By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 1, 2006; 1:18 PM
It's not necessarily a huge deal in itself, but with credibility a paramount issue for the White House these days, it's worth noting that when asked about Treasury Secretary John Snow's future last week, President Bush could easily have ducked the question, or told the truth -- but instead, he chose to lie about it.
Lying is probably the one word mainstream journalists are the most averse to using when recounting what the president said -- even when they know he's not telling the truth. The act of lying requires not just the presentation of false information, but an intention to deceive. Reporters -- and, particularly editors -- are notoriously resistant to ascribe such volition without ironclad evidence.
But there's really no other way to describe what Bush said Thursday. Press secretary Tony Snow's widely-quoted explanation that Bush's statement was in some way "artfully worded" is just plain wrong.
It may not have been an important lie. And there are some mitigating factors: It was, after all, a personnel matter and there was some possibly legitimate concern about the financial markets. But it couldn't be more clear that Bush was being intentionally deceptive.
Here's the transcript of last Thursday's joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Bloomberg White House correspondent Richard Keil, who Bush calls "Stretch," asked the president the following question:
"Has Treasury Secretary Snow given you any indication that he intends to leave his job any time soon?"
Keil also tacked on a question about the economy. But Bush responded to his first question first: "No, he has not talked to me about resignation. I think he's doing a fine job."
At Tuesday's press briefing , spokesman Tony Snow (no relation) confirmed that Bush had offered John Snow's job to Goldman Sachs chairman Henry Paulson several days before the press conference, and the spokesman didn't deny that Bush and his treasury secretary had talked about it.
So was Bush being intentionally deceptive?
Tony Snow's response: "No, he said, 'He's not talked to me about resignation.' That does not mean that there were not other discussions. I mean, it was artfully worded. . . . [T]he one thing you do not want to do in a situation like this is to start speculating about changes before the changes are ready to be made. Those do have impacts on markets, and you have to be responsible and cautious in the way you deal with them."
Several White House correspondents dutifully reported Snow's explanation -- but neglected to note that it doesn't wash.
First of all, Bush's direct answer to the question of whether John Snow had given him any indication that he intended to leave his job was, "No." Hard to get around that.
And what was supposedly so artful about Bush saying "he has not talked to me about resignation"? The spokesman acknowledged that Bush and Snow had some discussions, and that over some period of time Snow "had made it clear that he wanted to move on."
So is the White House claiming that Bush was on solid ground because, in the direct Bush-Snow discussions, the word "resignation" literally didn't come up? That they talked about Snow's desire to leave and his succession, but not his "resignation"?
In the best-case scenario -- and if you ignore the "No" at the beginning of Bush's statement -- Tony Snow's description of what the president said as "artful" rests on hair-splitting wordplay at least as preposterous as any Clintonian parsing. Worst-case scenario, the spokesman was just spinning like a top -- and the press corps, by and large, bought it.A History of (Not) Lying
How hard is it for reporters to call what Bush says a lie? Consider Dana Milbank 's near-legendary front-page Washington Post story from October 2002, headlined: "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable."
Milbank wrote that some of Bush's statements "were dubious, if not wrong"; that Bush's "rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy"; that he was guilty of "distortions and exaggerations"; that he had "taken some liberties," "omitted qualifiers," and made assertions that "simply outpace the facts."
But you won't find the word lie in there anywhere. It just won't get by the editors.Mitigating Factors
One potentially mitigating factor to Bush's lie is that pretty much everyone in the room knew he was lying.
That very morning, Edmund L. Andrews had reported in the New York Times: "John W. Snow has signaled his readiness to step down as Treasury secretary, possibly by the end of June, or as soon as the White House has a candidate to succeed him, say Republicans with ties to the administration."
So here's how Peter Baker and Paul Blustein chose to report on the Bush statement in The Washington Post: "Bush, when asked about the Treasury secretary at his news conference last night, indicated only that he had not spoken directly with Snow and quickly changed the subject to positive economic indicators."Justified?
One could also argue that it was just an innocent lie, intended simply to temporarily cloak an ongoing personnel matter -- or a justified lie, intended to avoid market disruption.
But the fact remains that Bush and his aides inevitably anticipated a question about Snow would come up. So his response was not an accident.
In other words, here is proof that when Bush feels it is justified, for one reason or another, he is more than capable of lying in response to a direct question, rather than just ducking it.
The obvious follow up question for the White House: When else is lying justified? In times of war, for instance, the commander in chief actually has a responsibility not to divulge secrets that would aid the enemy. But how widely does Bush envision that responsibility? Does it extend to lying, rather than just being discreet? What assurance can Bush give that he's not lying about all sorts of other things?
This is not an incident in a vacuum.Internet Reaction
Blogger Steve Benen writes: "In the grand scheme of things, examples of Bush's mendacity are so common and disturbing, lying about replacing his Treasury Secretary probably doesn't rank very high. It is, however, an interesting example of the White House spinning a fairly obvious falsehood."
Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Dick Polman headlines his blog post on the subject: "Maybe it all depends on what the definitions of 'no' and 'leaving' and 'resignation' are."
John Dickerson writes in Slate that Bush "could have simply said yes," but instead "answered in a way that was not--to use a White House term--reality-based. . . .
"We allow presidents a measure of obfuscation because in public they must give nuanced answers in some sensitive areas like national security. On personnel matters like this one, the public's right to know is not done grave harm when a president is less than candid. . . .
"In this case, though, the president jumped over the menu of bland dodges available to him and picked the least truthful statement short of 'Secretary Snow is staying.'"
Dickerson writes: "When a person hears a question, dissects it, and fashions an answer on the spot that deceives, it suggests a lot of practice and comfort with fibbing. This is a problem area for Bush: Fifty-six percent of the country does not find him trustworthy, according to recent polls .
But Dickerson, formerly a White House correspondent for Time, can't quite bring himself to call it a lie: "A hat is artful. A toupee is a lie. Bush's answer was toupee-like. Even if it was technically true that Bush had not talked to Snow about 'resignation,' the president knew his confected statement was deceptive. I'm reluctant to call it a lie, but the president abused our trust."About That Hire
Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek that "there is one area where Bush has regained some momentum in his troubled second term: his hiring practices."
Mike Allen writes for Time: "Tuesday's announcement that Goldman Sachs chairman Henry Paulson, who holds the world's most prestigious investment banking job, had agreed to be nominated for Treasury Secretary was a thrilling coup for a White House that has had little cause for rejoicing lately. . . .
"Aides said Bush convinced his quarry that he would have a seat and voice at the table, and the President seemed to underscore that during his Rose Garden announcement by saying that Paulson 'will be my principal advisor on the broad range of domestic and international economic issues that affect the well-being of all Americans.'"
But Daniel Kadlec writes for Time that "there is no guarantee that Paulson can live up to his reputation as a get-it-done boss. 'We'll have to see if he signed a pre-nup,' says Ethan Harris, chief economist at Lehman Brothers. That's a pointed reference to the limited role that Snow was allowed to play in shaping economic policy under Bush, who has preferred to keep his own counsel and that of Vice President Cheney and top adviser Karl Rove. Snow was widely seen as a pitchman for policies that others wrote."Iranian Turnaround
Michael A. Fletcher and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration offered for the first time yesterday to join European talks with Iran over its nuclear program, but only if the Iranian government suspends efforts to enrich uranium and reprocess spent nuclear fuel, which the administration calls part of a covert attempt to make bombs. . . .
"The Bush administration previously refused to engage in direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program, preferring to let three European Union nations -- Britain, France and Germany, known as the E.U.-3 -- conduct negotiations. But Germany lately has increasingly urged Washington to deal with Tehran directly, as have a growing roster of foreign policy experts and at least two U.S. senators."
In a news analysis for The Post, Kessler calls it "perhaps the biggest foreign policy shift" of the Bush presidency, coming from "an administration stocked with officials who have made little secret of their desire to overthrow the government in Tehran."
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "During the past month, according to European officials and some current and former members of the Bush administration, it became obvious to Mr. Bush that he could not hope to hold together a fractious coalition of nations to enforce sanctions -- or consider military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites -- unless he first showed a willingness to engage Iran's leadership directly over its nuclear program and exhaust every nonmilitary option."
But wait. Here's what I suspect is the real story, deeper in Sanger's article: " '[Vice President Dick] Cheney was dead set against it,' said one former official who sat in many of those meetings. 'At its heart, this was an argument about whether you could isolate the Iranians enough to force some kind of regime change.' But three officials who were involved in the most recent iteration of that debate said Mr. Cheney and others stepped aside -- perhaps because they read Mr. Bush's body language, or perhaps because they believed Iran would scuttle the effort by insisting that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gives it the right to develop nuclear fuel. . . .
"In the end, said one former official who has kept close tabs on the debate, 'it came down to convincing Cheney and others that if we are going to confront Iran, we first have to check off the box' of trying talks."
You know what this reminds me of a bit? That Blair-Bush summit in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq. Bush came out of the meeting ostensibly seeking a second United Nations resolution. But in fact, as Don Van Natta Jr. wrote for the New York Times in March, Bush was so dead-set on war that he was secretly talking about "ways to provoke a confrontation, including a proposal to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr. Hussein."Haditha Watch
Thomas E. Ricks writes for The Washington Post: "The U.S. military investigation of how Marine commanders handled the reporting of events last November in the Iraqi town of Haditha, where troops allegedly killed 24 Iraqi civilians, will conclude that some officers gave false information to their superiors, who then failed to adequately scrutinize reports that should have caught their attention, an Army official said yesterday. . . .
