White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, March 26, 2008; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He was online to answer your questions, take your comments and links and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, March 26, at 2 p.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome. It has been a busy two weeks since we last met. We commemorated the five-year anniversary of the war, mourned the 4,000th U.S. military death in Iraq -- and tried to make sense of some amazing statements by President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

In last Wednesday's column, I examined Bush's attempt to recast the war as a great success for the United States and a major blow to Osama bin Laden.

In Friday's column, I discussed Bush's flatly incorrect and inflammatory assertion that Iran "declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people."

In Thursday's column, I marveled at Cheney's response to the observation that two-thirds of the public opposes the war: "So?"

And just yesterday, I sputtered over Cheney's assertion that when it comes to the war in Iraq, it is Bush -- not the soldiers and Marines who fight and die, or their families -- who is bearing the biggest burden.

Are these guys losing whatever tenuous grasp they had on reality, or what? Let's hear your thoughts.

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Riga, Latvia: Mr. Froomkin, is the White House planning on making a public address on the travails of the American economy? As an American living abroad and experiencing (suffering?) first-hand the dismal state of the dollar, I would be interested in hearing what (if anything) is in the cards aside from a tax cut of questionable wisdom. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: What, you missed it? Bush gave his big speech on the economy back on March 14, in New York -- a speech full of empty reassurances. "It seems like I showed up in a interesting moment -- (laughter) -- during an interesting time," he said. "I'm coming to you as an optimistic fellow. I've seen what happens when America deals with difficulty. I believe that we're a resilient economy, and I believe that the ingenuity and resolve of the American people is what helps us deal with these issues. And it's going to happen again."

But as I wrote in my column last Tuesday, Bush's Financial Katrina, it's looking more and more like Bush's failure to recognize the severity of the ongoing financial crisis and act accordingly is reminiscent of his disastrously slow and inept response to Hurricane Katrina.

As for your weak-dollar problems, I'm afraid you're out of luck. As I wrote back in November, Bush's "We have a strong dollar policy" mantra -- which he continues to repeat, even as the dollar sinks to record lows -- is among the most meaningless utterances in his repertoire.

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Lititz, Pa.: What is up with the lack of follow-up in press conferences? Are the reporters so busy writing down the information that they don't have time to think about what the president/vice president just said? Do they go in with a script of questions and don't want to wander off what their idea of the interview should be? Are they afraid to ask a follow-up to another reporter's question for some reason? Are they afraid of being labeled partisan for asking a tough question?

Dan Froomkin: The lack of follow-up is a huge problem -- and it exists for the reasons you list and more. That said, even in the best case, trying to get a president to answer a question they don't want to at a press conference is nearly impossible. I'm much more frustrated when interviewers who score sit-downs with the principles don't listen to the answers. I wrote a piece for Salon about some of this stuff way back in 2004. Still holds true.

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Baltimore: Raddatz and Cheney interview: I just want to praise Ms. Raddatz for the way she didn't let Cheney slip away on the war's unpopularity, resulting in the "so?" comment that was so damning.

When she first asked the question, Cheney tried co-opting her with one of those "look, we're both adults here" lines. He said something like: "Martha, you've been in Iraq as much as I have -- maybe more. You've seen the progress we're making, etc." Raddatz let him finish the company line, then said, "but Mr. Vice President, 70 percent of the American people say the war wasn't worth the cost." Cheney managed, barely, to keep his composure, then said "so?" and went on to compare Bush to Abraham Lincoln.

Bravo, Martha, for not letting him off the hook.

Dan Froomkin: Indeed, Raddatz's response to Cheney's "so?" in the March 19 interview was the perfect one: "So -- you don't care what the American people think?" She also got Cheney to say some astonishing things in her second interview with him, on Monday. But I think some of what he said then got right by her -- most notably his saying that the biggest burden of the war was on Bush. How could she let that one go unremarked?

Similarly, as Borzou Daragahi writes in today's Los Angeles Times, Cheney also asserted in that interview that the Iranian are "heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels." That's exactly the kind of unsupported inflammatory statement Cheney has become known for ... but she let it slip by as well.

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Dorchester, Mass.: Thank you for the hysterical Bush Library designs. The winner was well-deserved, but a few of the also-rans were almost as funny and biting. This presidency has worn me out. How is it that the presidential candidates would want that job, with all of these problems that we know of -- and especially the ones that are kept from us?

Dan Froomkin: Weren't they a scream? (Here's a link to the Chronicle of Higher Education's contest.)

And consider this: Whoever comes after Bush, while inheriting a whole lot of mess, has the potential to look really, really good by contrast.

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Salinas, Calif.: Hi Dan. Thanks for your excellent reporting. What are the chances that former White House aides (Harriet Miers, et al) will appear under oath before the House Oversight Committee to answer questions regarding fired U.S. Attorneys before January 2009 rolls around?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. The chances are slim, even though the House has asked the judge in charge of the civil suit to expedite things. But a guy can dream.

