White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, April 11, 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, April 11, at 1 p.m. ET.

Portrait of a Flailing White House (washingtonpost.com, April 11)

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

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Dan Froomkin: Today's column leads with an appreciation of the important piece in today's Washington Post by Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks. It's not just the story they tell -- about President Bush's futile search for a war czar -- it's the subtle portrait they paint of a White House flailing around to salvage its disastrous war.

Baker had a piece in Outlook over the weekend, in which he wrote about the White House becoming at least slightly leakier as the end times approach. It was interesting and accurate as far as it went.

But the best stories about what's going on inside the White House don't necessarily come from inside the White House -- they often come from outsiders who've had some sort of experience with the White House, and lived to tell. Baker himself (along with Ricks) proves that to be so today.

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Lee Center, N.Y.: I'm very suspicious of the use of RNC e-mail accounts for White House business -- why would anyone do that unless there was a less-than-savory flavor to the communications? Will the president be able to make an claims of executive privilege if RNC e-mails emanating from the White House are subpoenaed? Does the wrongdoing by staffers trying to evade statutory requirements to preserve executive branch communications rise to the level of criminal behavior?

Dan Froomkin: For those coming late to this story, see yesterday's column.
Let me take your first question. There may in fact be a fairly innocent explanation: convenience. Rove, for instance, is a known Blackberry addict. The RNC gave him one. Did the White House? In either case, switching back and forth from one system to another could well have been considered by him to be a real pain.

If that's the case, however -- and I'm only speculating, as the White House press office won't give anyone a straight answer -- my questions then are:

1) Did the White House not make it clear to staffers that their official e-mails should be on the White House servers, for archiving and security purposes, etc.?
2) If not, why not?
3) If so, why aren't Rove and the others in trouble?
4) If it was widely known that aides were using external e-mail (and it must have been) then why did no one raise concerns about archiving and security, etc.?
5) Or, if someone did raise those concerns, how were they addressed?

You get the picture. Even in the most innocent version of events, there are some pretty thorny questions. (In the most guilty version, of course, there is cover-up and criminality.)

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Atlanta: Dan, in today's article by Peter Baker and Thomas Ricks they write: "The administration's interest in the idea stems from long-standing concern over the coordination of civilian and military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan by different parts of the U.S. government. The Defense and State departments have long struggled over their roles and responsibilities in Iraq, with the White House often forced to referee."

My question is this: Isn't it the White House's job to be the referee between the cabinet departments? Maybe Bush is preparing to to appoint someone to run the whole country as well. In the real world we call this dumping the problem on someone else. If it wasn't so serious it would be comical.

washingtonpost.com: Three Generals Spurn the Position of War 'Czar' (Post, April 11)

Dan Froomkin: First of all, that is precisely the national security adviser's job. Under Bush, however, with first Condoleezza Rice and then her deputy and successor Steve Hadley, the national security adviser job has largely become that of enabler rather than adviser and honest broker. If there's a personnel solution to this problem (and that seems unlikely) then maybe a strong, capable national security adviser is what's called for.

That said, one of blogger Josh Marshall's readers wrote in that the story reminds him of this November 2005 piece from The Onion:

"In response to increasing criticism of his handling of the war in Iraq and the disaster in the Gulf Coast, as well as other issues, such as Social Security reform, the national deficit, and rising gas prices, President Bush is expected to appoint someone to run the U.S. as soon as Friday."

And blogger John Aravosis quotes from the response from Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel:

"The Washington Post reports that the White House wants to appoint a war czar to run the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but they can't find anyone to do it. Someone needs to tell Steve Hadley that position is filled, it's the Commander in Chief, unless the decider's become the delegator."

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McLean, Va.: How can the White House possibly spin the "War Czar" story? It's hard to knock down when three sources either comment on the record or decline to say it didn't happen. Also, do you think Rove is behind it? Trying to find a fall guy for Iraq seems way too bold an idea, and too brazen, for Bush himself to have dreamed up.

Dan Froomkin: I will never be a true Rovian Conspiracy Theorist. It's just too complicated.

You're saying you think Rove came up with this idea, and the goal is to find a fall guy? Not a chance. My sense is that the White House is clearly flailing around trying to find a way out of this mess. That's their number one goal. They're hoping for a miracle, not a fall guy.

(The extent of their fall-guy thinking may or may not be: The 44th president of the United States.)

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Los Angeles: Is there any reason that you can see why Congress would not give Monica Goodling immunity, so that she would be compelled to testify before either the Senate or House Judiciary Committees or both? If I understand immunity properly, she would be immunized from prosecution for her testimony before Congress, but the immunity would not apply to any perjured testimony that she might give. It seems to me that if the real target is Rove, immunizing Goodling is the best way to ascertain his involvement in the U.S. Attorney firings.

washingtonpost.com: Bush's Monica Problem (washingtonpost.com, March 27)

Dan Froomkin: There is no reason I can see, no. I'm kind of mystified as to how come it hasn't happened already -- or at least hasn't been publicly discussed. But maybe I'm missing something.

