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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, February 14, 2007 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House chat. My column today, filed before Bush's 11 a.m. press conference, starts out with me writing about what a profound bummer it is that neither Scooter Libby nor Vice President Cheney will be testifying at Libby's perjury trial.

I write: "For me, the real cliffhanger of the Libby trial has never been whether or not he would be found guilty -- it was whether or not he and his boss would finally face some questions they couldn't duck." No such luck.

As for Bush's presser -- it was dramatically lacking in affirmative news, but rich in what was missing. Number one on my list of what was missing: Any acknowledgment on Bush's part that he has to do more than repeatedly assert things -- particularly intelligence findings that might lead to war -- for people to believe they are true. Asked several times why we should trust him this time -- about Iranian weaponry in Iraq -- he simply repeated his confidence in his correctness. His confidence is not what's at issue -- it's our confidence that's at issue. The administration's handling of this whole Iranian weapons issue has been inept at best. More on that later.

Also on my list of what was missing: Bush's refusal to say whether or not he considers Iraq to be in a state of civil war. "It's hard for me, living in this beautiful White House, to give you a first-hand assessment," he told ABC's Martha Raddatz. But since when has that ever stopped him from reaching judgments about Iraq? Never, that's when. And the president absolutely refused to talk about anything related to the CIA leak, even though Washington Post reporter Peter Baker's question was excellent -- and he could very well have answered without in any way jeopardizing Libby's trial. "Not going to talk about it," he said. But how does he continue to get away without addressing this important issue? Did Bush himself authorize anyone to mention Plame to reporters? The public has a right to know.

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Granger, Ind.: Dan, when he was asked whether Iraq was a "civil war," Bush said: "It's hard for me living in this beautiful white house to give you a first-hand assessment. It is a dangerous situation thereby requiring action on my part." Let me see if I understand: Bush knows enough to make decisions that result in the death and maimings of children, families, and soldiers, but he doesn't know enough -- living in "this beautiful White House" -- to have an opinion on whether Iraq is in a state of civil war. Does that make any sense at all? Question I would like to see asked at a press conference: "Sir, can you give one good reason why the American people should take anything you say seriously?"

Dan Froomkin: No indeed, it doesn't make sense. I will be interested to see if the coverage picks that statement up, compares it to previous statements, and considers its ramifications. I think this may be one dodge that really comes back to haunt him.

I would rephrase your question: "Why should we believe you this time?" Oh, wait! NBC's David Gregory asked that. And Bush ducked it.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dan, I don't get it. Whatever the quality of the Admin's case that Iran is making weapons used in Iraq, isn't Iran allied with the same groups we are there? Maliki and al Sadr are Shiites -- and have reached out to Iran -- and most of the insurgents are Sunnis, as is al-Qaeda. So how would one believe that Iran was fueling the insurgents?

Dan Froomkin: That's an important point -- most of the American casualties are coming at the hands of Sunnis, not Shiites. Paul Reynolds of the BBC addressed that point in an article considering some of the possibilities for why the U.S. was suddenly going public. One possibility, he wrote, is that the goal is to confuse the issue.

"Many people will not distinguish between the Shia militias that Iran is said to supply -- and which have ties to the Iraqi government - and the Sunni insurgents who have been the cause of much of the violence.

"The allegedly Iranian supplied bombs are said to have caused the deaths of 170 American soldiers, but overall 2497 soldiers have been killed in hostile incidents, most of them at hands of the Sunnis.

"The claim serves the purpose of helping to lay the blame for the whole insurgency at Iran's door."

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Hilton Head, S.C.: If you were a betting man, would you bet on a conviction or an acquittal for Libby, based on the trial so far? Is there any conventional wisdom in Washington as to which way it will go? Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: I don't do bets. But the conventional wisdom, from what I can tell, is that the Libby defense is in bad shape, hoping maybe for one or two holdout jurors who are just not sure -- and a hung jury.

