White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, January 16, 2008; 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, Jan. 16 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 -- coming out very shortly, and titled "Bush, the Blessed Peacemaker" -- leads with President Bush's comments about himself to ABC's Terry Moran ("I'm sure people view me as a warmonger and I view myself as peacemaker," says Bush) and then goes on with more about his Middle East trip.

But there's some good stuff buried further below, too. Like the White House's latest explanation of the millions of e-mails reportedly missing from its (legally required) archives. In a statement that we only got because a federal magistrate demanded it, the White House now says, essentially: "What missing e-mails? We're looking into it. Get back to us later. ... Oh, and all the backups of White House servers made before October 2003 have been destroyed."

Here's how Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, put it: "Two years after a special prosecutor concluded that key e-mails were missing from the White House system administered by the Office of Administration, the White House astonishingly now admits it has no back-up tapes from before October 2003 and doesn't know if any e-mails are missing."

And then there's the fact that I was supposed to be up against President Bush, who was doing the equivalent of a washingtonpost.com discussion on the White House Web site at this very moment. But quite suspiciously, the transcript of the "chat" appeared on the White House Web site more than two hours ago.

That's just from today's column -- and it's been two weeks since I was here last. I look forward to your comments and questions.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I imagine you'll cover this in your column, but I just saw that the AP is reporting the White House reused the tapes containing the e-mails from 2003, which was "consistent with industry best practices." Obviously there isn't much recourse to recovering these e-mails, but what legal ramifications does this have for the White House?

washingtonpost.com: White House Recycles Backup E-Mail Tapes (AP, Jan. 16)

Dan Froomkin: I wouldn't give up on getting those e-mails recovered. I suspect that will be doable -- when and if the right people get access to the White House servers. What's nearly impossible is getting a straight answer out of the White House on the topic.

As for legal ramifications, this looks like negligence, at least at the beginning. If I were in the West Wing, I'd be much more worried about the other e-mail scandal. See my June 19 column, Casual Lawbreaking at the White House.

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Boynton Beach, Fla.: As we finally get to the gun-lap year of this administration, do you see signs that Bush is just as anxious to get this presidency over with as are 70 percent of Americans?

Dan Froomkin: That would be 80 percent, thank you.

And from what I can see, Bush's emotional state has indeed changed. He seems even more self-aggrandizing and giddily optimistic these days than he did before.

Is that an act? (Has it always been an act?) If so, one reasonably might imagine that he's suffering from greater internal turmoil as the countdown clocks ticks away. Or is it for real, in which case he's more confident than ever?

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Portland, Ore.: As a Federal employee of almost 20 years -- including a tour in Iraq -- I'm dismayed at how Bush's policies and leadership have ruined entire agencies, politicized science, and made contractual fraud, waste and abuse virtually a standard operating procedure. Besides living "it" eight hours a day, I'm an avid politics junkie who now can't even enjoy "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," let alone the myopically hacktacular "Meet the Press."

How do you follow our national catastrophe in such detail without resorting to your favorite vice full-time? Do you get a sense you have a ringside seat to the Fall of Rome without the incremental, hundreds of years part? Do you think eight years of the Crawford Coward is reversible? How many decades? Needless to say, I'm not optimistic that a national election will "change" our country enough, quickly enough.

Dan Froomkin: I'm hoping those are rhetorical questions, because I don't have nearly enough energy to respond point by point.

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Berkeley, Calif.: Have the media pressed Bush to come clean about White House involvement in the Libby affair, now that the appeal route is closed?

Dan Froomkin: No. No no no no no. And this despite my brilliant column last month calling on my colleagues to do just that.

Sigh.

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San Francisco: Any news on Susan Ralston? Is that investigation still going on? Is she cooperating with the Justice Department?

Dan Froomkin: A fine question. I long have thought Susan Ralston just might be the one to spill the beans on her former boss, Karl Rove.

The last I've heard was this Paul Singer story for Roll Call (subscription required), which said: "The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is poised to dive back into the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in coming weeks, according to several sources who say Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has issued letters to a range of Abramoff associates seeking information about his contacts with the White House."