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Melbourne, Australia: Good onya for the hard-hitting, fact-checking blogging you do for The Post, but do you ever get so frustrated with the massive corruption and feeble reactions to it that you want to give up? How do you find the ,,oomph,, to keep going on? And when will The Post let us commenters use apostrophes?

Dan Froomkin: G'day! Thanks. And allow me to quote from the "Helen Thomas Watch" in today's column:

"Thomas also answered questions from the audience.

"'How do you contain your disbelief?' she was asked.

"'I don't contain it. I am a cynic with hope; I believe you should ask questions.'"

As for apostrophes, that's beyond my pay grade. Sorry.

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Warrenton, Va.: Love your column. Something I have been thinking about is how his administration controls the message by controlling the speed of information flow: Information (or misinformation) that bolsters their case is dumped on the public as quickly and as frequently as possible, while information that is antithetical to their policies is choked off to a drip, so when it finally does emerge it's already considered old news and thus not worthy of aggressive investigation, or is assumed to be refuted by the deluge of bogus information. Do you think that this approach will ensure that the truly damaging information only will be discovered when they are halfway (or fully) out the door? Or will this steady series of scandals build into a critical mass before they can exit stage left?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Your analysis sounds about right.

The Democratic Congress's subpoena power may or may not wrest the control of the speed of the information flow out of the White House's hands. That's yet another reason to watch carefully how the Justice Department and the White House respond to the first subpoena or two.

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Boston: The recurring speculation that the administration is just running out the clock with the surge, etc. seems to me to be validated with their continued refusal to discuss any alternate approaches to Iraq. Do you think that this all is just a setup to pin any course taken by the next (assumed to be Democratic) administration as causing the "loss" of the war?

Dan Froomkin: That is a plausible explanation, yes. Unproven, of course.

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Re: Los Angeles: The reason they haven't given Goodling immunity yet, in my mind, is that they don't want her to take the bullet for every illegal thing that's happened in the White House so far. Libby took the bullet for Cheney and Rove, and expects a pardon and cushy job in return -- and Goodling may do the same.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting argument, but potentially flawed. If congressional grants of immunity are like prosecutorial grants of immunity, then presumably such a deal would only cover Goodling as long as she told the truth. (That's the way it works. You get immunity in return for telling the truth.) But you're right that this could be more Byzantine than I first thought -- and that a waiting game is afoot.

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New York: Dan -- the White House rationale for the use of external e-mail servers was to comply with the Hatch Act, forbidding public employees for using resources for political purposes. But the resource concern shouldn't be the incremental electronic storage cost at pennies per megabyte, but the actual time of government employees doing RNC work -- has any reporter pushed this distinction?

Dan Froomkin: That's actually not really an issue. My understanding is that White House aides are (understandably) exempt from those particular provisions.

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Austin, Texas: What would have happened if Scooter Libby had not lied to the grand jury? Would truthful answers revealed that a crime had been committed? Or did his lies create more damage to him than the truth would have?

Dan Froomkin: Well, it all depends what the truth is, doesn't it? Presumably, Libby lied either to cover up something he or his boss did. Perhaps he was just trying to avoid embarrassment. Perhaps he was trying to avoid indictment. The whole point about his lying is that we don't know.

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Arlington Va.: Why do you think Bush hasn't yet fired Gonzales? He managed to throw ex-FEMA-head Mike Brown overboard after he saw the growing political cost of keeping him. In the end, isn't that all that matters to this White House?

Dan Froomkin: Bush and Gonzales go way, way back. Totally different calculus.

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Washington: Re: Monica Goodling: She has been represented thus far by John Dowd of Akin Gump, the same John Dowd who conducted the Pete Rose investigation for Major League Baseball. Any idea who is paying his hourly rate, or is he working pro bono?

Dan Froomkin: A lot of people have been wondering about that. I don't know.

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Baltimore: On Monica Goodling: I think giving her immunity at this point legitimizes her idea that she can plead the Fifth Amendment at this time for the reasons she's articulated; many legal scholars say her basis for doing so is unprecedented and not legitimate. Granting her immunity would be a bad move on the part of the subcommittee. I think that the Senate has a long institutional memory, and some remember the ultimate harm done by granting immunity to such a large extent during Irangate.

Dan Froomkin: OK, thanks. Precedent is certainly an important issue with those guys. If it were me, I'd just want to hear what she knows as soon as possible.

