White House Watch

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

A Karl Rove Solution for Iraq? (washingtonpost.com, July 10)

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 Watch online discussion! My column today (which will be out very shortly) leads with President Bush's mocking comments as he inaugurated the newly-refurbished White House briefing room. But there's also an awful lot of analysis of his rambling town-meeting style talk yesterday ... and much more.

There's so much else going on today, too. Let's talk about it.

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Washington: Dan: I was struck by the White House's official position (via its spokesman Tony Fratto) on former Surgeon General Richard Carmona's Congressional testimony. Carmona said that he was muzzled on various health issues by the administration. Usually when such issues arise, the White House glosses over them. Not so here. Fratto called Carmona a liar, saying: "As surgeon general, Dr. Carmona was given the authority and had the obligation to be the leading voice for the health of all Americans. It's disappointing to us if he failed to use his position to the fullest extent in advocating for policies he thought were in the best interests of the nation." In other words, "we didn't muzzle him at all, and if he didn't speak out, he didn't do his job." Pretty remarkable. Where is this going to lead?

Dan Froomkin: I read that very differently than you did. I read it as a cynical nondenial of his charges, wrapped in a nasty bit of character assassination. So, nothing personal, but I think you fell for it.

Me, I'd like to see the White House press office confronted on each of his specific charges (my fave: being told to mention Bush at least three times per page in every speech) and see what they say about each one.

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Honeymoon for the Next President?: Dan: I've been pondering lately what effect Bush's credibility gap may have on the next president. Theory one is that the country collectively will be relieved to have "anybody but Bush" and will give the president the benefit of the doubt until he or she proves unworthy. Theory two is that cynicism has become so pervasive that the next president will have to perform extraordinarily well just to get back to neutral. What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: That's a really interesting question. I would suspect a bit of both. On the one hand, any president is going to have a honeymoon period of sorts. But on the other, there's the Nixon precedent -- Watergate completely and forever changed the nation's view of presidential infallibility.

Will we unquestioningly believe any future president if they cite "intelligence" as a reason for a preventive war? I don't think that will (or should) happen ever again.

More than a year ago (maybe two?) polls started showing that less than half the public considered Bush trustworthy. I'd be interested in seeing those numbers now, and comparing them to Nixon's.

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Hilton Head, S.C.: Enjoy your column and your insight very much! Because Bush relies heavily on the advice of a small inner circle -- and obviously has received very bad advice through the years from this group -- why does he still have confidence in them, primarily Cheney and Rove? Why does he keep relying on these guys when they have gotten so much stuff wrong in the past six years and essentially helped wreck his presidency?

Dan Froomkin: There are two main hypotheses: 1. They make the decisions, not him. 2. Inertia.

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Pasadena, Calif.: Dan, thanks as always for these chats. I found the comments you cited from Michael Ware's interview with Anderson Cooper to be particularly disturbing:

"These are American agendas, American benchmarks. These aren't the benchmarks that the factions within the Iraqi government really care about. What they care about is getting their hands on their own security forces and setting them loose as they see fit."

Do you have a feeling whether the Republican defectors are recognizing this reality, or are they rather merely responding to public discontent with the war in the face of the 2008 elections?

Dan Froomkin: CNN's Michael Ware, quoted in yesterday's column, has emerged as a real truth-teller.

I have a sneaking suspicion that history will look back on this period, almost as much as on the immediate post-invasion period, as one in which the U.S. government (and its people) completely misunderstood the circumstances in which we found ourselves. Iraqi politics is nothing like we imagine it to be.

See also this piece by Robert Dreyfuss on NiemanWatchdog.org. He notes, for instance: "Corrupt and venal Iraqi leaders, squatting in bunkers in the Green Zone, might welcome American support and American money -- but do they have any 'street cred' whatsoever?"

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Rockville, Md.: Question: Why is it called "White House Watch?"

Answer: "Because it is wrong twice a day."

And this is the polite version. Sorry.

Dan Froomkin: Funny. (Sort of.) Thanks for writing.

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Reston, Va.: Maybe this is completely naive on my part, but can't Congress grant Scooter Libby immunity and make him tell the truth?

Dan Froomkin: Not naive at all. Yes, they can grant him immunity. But how in the world can they force him to tell the truth?