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Lake Elmo, Minn.: Listening to Cheney's recent outrage, I have to ask what he and other "notables" of the Bush administration will do after Bush leaves? I can't imagine Stanford taking Rice back in any capacity, Halliburton taking Cheney back -- especially after the disasters that unfolded there that started under his leadership -- Gonzales, Addington and the other head lawyers going anywhere that takes law seriously, Abrams going anywhere that isn't a wing-nut welfare outfit, the clown who heads EPA, the list goes on. John Yoo may be teaching young lawyers, but I don't see him ever being put in a position of trust again. Indeed, in my view each should be barred from ever holding a position of trust again.

Dan Froomkin: I suspect they all will lead happy, lucrative and possibly even influential lives. Your mention of Elliott Abrams, the once-disgraced Iran-Contra figure who is now Bush's deputy national security adviser, speaks oceans about the ability of people to overcome, um, adversity, in the political sphere. The only possible exception would be Gonzales, whose only real skill has been Bush-toadying. Unless the Bush Library snaps him up, he may be in trouble.

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Bellingham, Wash.: Given the massive advantage the Democrats have in both primary turnout and fund raising, how could anyone expect a McCain victory in Nov.?

washingtonpost.com: Flip Side of Democrats' Spat: Higher Turnout (Washington Post, March 26)

Dan Froomkin: Well, there are all those polls showing it's basically a dead heat right now. Nevertheless, your point is a good one. From my perspective, at least, I see a widespread hunger for what I guess I would call an "American Restoration" -- think of the overwhelming, 0 percent of Americans who say they want the next president to set the nation in a new direction. I'll be writing about this more in the near future, I hope.

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Long Beach, Calif. -- why Cheney lies/Bush tries: Neocons believe that perception is reality, and that they can manipulate the public's perception of the war. Guess what? So far they are right -- because even though we all know its going terrible, we have no idea of what really happens on the ground in Iraq. Just try and get a returned special forces guy to talk -- they know the truth of it isn't fit for polite discussion.

Cheney and Bush are simply following this idea -- that if you say it, the mainstream media will repeat it without comment or challenge (TV journalists are not there to enlighten -- only to parrot) and then after a while everyone sings the same lie. The truth doesn't come out but in dribs and drabs.

It's laughable now when we hear them do this, but not funny in the least. They really do want to invade, or bomb Iran, and that is why they keep up the chatter. As a journalist, would you say I'm in the neighborhood of accuracy here?

Dan Froomkin: Well, it's a plausible theory. I have been amazed at how often they say things that aren't true, and the press just passes them along. That's not what we're supposed to do. One blog post I've been meaning to write lately is that "fact-checking" -- which I love, don't get me wrong, and which is hugely important -- is nevertheless very 20 minutes ago. What we need to be doing is "worldview-checking."

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Minneapolis: Saw Frontline last night about "Bush's War." What is Secretary Rice's current status with Bush in the White House? I still see Vice President Cheney as very strong, and any influence she had at reining him in has been diminished by time and the strength of Cheney's personality.

Dan Froomkin: That's a great question -- and one I wish White House reporters would explore more fully. It's much more important than a lot of the stuff they write about -- but also much harder to gauge. I would tend to agree that rumors of Cheney's (relative) demise have been greatly exaggerated.

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Dan Froomkin: Today's column is out, by the way: It's about the Supreme Court stripping Bush of the one executive power I'm not sure he really wanted anyway.

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Austin, Texas: Dan, Dan, Dan ... my head is going to explode. I simply cannot believe the breathtaking audacity of the Bush administration and their lies. For example -- the response to the court last week on Friday at 7 p.m. in the CREW lawsuit asking for the White House e-mails. Basically the response was "the dog ate my homework and it will cost too much and take too long to redo it before Jan. 20, 2009, so too bad for you." Will the mainstream media pick up on this? We are talking about a potentially serious breach of the Presidential Records Act, and all I see is a collective yawn. Bush fatigue again?

Dan Froomkin: There was almost no coverage of that filing -- just this one AP piece-- and there was literally no coverage of the response from the National Security Archives. (See the bottom of today's column.) But the magistrate in the case seems tenacious, and I suspect his next ruling will make some headlines.

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Long Island, N.Y.: I actually listened to most of Bush's speech to the Economic Club of New York a few weeks ago and was stunned on how the president ended his response to a question Paul Gigot asked him about inflation and prices. He filibustered on the question for a few minutes without answering any of Gigot's points directly, then ended his response by stating:

"Anyway, I'm going to dodge the rest of your question. (Laughter.) Thank you for your time. (Applause.) "

The fact he would utter this sentence in public tells me how our president views the public he serves.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for that observation.