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New Jersey: Dan, with all of the Republican contenders for president signing up their campaign staffs I was wondering if one will hire Karl Rove -- or does he go to whomever gets the nomination, or is he just a free agent? Thank you for your great column.

Dan Froomkin: I can't imagine Karl Rove voluntarily leaving his sweet perch at the White House under any circumstance. I suspect he'll stay in the White House, keep a foot in all camps, and offer advice to whomever wins the nomination.

But what's most interesting to me, as I wrote in my Friday column: "I had always assumed that the Bush White House's secret weapon to stave off irrelevancy in its waning years would be political guru Karl Rove. I imagined that as the Republican kingmaker, he would give the White House continued leverage with GOP presidential hopefuls, and that those hopefuls would be highly motivated to please Rove, which would presumably mean championing Bush.

"But ever since the Democratic victory in the midterm elections, Rove has been in retrograde. And furthermore, he and Bush may not be entirely eye to eye any more on political strategy."

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Waterbury, Conn.: Did you catch "Frontline" last night? I don't know what's more appalling -- the utter lack of skepticism about the "evidence" that brought us into Iraq, the fact that Congress and the public swallowed everything hook, line and sinker or the fact that they're trying to sell us the same line this time around. When will the press start asking questions, and more importantly start demanding answers?

Dan Froomkin: I did see Frontline, and share your concerns. I should also say that I was disappointed with the filmmakers for combining the story of the press's failure in the run-up to war with a lot of whinging about the government stomping on our First Amendment rights. I say let's take care of our own institutional problems first -- then we're in a stronger position to say that what we do is essential to democracy.

Judy Miller is not who I want as a journalistic poster-girl.

One good step would be for some foundation or other to heed Gilbert Cranberg's call, (on my other Web site, NiemanWatchdog.org) for a serious, independent inquiry into why the press failed in its pre-war reporting.

Dan Froomkin: Oh, and here is the News War Web site.

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Richmond, Va.: You slyly put a forth a theory the other day that there might be a rift between Rove and Bush. Your theory was that Rove's permanent "Republican majority" was threatened by Bush's stubborn and fruitless Iraq strategy. Do you plan to explore this more or were you just tantalizing readers?

washingtonpost.com: The Debate Over Debate (washingtonpost.com, Feb. 9)

Dan Froomkin: I was just talking about that! I admit, it was very speculative. But I expect there will be some reporting on this in the coming months that will help us all get our arms around the truth. I was sorry to see that this veryimportant possible rift wasn't explored by
Mike Allen and John Harris
in their predictably fawning interview with Rove in The Politico, evidently the White House's favorite publication. (Did you catch Bush's virtual endorsement of it at today's press conference?)

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Baltimore: Dan, are you still appearing on Washington Post radio on Friday afternoons? You don't remind us anymore in your WHW column to join you, and -- silly me -- I keep forget.

Dan Froomkin: Sorry, yes I do, but the times keep shifting so sometimes I'm not even sure when I'm on. You're safe if you stay tuned religiously from about 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. ;-)

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Covina, Calif.: Most public opinion polls show the American public losing support for the Iraq war. I wonder what percentage of this is because of the actual situation there or because of the confidence of the American public in how the Bush Administration is overseeing the conflict. Perhaps a poll question of "would you support the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq if Bush/Cheney were not in office" should be asked?

Dan Froomkin: That's a great idea. Or something to that effect.

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New York: Hi Dan. I couldn't help but notice the president's new found love for mockery. Yesterday it was the C-SPAN's imitation of the warmongers, today it was the imitation of those who want to have us sit down and talk to the Iranians -- "meeeettt...everyeone, you know, want's to meeet!" It all seems so ... juvenile. Why is the press not calling him out on that tone?

Dan Froomkin: That was bizarre today. I didn't even know what he was saying for a minute. Bush was asked an excellent question by Newsweek's Richard Wolffe:

"Q: Mr. President, Republican and Democratic presidents before you sat down for face-to-face talks with the Soviet Union, a nation that was clearly hostile, tyrannical and had a huge nuclear arsenal. Why do you think that face-to-face talks between yourself and the leadership of Iran would be any more compromising for you?"

