwinnable, presidential ticket. He has a knack for drawing the devil out of the details. Frankly, I just wish there were more like him, from both parties, to keep the goings-on a little straighter and narrower.

Dan Froomkin: I don't think America is quite ready for an all-Jewish ticket.

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Chicago, Ill.: Now that people like Rep. Conyers and Sen. Feingold have publicly brought up impeachment and censure of President Bush, will The Washington Post finally do some polling on those topics?

As we all recall, the main rational that The Post gave for not polling on said topics was that no public official had talked about it and the Post did not want to 'create news'. That's no longer the case so what are The Post's polling plans?

Dan Froomkin: I couldn't let the chat end without at least one impeachment-poll question.

For the record, I think asking about censure would be entirely reasonable right now. But I'm not even remotely involved in that decision.

OK, gotta run. You've been great. Sorry I couldn't get to more of your questions. See you again here in two weeks, and every afternoon on the home page!

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