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Rolla, Mo.: I always have enjoyed your writing, but lately I just can't read about the latest outrage by this administration. It has been so bad for so long I just mentally have tuned out Bush and Cheney. Have you ever seen such an early check-out in the public's interest in the end of an administration?

Dan Froomkin: I hear this a lot -- but my personal experience is that traffic to the column has bounced back after a short lull. I think even people who say they can't stand it still can't take their eyes off it. So you'll be back.

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Sun Prairie, Wis.: Afternoon, Dan. For what it's worth, One problem the press corps has when it's trying to get answers from the White House is that its members don't seem to coordinate their questions beforehand. Such coordination would violate tradition, but I think it might help a lot.

Speaking of coordination ... what are you hearing about communication between the administration and the McCain campaign? I read somewhere that one of Vice President Cheney's daughters has signed on as an adviser to McCain; what else have you heard?

Dan Froomkin: You are correct that coordination would help -- but is frowned upon. That's a shame.

As for McCain, I am very curious what Cheney thinks of him (so far he's been very, very restrained) -- and watching his daughters will be a real bellwether. Thus far, however, I haven't heard of either of them signing on with McCain. Elizabeth Cheney famously worked for Fred Thompson, then when he bowed out jumped over to Mitt Romney's campaign -- just in time for him to bow out, too.

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Brattleboro, Vt.: Greetings from the town Bush and Cheney will visit at their own peril (we voted to indict them and arrest them if they ever cross into town.)

As an occasional writer, I've begun working on my wrap-up of the Bush presidency. It got far too cumbersome to list the atrocities (um, these fellows stole the election and it went downhill from there). So I'm working on all the good things I can say.

So far I'm stuck at just one: a few years ago Bush said Americans should exercise more. I can't fault him on that, but I'm also unable to think of anything else. When do you and The Post start the process of writing the wrap-ups? How should a reporter approach the topic to do a great job?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I don't know if Post people have started work on their retrospectives yet, but it's my tentative plan to have you readers help me with mine. (Stay tuned.) And as it happens, one of my first questions probably will be for help listing Bush's top-ten accomplishments that most people would agree are accomplishments.

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Decatur, Ill.: Dan, the vice president said in one of his recent interviews that he doesn't do hypotheticals. Wasn't the whole specter of Saddam giving WMD to his enemies in al-Qaeda entirely hypothetical? Isn't the whole U.S. policy of seeding Iraq with democracy and hoping it flowers and spreads over the Mideast hypothetical? Granted, the vice president openly has admitted that he does not really care what the public thinks, but has anyone put together the pieces and written about his hypothetical comment?

Also it's a little late now, but maybe Bush could be persuaded to try and convince his close friends in Saudi Arabia to try democracy, give it a chance to flower, grow and spread? It still would be a whole lot cheaper in lives and dollars than Iraq has been.

Dan Froomkin: The "I don't do hypotheticals" excuse is truly the most preposterous dodge these guys have. Of course they do hypotheticals -- they just do their hypotheticals. Reporters should develop a good comeback. (Maybe I should help.) As for the Saudis, let's just say we don't exactly have the upper hand these days, do we?

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Cary, N.C.: What are some of the historical precedents for national reconciliation after a period of intense divisiveness and leadership that no longer cares what the people who elected them want? Most of us were resigned to the fact that the White House no longer gives a hoot about representing non-Republican supporters, but now it's clear that the White House will pursue its own private agenda without even even considering the views of its political supporters. How have successful leaders been able to pick up the reins after the nation has been subjected to a nightmare ride on the saddle of a runaway government?

Dan Froomkin: From what I can see, any of the three people likely to replace Bush will make (or at least are promising to make) a much more concerted effort to reach out to the people who didn't vote for them than Bush ever has. Of course, Bush promised he'd do the same thing in 2000. At the very least, I personally would like to see each of the candidates publicly commit at least to speak -- and listen -- to mixed audiences (not just supporters) throughout their presidency. The notion that the president, once elected, is the president of all the people has taken quite a hit of late, but it's not necessarily fatal.

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Covina, Calif.: Is the president still scheduled to throw the first pitch at the Opening Day for the Washington Nationals? Seems like one of the very few appearances in a long time before an audience that isn't hand selected. I wonder how many boos he will receive?

Dan Froomkin: Yes he is. Isn't that interesting? I suspect he's betting that Nationals fans be so giddy about the opening of their new stadium that they won't boo. I wonder if he's right. Incidentally, Ken Herman blogged for Cox News about the fact that Bush might be throwing the ball to a catcher linked to the steroid scandal.