Bush's answer in part: "I -- look, I know this -- this is a world in which -- and I'm not suggesting you're this way -- but this is a world in which people say, 'Meet! Sit down and meet!' And my answer is, if it yields results, that's what I'm interested in."

But the transcript doesn't do it justice. He was almost yelling "Meet!" You clearly get the sense that he thinks sitting down with an enemy is a victory for the enemy.

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Houston, Texas: Now that the Libby trial is nearly ended and we won't get to hear from the stars ... do you think that Libby may have thrown in the towel and is just waiting for a pardon?

Dan Froomkin: That is certainly a possibility.

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San Carlos, Calif.: What impact is the Libby trial having on Vice President Cheney's influence inside the White House? And what would a guilty verdict do?

Dan Froomkin: There is much ongoing speculation about the vice president's role in the White House, but talk about non-transparent regimes! It's all tea-leaf reading.

Yesterday's North Korean agreement? Seen as proof positive of Cheney's diminished influence. Cheney would never allow any "axis of evil" country to be rewarded for its misbehavior! But wait! Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq? Classic Cheney! Full speed ahead! Cheney not running for president? Makes him irrelevant and no one listens to him! No, it makes him unanswerable to the public and more terrifyingly effective than ever!

You get the picture. Me, I will absolutely never ever count that man out. See my Wednesday column, "Cheney Doesn't Share." The Libby trial has exposed to the world just how powerful Cheney's operation is. I will need to see hard evidence before I'm persuaded that is no longer the case.

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Anonymous: "But here's my point: either they knew or didn't know, and what matters is is that they're there. What's worse -- that the government knew or that the government didn't know?" What's worse, that the government does or does not know if we are in the middle of a Civil War?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you're comparing complicity and ignorance, and they're not the same thing. But Bush's "what's worse, if they know or don't know" construction is problematic -- and could backfire. First of all, the question was what does the Bush administration know? No fair turning it around. But second, as one reader e-mailed me a little while ago: "The same logic used by the Bush administration to link the Iranian government to IED/EFP means that the Bush administration is responsible for Abu Ghraib. Actions taken by the forces of the government..."

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New York: Dear Dan: Bush stated today that the "commitment to Iraq is not opened ended." He repeatedly makes this specious statement, but no one in the press corps, the press in general or the Congress ever asks about the "permanent" military bases in Iraq and the desire of the neocons, the oil companies, the military-industrial complex et al to occupy Iraq permanently! Could you kindly begin asking about the permanent military bases in Iraq and when they will be abandoned?

Dan Froomkin: I can't imagine even the neocons are excited about the idea of occupying Iraq forever -- at least not overtly. Your point about permanent military bases is a good one -- I don't believe the administration has ever definitively stated what it's intentions are. But more to the point for me is that when Bush says the commitment isn't open-ended, someone should ask: Well what closes it? Besides "victory" of course? Because that may never come.

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Arlington, Va.: One thing that I don't understand about the President is his unwillingness to attend military funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq. He says that if he does one, he has to do them all, but there is symbolism to the President showing his honoring of their sacrifice through attendance at one funeral or even a ceremony in Delaware when the coffins arrive.

Dan Froomkin: Those are not the visuals the White House is looking for.

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Salem, Mass.: How does someone with a "notoriously bad memory" get to be chief of staff to the vice president of the United States?

Dan Froomkin: He doesn't. I suspect Libby was a selective listener -- with an excellent memory.

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Reading, Mass.: Do you believe it is in the United States national security interest to prevent Iran from possessing Nuclear weapons?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think there are very many people on this globe who think the Iranians getting a nuclear weapon is a good idea. The question is how do you prevent that? If sitting down and playing nice does that more effectively than macho talk and aircraft carriers, which would you prefer?

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Is the Libby Trial happening today or did the snow/ice/sleet/rain shut it down?