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Washington: "Executive privilege," Sara Taylor and Harriet Miers: Isn't there an obvious first amendment issue here? Neither now works for Bush. Taylor has said she's willing to testify to avoid a contempt citation, though she'd rather not. Surely Bush was not happy with "The Price of Loyalty," nor was Clinton happy with "All Too Human" eight years ago. But when those books were published, no one denied that Paul O'Neill or George Stephanopoulos had the legal right to say or write whatever they pleased about their experiences in those administrations, including conversations with the president. (National security matters excepted, of course.) Why does a request from Congress for testimony annihilate the same right for Taylor or Miers? And conversely, how does it interfere with their obligations to testify if subpoenaed? What am I missing here?

washingtonpost.com: Ex-Aide Refuses to Testify on Attorney Firings (Post, July 11)

Dan Froomkin: A good question that I'm not fully equipped to answer. But the thing you're missing may be that maybe Taylor really doesn't want to testify. I only heard a tiny part of her testimony today, but it kinda sounded like as long as the answers were self-serving, she was pretty happy to talk.

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Annandale, Va.: Regarding Carmona -- I have a tough time having any sympathy for him. He stayed four years; he was the one delivering speeches. Supposedly he was in charge, and what political appointees were saying was advice (after all, he was a political appointee too). As far as the story goes, it doesn't appear that even one time he went with his convictions over political advice. Sounds like he feels guilty now.

Dan Froomkin: And that's a good point. Under the conditions he describes, resigning in protest would appear to have been the most defensible decision.

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Washington: To Hilton Head: "Why does he keep relying on these guys when they have gotten so much stuff wrong in the past six years and essentially helped wreck his presidency?" There is a third option: He doesn't think it's wrong advice. Look at the speeches he's giving to his echo chamber audiences -- he clearly thinks he's right, and anyone who disagrees with him isn't sufficiently patriotic.

Dan Froomkin: Fair enough.

3. Despite the public's deep disapproval of much of what Bush's inner-circle has wrought, the loss of Congress in 2006 and the defection of members of his own party, Bush believes that history will vindicate him.

But you could also see that as a subset of option 1. They make the decisions not him.

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Atlanta: Hi Dan. Saw you on "Hardball" last week -- you were great! I am wondering if you can explain why Chertoff's "gut feel" on a terrorist attack is considered news. This is a guy who had "no idea" the levees in New Orleans could breach when he had warnings and facts. But we are supposed to take his "gut feel" seriously? And more importantly, why is the news media once again, being complicit in the administration's scare tactics? Can we assume no lessons have been learned? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks so much! That was my first TV appearances in ages. I enjoyed it.

I have a "gut feel" about this Chertoff announcement, but unlike him, I have the good sense not to tell people what it is.

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Sun Prairie, Wis.: Dan, I understand the urgency to get your column filed, but you might have noted in quoting David Halberstam's Vanity Fair piece yesterday that Halberstam died last month.

washingtonpost.com: A Journalist For Whom There Were Not Enough Words (Post, April 25)

Dan Froomkin: My apologies. Halberstam's death was a terrible tragedy. The headline of that segment in yesterday's column was "Halberstam's Last Thoughts," but you're right, I should have written more of an intro.

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Denver: I like when you post comments from the people who don't like you or think you are wrong (twice a day apparently). Can you dedicate a column or discussion to these types of comments one day? They make me laugh.

Dan Froomkin: I don't get enough, I'm afraid.

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Lake Elmo, Minn.: I find the question regarding the next president to be very intriguing and quite important ... what will the next president, regardless of party, have to do to essentially reconfigure his or her proper role? I think Bush's tenure has trashed the presidency.

Dan Froomkin: As I note in today's column, Susan Page has a big story in USA Today about Bush's legacy.

"No new president gets a clean slate -- global politics and the economy don't run in neat four-year cycles -- but presidential scholars say the unfinished business Bush will leave for his successor is unprecedented since at least World War II.

" 'I can't think of a single modern president about to bequeath to his successor such a difficult agenda and such a damaged presidency,' says Paul Light of New York University...

"White House spokesman Tony Snow says that Bush deserves credit for passing on a healthy economy and tackling daunting problems -- from Islamic terrorism to Social Security's finances to a broken immigration system.

" 'What the president does bequeath to his successor is a much greater sense of some of the challenges of the world,' Snow says...

"Snow counters that Bush inherited serious problems from President Clinton, too, though they may not have been obvious at the time.

" 'President Clinton did not address directly the terror threat. ... He didn't take on (Osama) bin Laden directly,' Snow says. 'Problems were brewing that the White House could have addressed more forthrightly and chose not to.' "

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Dan Froomkin: Today's column, Mock the Press, is now available for your reading pleasure!

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Florida: It's been quite a long time since we have heard anything about Karen Hughes. Is she still spreading goodwill on behalf of GWB around the world? Or is that impossible to do these days?

washingtonpost.com: Under Secretary, Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Dan Froomkin: Yes to both, with a special focus on the Muslim world. Which reminds me: Was anyone else a bit taken aback by some of Bush's recent statements about Islam?