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Defending Cheney's "burden" comment: I can't believe I just typed that sentence, but I do have to come to the vice president's defense for the first time in my life. I think it is only logical that the president would share a greater burden for having committed troops to the field of combat (regardless of the misguided reasons or the fact that they're occupying a country, not fighting a war), knowing their lives are in his hands, as compared to the individual burdens of the families of each serviceman or woman. I'm not belittling their enormous sacrifice, just saying his responsibility is greater. In my opinion it's even greater than normal, because his decision to put them there was so misguided and is not achieving any results.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. I was wondering if anyone would come to Cheney's defense. I guess there are different ways of looking at it. But he didn't say "responsibility" -- he said "burden." And he said it right after acknowledging the toll on the families, so it was in the context of suffering -- not responsibility. If Cheney wants to try to clear this up, however, that would be swell.

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The president's accomplishments: Improving the economy of Northern Virginia by growing the federal government, providing lots of government contracting jobs and making lobbying such a lucrative industry.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Good one.

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Austin, Texas: Would it be possible to get you to re-enable the option of looking at your daily column in a one-page format? I know I'm probably unusual, but I sometimes read it on my iPhone, and having to download five separate pages is a pain in the tuckus.

Dan Froomkin: I thought nothing was a pain in the tuckus with an iPhone.

And sorry, but no, it's beyond my control.

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Atlanta: Dan, why do only take questions from hyperpartisans who hate Bush as much as you do? I have submitted several relevant questions in the past, only to have them ignored in favor of a "you are so right, Dan" post. Why do liberal pundits like yourself and Olbermann refuse to acknowledge the views of anyone other than hyperpartisans?

Dan Froomkin: I only take a fraction of the questions I get, but I don't filter them in a partisan way. Sorry. Keep trying.

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Austin, Texas: In Britain, the prime minister has to appear before the House of Commons regularly to give statements, and the members of parliament regularly boo, hiss and otherwise make their feelings known.

I'm curious, honestly, how the press corps here -- our only group with a similar opportunity -- manages to refrain from doing something similar when Bush or Perino spouts one of their obvious whoppers during a press conference or gaggle. (I understand being intimidated in a one-on-one, but in a big group?)

I know this sounds flip, but I'm serious: Why doesn't the press call the administration on their obvious baloney to their face?

Dan Froomkin: I would much rather they did it through their work.

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Covina, Calif.: When the new administration takes over next January, will you only limit your coverage to them or will you still report on the prior (Bush) administration?

Dan Froomkin: The plan is to switch to the new crew, though it will be hard for me to wean myself from these guys entirely, I suspect.

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Minneapolis: Bush accomplishment: Causing many people to recognize the value of oversight as a governmental function.

Dan Froomkin: Funny. I should have a separate "snide" category.

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Re: Coordination Frowned Upon: Why is coordination frowned upon? Is it tradition, or is it that corporate news is competing with one another? If so, it's another signal that corporate news is dying. Egos and profits get in the way of serving the public interest. Can you imagine bloggers "not cooperating"?

Dan Froomkin: Coordination is widely seen as a threat to our independence. Now, mind you, I think there are much greater threats we should be worried about, but that's what I've been told.

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Boston, Mass.: Bush accomplishments -- No. 1 has to be not vetoing the "do not call" list legislation. I can eat dinner again with only charities and courtesy calls from my credit card companies calling. How soon we forget the days of endless phone calls...

Dan Froomkin: A good one!

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Bush accomplishment: Well, if more than 70 percent of the American public is against the Iraq war, maybe W is a uniter, rather than a divider, after all!

Dan Froomkin: Not sure if you're joking, but I think there may be some truth to what you say.

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San Jose, Calif.: Hi Dan. Bush and Cheney et al are saying incessantly and futilely that the war will be deemed a success at some point in the future, making allusions to other presidents who have been vindicated by history. Have other presidents been so forthright, and so often, with predictions about how history will judge them?

Dan Froomkin: Boy, I doubt it.

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Long Island, N.Y.: Hopefully an accomplishment: People won't vote for someone because "he would be the one I would want to have a beer with."

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

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Chicago: Accomplishment: Ocean preserve near Hawaii.

Dan Froomkin: Yes!

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Prisoner Re-entry: is one "accomplishment" that someone may be able to attribute to this president. Not in terms of him adequately funding job training, housing and substance abuse treatment -- the Presidential Re-entry Initiative is, like anything not "Homeland Security," underfunded -- but by at least giving it the backing of the presidency by mentioning it in a State of the Union address.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

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Another Bush Accomplishment: Helping the Democrats break voter registration records.

Dan Froomkin: That would be in the "snide" category.

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Baseball: In all seriousness, Bush did say that he was going to try and clean up (ab)use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and they've been somewhat successful with that.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting.

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Another Bush accomplishment: For all his posturing to the contrary, Bush kept the right to abortion safe and legal.

Dan Froomkin: Not necessarily something he'd put among his accomplishments, but thanks...

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Dan Froomkin: Okay, I have to run. Thanks for all the great questions and comments.

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