White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, February 28, 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. 28, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Cheney's Rules for the Press (washingtonpost.com, Feb. 28)

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk.
Laughable? Insulting? Both? My column today leads with Vice President Cheney's insistence on being quoted as a "senior administration official" at the end of a nine-day trip during which he assiduously avoided the poor reporters who had chosen to tag along with him. But he "outed" himself pretty thoroughly by also insisting on referring to himself in the first person. It's laugh or cry, folks.
So much else to talk about. Iraq, Iran, Cheney's trip, Valerie Plame, you name it. So let's go.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: Love your work. Thanks for taking my question. Considering the fact that Cheney has been exposed by testimony in the Libby trial as a liar -- and time proves he is just plain wrong -- why is his opinion ever asked or printed?

Dan Froomkin: It takes an awful lot for the media to decide not to pay attention to the (first or second) most powerful man in America. In fact, even I wouldn't suggest he should be ignored. I think that everything he says should be reported -- it should just also be put in context. And refuted, when it obviously is contradicted by the evidence.

As I wrote (perhaps somewhat hopefully) in my January 29 column, The Unraveling of Dick Cheney: "While Dick Cheney undoubtedly remains the most powerful vice president this nation has ever seen, it's becoming increasingly unclear whether anyone outside the White House believes a word he says."

But that was written in the wake of Cheney's very combative and bizarre interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Since then, the wave of media skepticism, such as it was, may have receded again.

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Memphis, Tenn.: Doesn't the total policy reversal of not engaging Syria and Iran (or tangentially North Korea) to suddenly engaging them all speak to the ineptitude, clumsiness and erratic mindset of this Bush administration?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Will Join Talks With Iran And Syria (Post, Feb. 28)

Dan Froomkin: Too soon to say for sure. My head's still spinning.
I have a section on this in today's column. And I've got to tell you that what blew me away the most were two observations in Helene Cooper and Kirk Semple's New York Times story:

One: "Iraqi officials had been pushing for such a meeting for several months, but Bush administration officials refused until the Iraqi government reached agreement on pressing domestic matters, including guidelines for nationwide distribution of oil revenue and foreign investment in the country's immense oil industry, administration officials said. The new government of Iraq maintains regular ties with Iran."

So it's all about the oil?

And two: That the administration's recent "accusations of Iranian meddling in Iraq," along with the continued confrontation over Iran's nuclear program are now being characterized by administration officials "as part of a larger diplomatic strategy for dealing with Iran that verges on a high-level game of chicken. One senior administration official said that while some Bush officials have advocated looking for ways to talk to Iran and Syria, they did not want to appear to be talking to either country from a position of weakness. By ratcheting up the confrontational talk, the administration official said, the United States was in more of a driver's seat. He asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue."

A game of chicken?

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Cleveland: Dan, please talk about the Libby trial -- why do you think it is taking so long? What about the dismissed juror? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: That would be pure speculation on my part. But okay.

1. I think the longer the jury takes, the worse for the prosecution. What the prosecution wants is for the jurors to get together and say "okay." Especially in a case where the defense didn't actually put up a competing narrative -- they're hoping for one or more jurors going: "But wait a minute..."

And yet it's a complicated case and both sides asked jurors to look over the evidence carefully, so I'm not sure it's really been that long yet.

2. The juror who was dismissed (and I'm dying to know the details of why) was also the one juror who refused to wear a red T-shirt on Valentine's Day. I think the dismissal of a potential lone wolf/holdout juror is good for the prosecution.
But you really shouldn't have encouraged me to speculate.

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Utica, N.Y.: What's the annual utility bill for the Crawford ranch? How much of it is paid by the Secret Service?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know. But you may be pleasantly surprised to hear that Bush had his Crawford estate built to be environmentally friendly. Here he is giving the press a tour of the place in January 2001:

"Q So this is environmentally friendly --

" THE PRESIDENT: Yes, very much so for a couple of reasons. One, it's got a natural water collection devices all around it, and it's got a heater and cooling system that takes water and circulates it and transfers the cold water to the heat and the heated water to the cold, because the ground temperature -- the subterranean temperature stays constant....."

And the White House even has solar panels.

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Elkton, Va.: Dan -- I believe the American public is more polarized now than ever before in my 55 year lifetime because of the policies and actions of the Bush administration. The Red State and Blue State people have so much animosity toward each other they can't even speak civilly. How does the present situation stack up historically? Could this be the greatest domestic divisiveness since the Civil War?