Singer wrote: "In May, Waxman's staff deposed Susan Ralston -- former assistant to White House political adviser Karl Rove, who announced his resignation in August -- about her contacts with Abramoff while she was in the White House. Ralston requested immunity before answering, and Waxman told his committee colleagues in a May 22 briefing memo that before considering immunity, 'we should seek to obtain information about the relationship between Mr. Abramoff and the White House from other sources.' "

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Kingston, Ontario: Dan, re: self-aggrandizing: I read somewhere that the chief of staff (Bolten?) is required to start his morning meetings with the president by saying something like "thank you for the privilege of serving you this day." Can you confirm whether that's correct, and is it typical of the behavior Bush demands?

Dan Froomkin: Robert Draper reported in his book "Dead Certain" that chief of staff Josh Bolten does indeed tell Bush: "Thank you for the privilege of serving today" each morning. But I think that says more about Bolten than it does about Bush.

Then again it might say more about what Bolten knows about how to manage Bush. Which is his job.

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Bush's Demeanor: He's given up on trying to please you and yours, and for the first time since the summer of 2001 he's free to speak his mind. He could run into the street and save a baby and its puppy from a speeding car, and you'd just stand there and call him a showboat ... so why not stop filtering?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. That's a refreshing perspective -- and quite possibly exactly right. (Well, at least the first part. I'm not so sure about the second.)

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West Union, Iowa: What's your take on how the upcoming FISA renewal will play out?

Dan Froomkin: I'm betting on Bush beating the Democrats into submission again. So far, that's been a safe bet.

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Dan Froomkin: Bush, the Blessed Peacemaker is available for your reading pleasure.

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Washington: What's going on with Dick Cheney these days? He seems to have assumed a very low profile. That's worrisome and makes me wonder what his office is up to (e.g. has he really given up on military action against Iran just because the NIE provides no support for it?)

Dan Froomkin: According to Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe, he has been beaten into full retreat by the combined efforts of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Me, I won't count Cheney out until he's out the door. And maybe for a few months after that, even.

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Seattle, Wash.: What happens to Bush's "bling" that he is amassing in the Middle East? If he gets to keep it, he could make three to four trips a year and pay for Iraq himself.

washingtonpost.com: 2003 White House gift list (The Smoking Gun, August 2004)

Dan Froomkin: Almost every gift given to the president is turned over to the National Archives, which does not sell them on eBay.

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Berkeley, Calif.: In many columns you have complained about the failure of the White House press corps to "express outrage" when the White House stonewalls or is being plainly dishonest. What would "outrage" look like to you?

Dan Froomkin: Pointing out in a follow-up question that the earlier answer was in fact utterly nonresponsive, and asking again.

When that fails, asking why he thinks the American public doesn't deserve a straight answer.

Writing stories that start: "President Bush refused to say..." rather than finding something he did say and making it look like news.

Keeping "stonewall watches" front-and-center in print and online.

That's just off the tippy top of my head.

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Napier, New Zealand: Hi Dan, I was wondering exactly how much Bush can commit the U.S. to treaty obligations without actually having a treaty approved by Congress. The arrogance of tying down the next president and not having to have the agreement scrutinized by Congress is pretty breath taking. Can he really do this sort of thing? Can't the next president just renegotiate such an agreement? Is the Supreme Court going to have to get involved eventually? And what has happened with the "pocket" veto stuff that Bush is trying to pull?

Dan Froomkin: Bush can't literally commit the U.S. to anything treaty-like without congressional approval, but he nevertheless can make it very difficult for his successor to undo certain things without considerable embarrassment. I think that's what's underlying this "long-term strategic partnership" with Iraq that Bush is pushing for. (See Michael Hirsh in Newsweek and me on Nov. 27.)

Dan Froomkin: As for the "pocket veto" it looks like Bush got away with it. Congress apparently will pass a new version, without the one item Bush objected to at the last minute.

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Tempe, Ariz.: Wow, it's astonishing that Bush thinks he's viewed as "a hopeless idealist." Perhaps he doesn't know the difference between idealist and ideologue?

Dan Froomkin: Ha! Thanks. Yeah, maybe he just got tongue-tied.

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Baltimore: Now that Dodd is off the campaign trail, he's sworn to filibuster FISA all by himself if he has to, if immunity stays in. How will the White House get around that?

Dan Froomkin: One man can filibuster only so long. We're talking about a real filibuster here, like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Not one of these "pretend" ones that successfully have tied up all sorts of major Democratic priorities.

