White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, June 1, 2005; 1:00 PM


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. My column today is all about President Bush's press conference yesterday where, among other things, he said: "I don't worry about anything here in Washington, D.C." That got me thinking.

Send me your questions and comments about all things White House. I'm eager to hear from you.

I wish -- oh I wish -- I had some really nifty Deep Throat angle to share with you. But I don't. And Bush isn't helping here, either. In a recently concluded photo-op with South African President Thabo Mbeki, he was asked if he thought Deep Throat was a hero, and he wouldn't answer. "Not for me to judge," he said.


Astoria, N.Y.: I know, I should be talking about Deep Throat - sorry. I take issue with the premise President Bush is a lame duck. Certainly, he is having problems pushing his agenda, but to a certain degree, even lame duck presidents have power. For the record, I am not fan of President Bush and I support stem cell research. So, let's look at the stem cell research debate. The majority of the population supports the research. The majority of Congress supports the research, yet ONE person, President Bush, could very well veto the legislation and thus stop federal funding of stem cell research dead in its tracks. That is a lot of power - almost dictatorial in nature, and since there are not enough votes to override the veto in the House, President Bush, going against the majority, will have his way. Doesn't sound lame duck to me. Comments? Thanks,

Dan Froomkin: You're referring to yesterday's column , in which I noted the profusion of articles using that term all of a sudden.

But you raise an excellent point, at least up until the dictatorial thing. A modern American president, even in a lame duck phase, is still an enormously powerful individual, not to be discounted.


Fairfax, Va.: A Post editorial today praises President Bush for doing what he is supposed to do, hold regular press conferences. But something is missing. Look at the transcript of yesterday's press conference and you will see no questions about the Downing Street Memo which claims Bush was fixing the facts to justify the Iraq invasion. If no one lights that slow fuse you talked, how are the facts ever going to see the light of day? To see the smiling face of Mark Felt ought to inspire The Post to reclaim its heyday of investigative reporting.

Dan Froomkin: You're referring to this editorial: Mr. Bush and the Press , in which the Washington Post editorial board writes to praise Bush for holding his seventh solo press conference in as many months.

"The scoffers will say that these once-a-month events haven't yielded much in the way of news....

"But the second Bush term represents a dramatic improvement from the first in terms of presidential accessibility. That, in itself, may be the headline."

It will be interesting to see if the Deep Throat stories reawaken the iconoclastic spirit of yesteryear.


Monroe, N.Y.: There seem to be many parallels between Nixon's fight with the FBI and the present administration's anger with the CIA.

Have memories of Watergate created institutional mechanisms that prevent another Deep Throat from influencing political matters?


Dan Froomkin: That's a really interesting question.

But then again, Porter Goss has cleared out all the Mark Felts, hasn't he? Maybe he learned L. Patrick Grey's lesson.

That said, I guess it's possible that someone in (or recently out of) the CIA who witnessed overt or covert political pressure from the White House to influence intelligence about Iraqi WMD could be the next Deep Throat.


Laguna Niguel, Calif.: Dan, I was wondering what your opinion is of the theory that the current administration is using "unnamed sources" as plants for disinformation, so as to undermine the credibility of, and belief in the press. As for the recent Newsweek flap, it seems that the White House plants the false info, then if the story blows up, the White House can say, "See? You can't trust the press. They use so-called "unnamed sources" and make up stories."

Dan Froomkin: I believe that is utter malarkey.

I think we make our mistakes fair and square.

And they jump on them with a fervor that is entirely opportunistic, rather than premeditated.


Atlanta, Ga.: "Absurd"

Has the President completely divorced himself from reality? Does anyone in the White House press corps take seriously the contention that Amnesty International's report on Gitmo abuse is "absurd"?

Dan Froomkin: Lots of people seem to think the "gulag" line -- which was not, incidentally, in the report , but in the accompanying message from the Secretary General, was an overreach.

And that, I suspect, gave Bush the ability to wave the whole thing off without a follow up. Which was a shame.


Washington, D.C.: Dan, If the Democrats retake one or both of the houses in 2006, do you see them launching and investigation, or possibly impeachment proceeding against Bush?

Dan Froomkin: That's a heckuvan if. But yes on investigations, certainly. Democrats are trying to launch several as it is. Republicans, so far, will have none of it.


Washington, D.C.: Has it ever been suggested that if Bush wants to change minds about his Social Security plan, he should actually invite people up on stage who aren't already solidly behind it? I'm not even talking about rabid Democrats, just people who either don't understand his plan or have worries about it. I mean, I know Bush isn't the most articulate president we've had, but if he really believes in his plan, surely he can sit down with someone and discuss their concerns, right?

Dan Froomkin: I would certainly like to see that.

And there are some who have suspected that Bush is being overprotected by his staff, and that he might actually welcome such an opportunity.

But consider that those same people argued that Bush probably would have wanted to know that the White House and his wife and lots of other people were being hurriedly evacuated last month on account of a possible killer airplane -- and he told us yesterday that he was fine not knowing.

So maybe he's not, in fact, a victim of the bubble, but a willing bubble.


Falls Church, Va.: Main Entry: icon-o-clast

Pronunciation: -"klast


Function: noun

Etymology: Medieval Latin iconoclastes, from Middle Greek eikonoklastEs, literally, image destroyer, from Greek eikono- + klan to break -- more at CLAST

1 : one who destroys religious images or opposes their veneration

2 : one who attacks settled beliefs or institutions

Dan Froomkin: Yes, I meant "iconoclastic" up there. Thanks. That was a typo. I was not disassembling.