Dan Froomkin: You know, I would have agreed with you entirely about six months ago -- but since then, Bush's pursuit of the war in Iraq has had an incredible effect. There now is a large majority of Americans who share the same belief on the number one issue before us: They want out of Iraq. See yesterday's column, What Is Mainstream?. I think we've definitely reached a tipping point (at least outside the Beltway) that is inexorable and will find Red Staters and Blue Staters joined in the mission of getting our troops out of Iraq.

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San Jose, Calif.: Mr. Froomkin, -- it really is frustrating to see a lack of progress in bringing an end to the war. The Democrats have the ability to defund the war and thus bring home the troops -- why won't they do that? What's the harm in defunding the war? The public could care less how we bring our soldiers home, they just want this to end.

Dan Froomkin: Bush has two things going for him:

1. The chronic lack of unity and discipline (and some might say guts) within the elected representatives of the Democratic Party.

2. The fact that things are so bad in Iraq, there are no good solutions -- so any plan, whatever it is, ceasily an be second-guessed.

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Pittsburgh: With Prince Harry now serving in Iraq, when will the U.S. leaders do what leaders in past wars have done? That is, either get involved themselves or send their offspring? Even the Queen apparently drove ambulances in WWII. At least the Prince has it right ... don't send anyone else to do something you would not do yourself. Any of the Bush, Rumsfeld, or Cheney offspring planning on joining the Prince?

Dan Froomkin: I am quite sure that if we offered to make Bush or Cheney king, they willingly would send their progeny into battle -- not sure that would be worth it, though.

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Baltimore: Wow, it just seems that the more time passes the less stable and grounded-in-reality the VP appears. Dan, If Fitzgerald is successful in the Libby case do you feel that he will then go after Cheney? Thank you for your answer.

Dan Froomkin: I think there is an outside chance, as Murray Waas has reported, that if Libby is found guilty, Fitzgerald will try to "flip" him and turn him into a prosecution witness against Cheney. There's little doubt that Fitzgerald thinks Cheney was at the heart of this matter. (See my Feb. 21 column, The Cloud Over Cheney.)

But it's also clear that at least thus far, Fitzgerald has lacked either the political will or the evidence -- or both -- to charge Cheney, and I'm not sure either of those will change. For example, I can't see Libby flipping if that means he loses the support of all those people who've been contributing millions to his defense fund -- which one observer has called legalized hush money.

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Lone Juror: I didn't realize that. Is it possible she accidentally-on-purpose watched some news coverage to get out of uncomfortable jury deliberations ?

Dan Froomkin: Who knows? If I had to guess, I would say she might have been doing a little research ... which is not okay.

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New York: Dear Dan: Isn't it frustrating to your White House Watch that the occupant of the White House seems to have vanished from view? All the political action seems to have moved to Capitol Hill, or the campaign trail, or wherever Cheney pops up next ... do you agree that Bush is a terminally diminished figure and will remain so for the next two years? So what's to watch at the White House? (Love your column.)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'm not worried -- although I wrote the other day that Bush had vanished from view, I'm quite sure that's a temporary phenomenon.
In fact, even if he didn't want to, he remains the central figure on the central issue of our day as the commander in chief of the armed forces during our war in Iraq. Plus, I'm betting that Congressional oversight will keep me well stocked with retrospective discoveries, even as the man drifts into full (at least domestic) lame-duck status.

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Pittsburgh: Dan, thanks for your candor. I noted in one of your previous online chats that I would not be surprised to see the Republicans running Tony Snow as their future golden boy candidate. Well ... last week in Greensburg, Pa., he appeared here to do just that (not as a representative of the government, but as a Republican fundraiser). They announced him as "the future successor to John Warner as Senator from Virginia." After that, they read a list of names of the war dead from Pennsylvania. Wasn't that something that ABC Nightline was called traitorous for doing previously? And why is it now okay for Snow to do so? And ... do you think they'll run him in Virginia (list of war dead faux pas or not)?

Dan Froomkin: I believe the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story to which you refer also reported that Snow issued a "Shermanesque" denial ... but you never know.

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Rolla, Mo.: While it wouldn't be the first time, I am getting the sense that the American public is ahead of the MSM and Congress when it comes to ending the war in Iraq. While Murtha's plan summarily is dismissed by the MSM and Congress (not rolled out professionally enough, blah blah blah arguments of style over substance) a majority of the public support its provisions according to recent polls. Why are those in the Beltway behind the curve on this one?