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Arlington, Va.: "Stonewall Watch" -- I love it! How many things would be on the list right now, about 10? Seriously, Berkeley's question about the White House press corps' nonexpression of outrage -- and your answer to the question -- was terrific. Any thoughts as to why the press is so supine? Why there isn't a "stonewall watch"? I was in college in the late '60s/early '70s, and personally I don't understand why we aren't seeing huge nationwide student demonstrations on a daily basis to protest the rape of the U.S. by Bush and his cronies.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Re: Stonewall Watch -- I really was hoping that the Web would loosen up newspapers a bit, for instance by showing them that recurring features (even with a little repetition) are more valuable sometimes than incremental stories about, well, nothing. Especially when those features are animated with a passion for such journalistic values as transparency, truth in government, fair play and humane treatment.

But it has been one of my greatest sorrows, professionally speaking, that in fact the opposite has happened. There's even more rush for the minutiae, it seems like.

I'm not giving up hope, mind you. For more along these lines, see I.F. Stone's lessons for Internet journalism, an essay I wrote for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism.

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Dan: This is not a question, just a comment. I found your subsection in Tuesday's White House Watch ("Bush and the Saudis"), in which the president was quoted as exhorting King Abdullah to increase oil production, very interesting when compared to this past Sunday's Washington Post Outlook "myth-buster" article on the oil market. In the article, it is asserted that the majority of our oil comes from Canada and Mexico.

If this is correct, then Bush is pressuring the wrong country, if he truly wants to ease the pocketbook pressure on the "average" American. Putting naivety aside, it obviously makes for better press coverage for the president to be disingenuous and use this as an opportunity to appear decisive and influential while on his Middle East junket.

washingtonpost.com: Five Myths About Breaking Our Foreign Oil Habit (Post, Jan. 13)

Dan Froomkin: In Bush's defense, oil prices are not a geographical phenomenon.

Here's how Bush himself put it yesterday: "Now in our case, just so the American people know, most of our oil comes from Canada and Mexico. But oil is a market, it's globalized, it's fungible. That's what I meant."

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hi Dan -- many of us have given up on changing the current administration, or exposing and punishing the Bushie evildoers. Do you feel your energy flagging, and is at least part of you going to be sorry when we don't have Bush to kick around anymore?

Dan Froomkin: My energy is not flagging. I'm as fascinated as ever.

And to the extent that the column -- its tone and themes -- has been a reflection of Bush, it inevitably will change with the next president. But I'm sure I'll find lots of things to be fascinated by with the next crew as well.

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Lititz, Pa.: Gaze into your crystal ball and predict what presidential pardons will come down in the 11th hour as Bush is leaving office. I know Bush has been particularly stingy in his pardons, but I imagine he might change is habits in the end. With regard to the backup tapes, what industry was the White House using as a standard? It's one thing to base your backup/archival strategy on a business that wants to provide protection for working documents and quite another to base it on an a standard that is required by law to retain records.

Dan Froomkin: The question of pardons is a fascinating one, and one I intend to address with great regularity as we get closer and closer to Jan. 20, 2009. In fact, I intend to involve you readers in putting together a "canonical list" of potential pardons. So start thinking. Be imaginative.

As for backup tapes, if the IT people had reason to believe that everything was being archived properly, then erasing backup tapes isn't as crazy as all that. They're mostly supposed to be used in case of catastrophic system failure.

My issue is more with the people who were overseeing the archiving process (although it may have been the same people).

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New York: I understand what the rhetorical Portland questioner is on about. I grew up in Washington and have family who work for the government. Many of them have mentioned problems caused by the Bush administrations political appointees enforcing their ideology. It has made me think hard about voting for Hillary Clinton, because she knows how the government operates. It's going to take considerable forensic work to undo the damage, particularly at the Energy Department and the Department of the Interior. As for Bush himself, he seems to be completely flummoxed by the costume parade he's been on for the past week. It's amazing how when you see him or Condi on TV they seem to be in a parallel universe (like Bizarro World in the old Superman comics).

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I think your point about forensic work is an excellent one, and I would be interested to hear the Democratic candidates discuss how they would go about that.

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Seattle: The State of the Union address is coming up, and that was a surprise to a political junkie like me. I used to know when President Clinton's next big address was about to begin, but now I no longer care what Bush has to say because I can guess the entire speech in advance. Am I alone in this?

Dan Froomkin: Oh, no. I'm sure there will be lots of surprises. And it's on Monday night, Jan. 28.

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Dan Froomkin: Thanks everyone for your great comments and questions. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. See you again here in two weeks and every weekday afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.

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