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New York: I have always considered an option mentioned in your today's column ("...quick passage of a war spending bill without conditions but with only enough funds for a few more months of war") as the best possible response to a veto; however, wouldn't this result in major political damage for the Democrats?

Dan Froomkin: Maybe I hadn't been paying enough attention, but that was the first I'd heard of it. If Bush's most potent argument is that the troops will suffer if they don't get their funding right away, that sort of tactic would seem to defang Bush without giving up too much ground. But I could be wrong. You never know how these things will get spun.

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Chaska, Minn.: I hope you take this question because its an issue that your paper refuses to address properly, yet it constantly is used to defend Bush's most outrageous excesses: Time and time again criticisms aimed at Bush or his policies are dismissed simply on the grounds that the individual is a liberal and therefore the argument is without merit because it has a partisan bias to it. The problem is that as a self-described liberal who actually believes in a progressive agenda, I know that being a liberal has nothing to do with hating Bush.

Your paper has seen fit to label you a liberal, yet I can't recall you every espousing any part of the liberal/progressive agenda. You have advocated accountability for the Executive branch, but that is not necessary a defining characteristic of the progressive agenda. When self-described conservatives (Hagel) criticize the President, they are not labeled as liberals -- yet any undeclared member of the media automatically is painted as a liberal. Do you think this is just a variation of the straw man argument? Why does your paper (especially Mrs. Howell) continue to describe you as a liberal (for your White House criticisms) yet Chuck Hagel is not? Thanks from a proud liberal.

Dan Froomkin: You are indeed very liberal -- certainly with your praise. Thanks. This is really an essay question. A very long essay question. It's also something I've thought a lot about.

In a nutshell, I think what may have happened is that this administration has presented a real challenge to traditional journalism and its age-old M.O. Our goal as journalists is to firmly occupy reality. To be pro-fact. We should not be taken in by the delusions of either the right or the left. Over time, however, that has been reduced to a shorthand version: Occupy the center. If, as many believe, this administration has regularly taken flights of fancy to defend its policies, has embraced nontransparency as a policy, and has taken spin to a higher level even than its predecessors, then die-hard pro-fact journalists will often find themselves saying a lot of the same things as people who self-identify as liberals.

That's terrifying to people who have made a career of trying to remain above reproach by occupying what they consider the center, i.e. exactly halfway between the two dominant political schools of thought.

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Rockville, Md.: "Running out the clock with the surge..." No. They really want to win the war. If they could do it today, it would be done. But if the choice is losing the war or fighting another day ... we fight. There is no way that anyone ever will say "Bush" without saying "war" -- the Democrats can rest in peace on that call.

Dan Froomkin: Of course they really want to win the war. Everyone wants to win the war. The question is are they contemplating the alternative? Because it would seem irrational not to do so at this point.

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Newport Coast, Calif.: Hi Dan. I haven't heard any talk of investigating the role, cost and effectiveness of using private contractors in Iraq. It seems that there is a mushrooming dark underbelly of corruption, abuse of the Iraqis and possibly torture being carried out -- with our funding and possibly direction -- with no possible oversight. Do you have any insights on this?

Dan Froomkin: Tara McKelvey recently asked and answered some important questions about contractors and the lack of oversight on my other Web site, NiemanWatchdog.org.

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Washington: When you gonna do Imus?

Dan Froomkin: Never have, never will.

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Seward, Neb.: Love your column. Did you inadvertently put an extra "L" in the title today?

Dan Froomkin: You scared me for a minute there! But now I get it.

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Alexandria, Va.: I am not sure you are the right person for this question, but I hope you can help shed some light: With the recent chlorine bomb attacks taking place in Iraq, why is the administration not publicizing these as chemical weapons? Wouldn't it help justify their initial argument for going to war, or are these not really chemical weapons, or does the administration not want to go there anymore?

washingtonpost.com: Suicide Chlorine Bombing Kills 27 (AP, April 7)

Dan Froomkin: Interesting you should mention that. In the morning e-mail roundup of articles that it likes, the White House press office yesterday excerpted from a Wall Street Journal editorial (subscription required) that made that very argument.

The press office's excerpt: "It barely gets a headline these days, but terrorists are continuing to use chemical weapons in Iraq -- or what was once called a weapon of mass destruction. In this case the weapon is a truck full of explosives and chlorine, which a suicide bomber drives into some public place for maximum terror impact. ... This is another illustration of how our enemies in Iraq reveal themselves in plain sight -- even if many prefer not to see. ... There's not much doubt that the terrorists would employ far more destructive WMD if they could. If they prevail using such tactics in Iraq, their method and damage will spread."

For the White House, quoting something in that roundup is nearly an endorsement. Was it a trial balloon? I don't know. My sense is that the public will not find blowing up a chlorine truck to be tantamount to the anthrax, ricin and mustard gas stockpiles we were assured we would find.