Dan Froomkin: The inside-the-Beltway elites often are behind the curve on such things, especially when opinion on important issues is changing. Beltway types, especially those who have made their views clear, don't much like to change those views -- it feels almost like admitting they were wrong, and they hate that. So, for instance, your average person has come to the conclusion that the war was a mistake and we should get out -- but all those enablers out there who let Bush go to war and cheered him as he went about it are still in denial.

Something else the public was way ahead of the Beltway on was deciding, around the time of Katrina, that Bush was not an honest man. For Beltway folks, that's a really difficult concept to swallow and live with -- and act on -- even to this day.

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Arlington, Va.: I was somewhat surprised by Cheney's reaction to the bombing/assassination attempt in Afghanistan yesterday -- when asked he pretty much tried to downplay the whole thing and seemed to think that because he was not harmed it was no big deal. Try telling that to the families of the poor people who were killed. Unless it just wasn't reported I can't believe that he didn't even stop to take a second to acknowledge the loss of lives.

Dan Froomkin: You know, I was going to mention that.

I did find it odd that neither he nor any of his people expressed sadness for the people who were harmed. No one in a million years would suggest this was his fault -- but it would have been appropriate for him to express his condolences.
I'm not sure why that didn't occur to him.

But no, I've not read anything about his lack of a statement.

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Denver: Do you intend to continue this column after the Bush Administration leaves? I love your work and think that no matter who is in office, your column serves a critical purpose regarding the motives and actions of the Oval Office.

Dan Froomkin: That's my intention at this point. I have some worries -- this column's voice has become so Bush-centric, it's hard to imagine what it will be like once he's gone. Plus, all presidents get a honeymoon period, so what will I do those first few weeks/months? But I do believe that any president can and should be held rigorously accountable, both to their promises and to common sense, and I'm trying to psych myself up for my second POTUS, whoever he or she may be.

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Bethesda, Md.: Maybe it's too obvious to state, but the flat-basketball episode yesterday seems like one big metaphor for the Bush administration.

Dan Froomkin: Here's the story for those who missed it: Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Everything was going fine until President Bush dropped the ball. Bush honored the Miami Heat championship basketball team on Tuesday, joking with the team in his usual manner. But Shaquille O'Neal got the last laugh when Bush tried to bounce a basketball while standing next to the 7-foot-1 star.

"It thudded flat on the stage. Bush looked startled as O'Neal and his teammates laughed."

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Long Beach, Calif.: Dan: Thanks for your tremendous work. With Cheney's grip on the government presently what do you foresee as his post-VP role? For myself I would find it hard to see him fade away to the lecture circuit.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. The thing to watch for is if his legion of loyalists, now spread out in key positions throughout the executive branch, will be retained by the next administration. Of course, his loyalists spread out in key position throughout the judiciary aren't going anywhere.

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Baltimore: Dan! You must continue your column no matter who is voted in -- we would miss you too much and every White House deserves and needs your scrutiny.

Dan Froomkin: Well thanks!

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Ithaca, N.Y.: All the talk about Cheney this week reminds me of this article from Rolling Stone. My question is, how has he been able to get away with evading accountability for so long? That seems to be at the core of his constant grasp for power -- namely, to cover up and avoid accountability for the disasters that inevitably result from his own incompetence.

Dan Froomkin: Cheney has never let a little reality get in his way, and that has served him well -- which probably says more even about our political and media climate than it says about him. Thanks for the link.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you want America to win in Iraq? If so, why are you seemingly incapable of ever writing anything that is positive about our President or our military?

Dan Froomkin: Like pretty much every American, I sure wish we could "win" in Iraq. I just don't think that's necessarily possible anymore. Asserting that it is possible, if it isn't, isn't doing anyone any favors, including our fine military.

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Washington: The American people, as polled, want out of Iraq. Generally speaking, should polls dictate policy? The American generals, as reported in the U.K. press, are against the surge. Generally speaking, should the military dictate policy?

Dan Froomkin: I don't blindly trust either the polls or the military. Common sense should dictate policy.

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Huaraz, Peru: On February 16 and 17 The Post published two major opinion pieces, by Rich Lowry and Victoria Toensing, both defending Scooter Libby and criticizing his prosecution. Do you think this was appropriate, considering the jury was about to hear closing arguments and begin deliberations?