Here's what he had to say yesterday: "A lot of people in the Muslim world believe that the United States is at war with Islam; that the response to the attack on our country was one where we attacked somebody based upon their religion. And I, for one, obviously need to battle that image, because we're not facing religious people, we're facing people whose hearts are filled with hate, who have subverted a great religion."

They have subverted? Not they've tried to subvert?

Similarly, as I wrote in my June 28 column, here is the text of Bush's remarks at the rededication of the Islamic Center in Washington. Bush's goal was to empower moderate Muslims. But some of his words may have rubbed them the wrong way.

"We must help millions of Muslims as they rescue a proud and historic religion from murderers and beheaders who seek to soil the name of Islam," he said.

Rescue? Rather than, say, protect? Imagine if a Muslim leader came to the National Cathedral and spoke of the need to help Christians rescue their religion from fanatics. Or am I just picking nits?

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Boulder, Colo.: Dan, do you think Karl Rove still thinks the Republicans can take the White House in 2008? I don't see them winning under any circumstances with so many independents against Bush.

Dan Froomkin: It's a long way until November. It certainly looks that way now, but keep in mind that Rove and his ilk succeed more by running down their opponents than they do by building up their candidates. If Rove types can persuade a good chunk of the public that the Democratic candidate is a treasonous wimp, then they win, almost no matter what.

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Washington: Re: Carmona. He may have thought that things would get better, especially in the second administration. He's in a job with limited lateral shifts and is not someone who will wind up running a med school, which I believe was Satcher's destination. I think he reached a point of being stuck and decided to just see it through toward the end. He's served in the military. He's worked in a command structure. Career military people don't "resign in protest" -- they retire and take their resentments with them. This isn't much different from what happens to well-compensated people in screwed-up organizations elsewhere in government -- or, for that matter, in the private sector.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the intelligent analysis. And forgive the naivety, but why shouldn't military people resign in protest?

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Chicago: Dan -- recently, at the Aspen Institute, Karl Rove and Colin Powell had vastly different takes on the current involvement of al-Qaeda in the attacks on civilians and US soldiers in Iraq. Although Powell's credibility was whacked by his U.N. dog-and-pony show (albeit due to vice president Cheney's cherry-picking of intelligence relied upon by Powell) I've got to think that most everyone believes him to be more credible than Rove. Your take?

Dan Froomkin: Well, it helps that Powell's position was supported by the facts (and Rove's was not). Rove would like people to believe that al-Qaeda is responsible for most of the violence in Iraq, but it just ain't true. Brent Gardner-Smith covered Rove's remarks for the Aspen Daily News. I wish I had a transcript.

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Atlanta: "Or am I just picking nits?" No, you are exactly right. This is exactly why our standing in the world is so precarious. The president does not know how to be diplomatic. Honestly I can't even listen to him anymore without being offended. I have to go back later and read what he said.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I know he was unscripted yesterday -- so was that just a slip of the tongue, or his true feelings on display? That Islam has in fact been subverted by extremists?

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Springfield, Va.: Hi Dan. This is an absolutely hilarious comment from Tony Snow in your column today. Um, Tony, are you on the front page because of Bush's agenda, because positive things are happening. I wish someone had had a retort for him:

"Ron Hutcheson of McClatchy Newspapers...said 'The truth is that the president is not making the kind of news he made in the first term or even in the start of the second term, especially now that immigration has gone down.'

"Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, disputed that assessment. 'Last time I checked,' he said, 'the White House ends up on the front page every day.' "

Dan Froomkin: It was kind of hilarious. Sometimes I just let statements like that speak for themselves. But thank you for putting that in context.

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Well,that's one way to end all wars...: "And forgive the naivety, but why shouldn't military people resign in protest?"

"Okay boys, at the count of three, we are headed for Omaha Beach!" "Uh, no thanks Sarge; I resign ... buh-bye."

Dan Froomkin: I wasn't being quite that naive -- I meant senior folks in leadership positions. I have nothing but sympathy and admiration for the grunts.

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Columbia, Md.: I know others have written on it today, but your thoughts on the implosion of the McCain Campaign? For someone who literally turned the other cheek, he seems to be getting very little support out of the White House or Rove.

Dan Froomkin: I am not watching the 2008 campaign as closely as perhaps I should -- but from my perspective as a confirmed Bush watcher, I suspect that McCain's implosion had a lot to do with the fact that whoever runs in 2008 as a Bush defender ain't going anywhere.

What I'm watching for, particularly in the Democratic camp of course, is who establishes him or herself as the preeminent anti-Bush. I think there is a hunger out there for precisely that.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Hi Dan. Do you think that Bush and Cheney's efforts to strengthen the executive may actually backfire in the future, leading to a weakening of that branch (like after Watergate)? Also, their efforts to co-opt and bully the mainstream media likewise seems to have had the unintended consequence of increasing aggressive reporting lately -- might that also be an outcome of their actions in office?