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New York: "Winning the war" ... I have to wonder: what war? People are loose and careless with language and this is a particularly pernicious offense -- simply stated, there only was about three months where the United States was "at war." We really need to start correcting our language if we are going to start correcting the way we think about these issues.

Dan Froomkin: Fair point. The White House has defined winning the war in Iraq as leaving behind a stable, self-governing and secure Iraq, and that's how I meant it. But that isn't how "winning a war" has been defined in the past, is it?
And I'm not sure what winning the "war on terror" would look like at all.

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Seattle: After western Republicans ran on a heavily anti-immigration platform last fall, what is the White House doing to assure Democrats that Republicans won't attack them on immigration reform in 2008? And what is the White House doing to stop the Republicans from attacking the Democrats on the same subject?

Dan Froomkin: That's exactly why the Democrats are insisting on significant Republican support before going to bat for it themselves. But it's a potentially impossible balancing act for the White House. If they go too far to appease the right, the left won't go along... and vice versa.

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Dayton, Ohio: Could the administration's lack of recognition of the chlorine bombs be because of an embarrassment that such weapons are being used, four years after we invaded to end the use of WMD?

Dan Froomkin: That's a good point.

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Portland, Ore.: Greetings Dan ... do you get a sense that Bush has lost interest in his job and given up, as he seems to have done is all his previous occupational failures; the National Guard, the oil companies, the Rangers? That's what this "war czar" thing tells me. Isn't being commander in chief what Bush always boasts about? Wouldn't "war czar" be his job?

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. There certainly have been indications here and there that Bush's heart isn't really in the job. See, for instance, my May 8, 2006, column: Would Bush Rather Be Fishing?. There's his constant refrain that so many things are "hard work." I do think this "war czar" story has major legs.

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To Los Angeles: About Goodling: I taught at Messiah College for almost twenty years and was there when Monica Goodling was a student. I knew her, but not well. Still, I think I can hazard a pretty reasonable guess as to how she thinks and reacts. Like many Messiah students, she was very conservative, both politically and religiously. It's unlikely that either Messiah or Regents trained her to think political issues through with any great rigor. I'm inclined to think this intellectual softness -- combined with naive idealism, a sense of power and a tendency not to question authority figures (at least not politically conservative ones) -- is what has gotten her into her present mess. In other words, her problems have more to do with fuzzy thinking than criminal activity.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much for your post.

I don't think anyone sees her as a criminal mastermind. More as a loyal soldier (which would go along with your observations). But what were her orders? And who gave them to her? And what, then, did she do?

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Madison, Wis.: How likely do you think it is that an investigation of the prosecution of Georgia Thompson (who was freed in a highly unusual move by an appeals court last week) will reveal that it was politically motivated -- with enough evidence to clearly prove it was? The Wisconsin Republicans made much of that case during the last election; now it appears that an appeals court of two Republicans and one Democrat finds the case so malodorous that they ordered the release of Thompson immediately after hearing oral arguments.

washingtonpost.com: Worker Convicted in Wisconsin Donor Flap Free (AP, April 5)

Dan Froomkin: That's another story with legs -- though an overt White House connection has not yet been suggested, not to mention discovered. My first question to the U.S. attorney would be: Ever talk to Karl Rove?

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Newport Coast, Calif.: Thanks for the fine link to Tara McKelvey's report on contractors in Iraq -- I also was thinking about congressional inquiries. Any insights on that?

Dan Froomkin: My understanding is that it is indeed on Henry Waxman's to-do list.

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Minneapolis: In reality, one of the untold stories of the Iraq war is the extent to which Bush really has been the delegator, letting decision-making devolve to others -- for instance, Casey and Khalilzad in Baghdad when they were in charge. That's neither justification nor excuse, and it has been complemented by two extraordinarily weak and ineffective National Security Advisors. But in any case, isn't is just extraordinarily telling that Gen. Keane of all people turned down the job -- Keane who was one of a couple of people who persuaded Bush that the war was winnable with the surge, regardless of what they experts in the State Department or the Joint Chiefs or other military experts were saying? Shouldn't he have jumped at the chance? Doesn't the fact that he didn't take it both show how hopeless a situation Bush has put us in and indicate that Keane himself lacks the courage of his convictions?

Dan Froomkin: There could be a much more banal reason he turned down the job -- but it sure doesn't look good for either side.

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Dan Froomkin: Thanks everyone for all the great questions and comments. Look for me every weekday afternoon on the home page -- and I'll be back here in two weeks.

Oh, one more thing: I'm considering having guests here once in a while. If you have any suggestions for who you'd like to hear from, drop me an e-mail at froomkin@washingtonpost.com. (And thanks in advance.)

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