Dan Froomkin: It's sort of a half-day. But for all the latest, go read the amazing livebloggers at Firedoglake.com. There were apparently some legal arguments starting around noon, and last I heard the jury was expected in around 1:30 p.m. The defense is expected to rest its case. Thursday the jury is off and there will be legal arguments about jury instructions and the like. Walton doesn't hold court on Friday, Monday is a federal holiday, which brings us to Tuesday for closing arguments. I may just have to go for that.

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Inverness, Fla.: Seems to me, especially when I'm screaming suggestions at my live video feed on my computer screen toward reporters at Presidential news conferences, that they always are caught flat-footed when Bush says he isn't going to talk about something -¿ such as today regarding all the revelations of get-the-Wilsons tactics in his admin, vis a vis his assertions about accountability at the time the investigation began. Isn't there a way for a reporter to ask why he's not answering? Is it just me or is there a woeful lack of chess master kind of pre-game strategizing that goes into the forming of follow-ups, if not the initial question itself?

Dan Froomkin: Well, it probably doesn't help if someone takes the microphone away from you after you ask ... but maybe I should hold a contest for best (plausible, workable) response. Journalists are a lot of things, but chess masters we're not. So maybe we could use some help.

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Sun Prairie, Wis.: Dan, as Walter Pincus has said his Plame source was Ari Fleischer after Fleischer said he spoke only to two journalists (neither of them Pincus) I wondered if you'd had a chance to ask Pincus whether he was lying or was just so busy he couldn't remember. Would you do that and let us know what he says?

Dan Froomkin: Walter Pincus is about the least likely person to lie about anything that I have ever met. Fleischer, by contrast...

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Vienna, Va.: Has anyone from the press asked the White House to comment on Gen. Odom's Sunday Post piece asserting, in effect, that it is time to look for a viable "Plan B" in Iraq?

washingtonpost.com: Victory Is Not an Option (Post, Feb. 11)

Dan Froomkin: Ah, I wish someone had brought that up today. Someone did bring it up, sort of, at Monday's press briefing, although they missed the central point:

"Q: This brings up sort of a very interesting point that I think, if we pull back a second, that a lot of Americans are probably engaged in trying to get their arms around. There was an op/ed piece yesterday by a former Director of the NSA and a former Army senior intelligence official, and he asked the question, can you support the troops and still call for bringing them home? Is the only way to support the troops to follow out what -- follow what the President's sort of continued mission is? What do you think of that?


"MR. SNOW: Well, what I think is I'm not going to quite rise to that bait, but I'll give you an answer that is responsive."

You can guess what Snow did then. "The way you support the troops is help them complete their mission successfully." Blah blah blah.

Dan Froomkin: And for more by Odom, here are six important pieces he's written for NiemanWatchdog.org, going all the way back to August 2005.

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Pasadena, Calif.: Dan, some in Saudi Arabia allegedly are supplying the Sunnis with money to buy arms. The Saudi Government also has indicated that if the situation warrants, it is prepared to enter Iraq to support the Sunnis. Why aren't we threatening war with them as we are with Iran?

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's a fine question. And don't leave out Tom Lasseter article for McClatchy Newspapers a couple weeks ago: "The U.S. military drive to train and equip Iraq's security forces has unwittingly strengthened anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which has been battling to take over much of the capital city as American forces are trying to secure it." Maybe we should threaten to declare war against ourselves, too.

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Toronto: Hi Dan! Re your titling of your column today, "Libby-Cheney Bummer", I agree. One question, and I hope it's not a naive one. In your column, you write: "as long as journalists fear appearing too prosecutorial with people like Libby or Cheney -- or President Bush -- they'll never get them to go beyond their talking points."

I don't understand the fear that journalists have about appearing too prosecutorial. With Bush's approval rating in the low 30s and Cheney's in the teens, why are they afraid, and of what? What's the root of this fear? It just seems to me that without bold questions, fair questions, put to leaders in a respectful but assertively probing manner, then the American public is not being at all well-served by its media reps.