Dan Froomkin: I think that if the Democrats control Congress and the White House in 2008, they may well establish firm limits to prevent the kind of overreach we have seen of late. (Although one could argue that those limits already exist; they just were ignored; and the Supreme Court is the real battle ground of the future.)

As for the MSM ... yes, it's doing better, but I'm still not seeing enough aggressive reporting to make me the least bit optimistic about a widespread return to watchdog journalism in the short-run, not to mention the long-run.

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Napier, New Zealand: Hi Dan. A bit off-topic, but what would Bush say (do) if the Iraqis asked the U.S. to leave? Might be a good way out.

Dan Froomkin: This goes back to what I was getting at above. The people we've established as leaders are dependent on us for their power, so it seems highly unlikely that they will ask us to leave. Nice trick, huh?

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Washington: Speaking as someone who worked in a communications shop in the administration (albeit nowhere near the White House) I find the "mention Bush three times" line a bit hard to believe. I worked on speeches and I can recall no such instructions ever in the couple of years I spent. I doubt you'll take that on face value, but it was my experience.

Dan Froomkin: That would be an easy thing to go check; if it was a hyperbolic claim on Carmona's part, then shame on him.

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Washington: "...the thing you're missing may be that maybe Taylor really doesn't want to testify." Sorry; I should've made clear that her "willingness" to testify seems (to me, anyway) disingenuous. But my larger point remains: unlike the CIA, the president has no evident right to quash the speech of former employees.

Dan Froomkin: I would tend to agree, but my understanding is that the legal terrain is not entirely clear. (This doesn't come up very often.)

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Raleigh, N.C.: Re: "Islam has been subverted by extremists," I believe that this is not the first time he has said that, so it's probably something he does believe.

Dan Froomkin: And then he wonders why "[a] lot of people in the Muslim world believe that the United States is at war with Islam."

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Baltimore: Sara Taylor -- did I get it right? Did she just admit to numerous violations of the Hatch Act? She wasn't immunized in this testimony, so can Congress ask that she be indicted?

Dan Froomkin: I haven't been listening carefully enough...

But Joel Havemann reports for the Los Angeles Times that "when asked about e-mail messages on her White House computer related to the U.S. attorneys, she testified that she used two computers, one for governmental matters and one for political issues, to avoid Hatch Act sanctions against doing political work at taxpayer expense. But sometimes, she admitted, she slipped up and used her government computer for political work."

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Columbus, Ohio: Regarding today's column Dan, why does the press let Bush get away with antics like that? Why would they sit there and continue to show him respect when he clearly has none for them, or for the job they do? I understand respecting the office and being a professional, but if Bush is going to act like that, why do they bother being there? I would have reasoned that it was a waste of time and walked out, rather than watch the child act up for no reason other than because he could.

Dan Froomkin: I understand why they showed up -- it was, after all, a potential news event. And I understand the impulse to laugh at his antics. But this is serious stuff. Bush's mocking relationship to the press (and its mission of holding him accountable) is not only one of the most troubling hallmarks of his presidency, it's a legitimate source of nonpartisan, journalistic anger.

So where's that anger? That, to me, remains the big mystery. Why play along?

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Silicon Valley, Calif.: Everyone I know wants to see Bush and Cheney impeached ASAP. RICO seems like obvious choice, given that they have been so corrupt on such an ongoing basis. There's a lavish buffet of Impeachable offenses to choose from. When can we sit down and eat?

Dan Froomkin: The Democratic leadership clearly has decided that they would rather run against Bush in 2008 than run in defense of their impeachment of Bush. It's all politics, baby.

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Jersey City, N.J.: Does it look to you like some reporters might be taking some advice from the New York Times ombudsman? I noticed this paragraph in this morning's Post article from Michael Abramowitz:

"In his speech, Bush once again conflated two organizations, al-Qaeda in Iraq and the international network led by Osama bin Laden, saying that the same group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, is responsible for much of the violence in Iraq. While the Iraq militants are inspired by bin Laden, intelligence analysts say the Iraqi group is composed overwhelmingly of Iraqis and does not take direction from bin Laden."

washingtonpost.com: President To Critics: Wait Till September (Post, July 11)

Dan Froomkin: Wasn't that swell? Here's that (possibly historic) column by the new New York Times public editor/ombudsman, Clark Hoyt. That's ombudsmanning! And check out the McClatchy Newspapers story by Jonathan S. Landay.

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Dan Froomkin: Okay -- thanks, everyone, for another great chat. See you every weekday afternoon on the home page, and here again in two weeks!

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