"President Bush, in his first public comment on the Haditha incident, said yesterday that if an investigation finds evidence of wrongdoing, those involved will be punished. 'I am troubled by the initial news stories,' Bush said after a meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame."
The investigation "is likely to be explosive on Capitol Hill, because it focuses on questions that have haunted the Bush administration and the U.S. military since the scandal over abuse at Abu Ghraib prison emerged two years ago."
Here's the text of Bush's remarks.Zinsmeistered
Zachary A. Goldfarb wrote in The Washington Post on Tuesday: "Karl Zinsmeister, President Bush's new domestic policy adviser, acknowledged he did something wrong when he took a newspaper profile of himself, altered quotes and text, and then posted it on a Web site without noting the changes."
For links, see the very end of my Friday column . One of the quotes Zinsmeister altered was his assertion that "People in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings."
The Washington Post editorial board yesterday coined a new term for doctored: "Zinsmeistered."
"White House press secretary Tony Snow said Mr. Zinsmeister wanted 'to set the record straight' but did so in an 'unartful' way. Other terms -- perhaps even some of Mr. Zinsmeister's own adjectives -- come to our mind."Taheri Watch
Paul Kiel writes for TPM Muckracker: "Two weeks ago, Amir Taheri published an op-ed in Canada's National Post about an Iranian law that forced Jews to wear a yellow stripe. The story, reminiscent of Nazi Germany, quickly provoked outrage, but was just as quickly revealed to be a total fabrication . It also ran in the New York Post .
"Apparently this is just the sort of reliable advice that President Bush needs. Yesterday, Taheri had a face-to-face with the President as one of a small group of 'experts' on Iraq that visited the White House.
"According to Press Secretary Tony Snow, the experts were invited to the White House for their 'honest opinions' on Iraq."New Staff Secretary
Bush swears in White House Staff Secretary Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Court of Appeals this afternoon in the Rose Garden. Yesterday, he announced Kavanaugh's replacement: Raul F. Yanes, currently the general counsel for the White House budget office, formerly senior counselor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and before that an associate counsel at the White House, also under Gonzales.
So not exactly new blood.
Yanes, in fact, was one of two White House lawyers coordinating the initial White House response to the investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.Marriage Amendment Watch
Fred Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard about how a Senate vote on the proposed amendment to the Constitution to restrict marriage to a man and woman is coming up next week.
"And President Bush, despite his wife Laura's admonition that the marriage issue ought to be kept out of politics, plans to host a pro-amendment event at the White House and speak out in favor of the amendment."
Barnes writes that Bush "will appear on June 5 in the Rose Garden before a gathering of amendment supporters and, a White House official says, 'strongly support' the amendment. The president has rarely mentioned the amendment in the past. The choice of the Rose Garden as a venue means he is raising the marriage amendment to a higher level on his agenda, his wife's advice notwithstanding."Missing Man
Matthew Mosk writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush shuttled into Maryland last night to help the state Republican Party raise more than $1 million for a number of high-profile 2006 races, but only one of the state's two marquee Republican candidates joined him.
"Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stood on a riser shoulder to shoulder with the president, but the party's leading candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat in Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, was absent. Steele had a scheduling conflict, campaign spokesman Doug Heye said."
Here's the text of Bush's remarks.No New Contrition
My Friday column was largely about how the regrets Bush expressed in his press conference didn't really reflect any new contrition -- in spite of the continuing insistence by the press corps that it was some sort of watershed moment.
Several readers e-mailed me to call my attention to one thing I missed. Here's Richard Wolffe of Newsweek with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC later that night: "But of course, it is very rehearsed, everything from the mannerisms you saw, the upwards glance up at the ceiling for inspiration. And for me, the big giveaway was at the end of that answer--I don't know if you could see it on camera, but the president flashed a big grin to those of us sitting in the front rows. It didn't seem that he was quite as contrite as his performance."
And yes, you can actually see that grin at the 51:40 mark of the White House video .Predictions Redux
David S. Broder writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "In its September 2004 issue , Washington Monthly magazine invited 16 smart political observers -- a mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents -- to write short essays predicting what would happen if George Bush won a second term.
"The answers, understandably enough, were all over the lot. But no one suggested that one-third of the way through his second term Bush would have suffered the political and policy reverses that he has actually experienced. . . .
"The one commentator who got it exactly right was Kevin Drum , who runs the magazine's blog. 'What do we have to look forward to if George W. Bush is elected to a second term?' he asked. 'One word: scandal.' "Worst Ever?
David Lightman writes for the Hartford Courant: "A Quinnipiac Poll released today gives President Bush one more reason to be concerned about his approval numbers: Lots of voters not only think he's doing a lousy job, but they rate him as the worst president since World War II.
"And to add to the sting: They say Bill Clinton was one of the best."
Here are the complete results .