Dan Froomkin: I agree with your conclusion but I can't answer your questions except with speculation. Some of it may be peer pressure and the fear of appearing overly partisan to one's colleagues; some of may be the not unreasonable fear of losing access; some of it may just be inertia.

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Falls Church, Va.: In response to a question about sitting down and meeting with Iran, do you honestly believe there is any hope with getting Islamic fundamentalist fanatics to do anything unless there is pressure? Much like North Korea giving in to the pressure of six nations, Iran only will give in to the pressure of either U.N. sanctions (which isn't happening) or the threat of force. You columnists think the threat of force is something horrific; I see it as the only way to deal with tyrants and bullies.

Dan Froomkin: There are lots of ways to influence tyrants. Force is certainly one of them. But why is direct negotiation always out of the question with the Bush administration?

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Urbana, Ill.: Dan, I thought Peter Baker's question about the CIA leak was an excellent question as well. Give Bush's refusal to answer it, I would love to see any of the major news outlets run stories where testimony about leaks from the trial are contrasted with Bush's public statements about leaks and those who provide them.

Dan Froomkin: I wonder what will happen when the trial is over (which will be soon) and Bush can't hide behind Patrick Fitzgerald's skirt anymore. What will his excuse be then for not coming clean?

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Cortez, Colo.: So, should Fitzgerald recall Fleischer to the stand and see if he perjured himself with respect to who he told?

Dan Froomkin: Why would he? Fleischer was a prosecution witness. My question: Why isn't the defense calling Fleischer back, to confront him with Pincus's testimony? Or calling John Dickerson, who says Fleischer was wrong when he testified that he told Dickerson about Plame? Obviously (and this is consistent with their decision not to have Libby or Cheney testify) they think the less said, the better at this point. The question for Fitzgerald is why he didn't ask Fleischer about Pincus himself, when Fleischer was on the stand. Fitzgerald knew Fleischer was Pincus's source ages ago.

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Laurel, Md.: Did Bush's "news" conference today actually produce any (news that is)? Or did it consist of the usual evasions and empty platitudes?

Dan Froomkin: I would say it was exceedingly low on news. If you literally took out all the phrases you'd heard before, I'm not sure you'd have much left. Maybe someone should try that.

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Bethesda, Md.: Regarding the Civil war status: If I am to understand the NIE assessment, then it is not a Civil war in Iraq -- at least not comparable to the U.S. Civil War. If, in addition to the North fighting the South, we also had the Baptists at war with the Methodists, tortured bodies being dumped on the streets of Atlanta and New York, rampant and uncontrolled crime in the cities and the entire country under occupation -- and the occupiers would not be Britain or France, but a country whose culture Americans understood little about at the time, say China or Japan. Then, yes, one could roughly compare the U.S. Civil War to what is happening in Iraq.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for that clarification.

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Arlington, Va.: Thanks so much for your column. It's my lunchtime must-read! I have two questions: In discussing Bush's puzzlement over why people think he wants to go to war, aren't we forgetting that he had basically the same reaction to reaction in the build up to the Iraq war? Secondly, The press continually refers to Joe Wilson's "boondoggle" to Niger. Now, had the trip been to Paris, Prague, Cairo or any one of a hundred destinations, I can see referring to it as a "boondoggle," but somehow I don't think Niger is going to land in the Top 10 Vacation Destinations any time soon.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words. On the puzzlement issue, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC did a nice job a couple weeks ago of pointing out the eerie rhetorical similarities between Bush on Iraq circa 2002 and Bush on Iran circa 2007. Cuts right to the question of "why should we believe you this time?" And yes, the "boondoggle" aspect of this case has been one of the laugh-out-loud funniest since the get-go.

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Dan Froomkin: OK, thanks everyone for the excellent questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. Check back here in two weeks for another chat -- and every weekday afternoon on the home page for my White House Watch column. And Happy Valentine's Day everyone!

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