Dan Froomkin: I found those two pieces (and I believe you mean Byron York and Victoria Toensing) sadly reflective of the Washington media elite's contempt for this very important and eye-opening case. I do not think it was an attempt at jury tampering.

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Chicago: It really burns me up when some of your colleagues hold up folks like yourself as some kind of liberal activist. There just seem to be so many professional journalists who can't see the difference between practicing traditional adversarial journalism and being a partisan hack. Do you think we're headed to a point where the actual practice of journalism is considered a "liberal" pursuit? (Heck, science and academia have already been thoroughly discredited for the folks on the far-right. Why do you think they call it "Liberal Arts"?) Do you think real journalism ever will be "rehabilitated" in the eyes of conservatives? And if not, why do the temples of modern journalism, such as The Post and the Times bend themselves into pretzels to avoid telling these guys unpleasant truths?

Dan Froomkin: Well thank you. I certainly don't think what I'm doing is partisan -- I think it's in the best traditions of Washington Post journalism.

But answering your questions would take the better part of the afternoon, so I'll just say that while I'm distressed at the current media environment, I remain an optimist. I have great faith in journalists and journalism -- and the Internet.

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Washington: Hi Dan -- great, as always, to be able to chat with you. Thanks for including the Jon Stewart bit on Laura Bush's comments on the "one bombing a day shown on TV" being discouraging. I guess she also would take issue with the five to six vets shown last night during Bob Woodruff's program as discouraging too -- she'd be right. What makes me mad about these implications is that she has continued to repeat, as well as others in the administration, that if they have good news, why don't they tell us about it? You know, why doesn't she go over and do a profile about a success story. Or -- and I really mean this one -- why doesn't Tony Snow open his daily briefing with a quick blurb about some good news out of Iraq?

Dan Froomkin: That's an interesting idea. But keep in mind: Nobody's saying there's no good news in Iraq; the question is whether it is appropriately lost in the sea of the much larger and more significant body of bad news.

I was most taken aback by Laura Bush's description of the war as "wearing" and "wearying." It's similar to what her husband has said ... but from her I expected some acknowledgement of the horror of the war, and the suffering, and the losses. I don't think the worst part of the war is that it bums people out.
Stewart, as usual, was cutting right to the heart of the matter.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: Dan, thanks for your response on the York and Toensing op-eds. What can we do to get others besides you at The Post to understand that op-eds such as those are tantamount to The Post publishing that the earth is flat? FYI, in honor of GOP operative Barbara Comstock, some have nicknamed the Post the ComPost.

Dan Froomkin: I hadn't heard that. Thanks for sharing.

But the good news is that there are an increasing number of ways to make yourself heard, both officially and unofficially -- write a letter to the editor, write to the ombudsman, post a comment, post a comment on a popular blog, write your own blog. I don't think the exponential growth in ways for members of the public to express themselves has been matched by a similarly enormous growth in the elite media's willingness to listen, but I do think the latter has grown somewhat.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hi Dan - In your column and elsewhere, there has been speculation about two possible directions after the Libby trial (assuming he's found guilty, of course): a pardon from the President, or a "flip" that would make him a prosecution witness against the VP and others. Which option (assuming he has a choice) do you think would be more beneficial to him?

Dan Froomkin: More beneficial to Libby? A pardon, undeniably. Typically, a pardon in a controversial, political case comes with a downside: The relentless opprobrium of the media. But as I've pointed out many times, the media elite has no love for this case, and probably would welcome a pardon. The bloggers, and certain columnist/bloggers, would flog the issue for a while, but that would pass, I'm afraid.

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Washington: Your thoughts on the new look of the White House Web site?

Dan Froomkin: I think it's better -- but in this day and age, we appropriately expect great things from a redesign, and this wasn't all that. I think the Internet offers officials unparalleled new avenues to escape the media filter and communicate directly to the public. I don't understand why they're not taking more advantage of it, for better or for worse.

I want online video of Bush's conversations with experts. I want Bush to take unfiltered questions directly from the public. I want an online log book of everyone who comes and goes from the People's House. That sort of thing.

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Seattle: Dan, in response to Alexandria, Va. ... how would writing something positive about President Bush, regardless of whether it is your personal opinion, help us "win" in Iraq?

Dan Froomkin: There are some folks who believe that undermining the commander in chief of the armed forces in a time of war is flatly treasonous, regardless of whether he's right or wrong. That's one way of looking at things.

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Dan Froomkin: OK, I've got to go. Thanks everyone for the great questions and comments.

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