Anonymous: Mr. Froomkin, Why hasn't the press corps pressed McClellan more on the letter this weekend from Pat Tillman's father about the Bush administration's role in lying to him and America about what happened to Tillman?

Dan Froomkin: That does seem like a reasonable question, in the wake of the Newsweek retraction drama.

Robert Scheer had a column in the LA Times on this topic yesterday, in which he asked: "Did President Bush know about it? If not, why not? After all, this was the most prominent soldier to die since Bush took office four years earlier, a prize recruit for his controversial spate of foreign invasions.

"In any case, the White House has refrained from making any public apologies for the cover-up. Indeed, Mary Tillman said she was particularly offended that even after the facts were known, Bush exploited her son's death with a message played before an Arizona Cardinal game last fall before the election."


New York, N.Y.: Classically, when in domestic trouble the strategy of heads of state/politicians is to create a foreign crisis to distract voters and cement support. The International Herald Tribune today published an online story (dated June 2nd) about North Korean/U.S. relations where Bush gives two possible tracks for actions - diplomacy and military activity. Also, the recent break in Syrian-U.S. relations (no more CIA or U.S.-Syrian military cooperation) plus the comment Sen. Joe Biden made on the Senate floor last week about hearing noise regarding Syria leads me to believe that Bush may be adopting the classical strategy for a precipitous decline in Bush's polls and popularity. Care to comment?

Dan Froomkin: Well, when questioned on the North Korean issue yesterday, Bush did not take up the bait to be hawkish. In fact, he spoke fairly passionately about the need for diplomacy.

If I were really paranoid, I would look South, actually, to Venezuela. See today's column.


San Jose, Calif.: Dan,

One thing the White House has not touched for awhile is tax cut. Is President Bush going to push for a permanent tax cut he got through Congress during his first term or this is considered a dead issue as far as his agenda goes.


Dan Froomkin: He was asked about this yesterday, after it wasn't one of the things he mentioned in his opening statement.

Said Bush: "I believe it's essential that we have the tax cuts be permanent. It was implicit in my statement. I haven't changed. Appreciate your clarification. Congress needs to make the tax cuts permanent."

Take that how you will.


Arlington, Mass.: Dan, Why, why, why do reporters consistently not ask the President pointed questions? Yesterday's Rose Garden chat should have included questions about the Downing Street Memo, questions about the Pat Tillman cover-up, questions about Cheney's comment concerning the insurgency, questions about the missing 9 billion dollars, questions about why analysts who fed the admin. bogus info about WMD's have been regularly promoted etc... I know this frustrates you as well but what can be done??!!!

Dan Froomkin: Well, it seems to me that it would be worth asking these questions, if for no other reason than just to see what his reaction would be, and get his response on the record.

But he wouldn't likely make any news in his response. He would more likely resort to tried and true phrases from his stump speeches.

And that, I think, is your answer. Members of the (mostly daily) press corps are truly angling for at least a nugget of news which they can use in their articles. So they tend to ask very specific, immediate questions that may move a story forward a bit -- even if those may look small bore to the general public.

Maybe things would change if bloggers and magazine writers attended, and were called on?


Philadelphia, Pa.: Dan, I have two questions.

First, is it fair to say that President Bush's news conference was overshadowed by Deep Throat? And second, I noticed in your column that Vice President Cheney is the latest in a long line of administration officials to declare that we have turned a corner in Iraq and that the insurgency is nearly finished. Is there some way to document how many times the administration has said this now in the past two years?

Dan Froomkin: Yes. I'm amazed I found time to write the column at all today, in between reading all the fascinating Deep Throat stories.

But truth be told, it wasn't exactly a barnburner news conference anyway.

As for tracking down all the "turning the corner" statements, that would be an arduous exercise.

I would rather, as I argued recently on NiemanWatchdog.org , put some effort into trying to nail down some measurable milestones in Iraq, so we can objectively track success and progress toward a U.S. pullout.


Williamsburg, Va.: Here is a question that I'd like to see asked at the next presidential press conference or Pentagon briefing:

Do you categorically deny that the U.S. has rendered prisoners to countries where torture is knowingly being used to elicit information?

Dan Froomkin: Like he would with most any other question, and particularly with a potentially "gotcha" question, Bush would just use that as an opportunity to wax a bit on whatever aspect of the war on terror comes to his mind at the time.

It's astonishing, when you read the transcript of his press conferences, how routinely nonresponsive Bush is to specific questions.

And that will inevitably continue to be the case until or unless White House reporters are willing to aggressively follow up on each other -- and not just with a similar question, but by saying: Mr. President, you did not answer that question. The question was: Blah blah blah. Now could you please answer it?


Pyongtaek, Korea: What will it take to get the MSM to report in-depth on the Downing Street Memo and, now that it has come to light, the stepped-up bombing campaign of Iraq months before Congress approved any action or the U.N. even considered Resolution 1441? I love your column, but even you have been negligent in mentioning this. Tuesday's column had no mention of the U.K. newspaper article (came out Sunday) that talked about how the British and U.S. Air Forces starting dropping significantly more ordinance during patrols of the No-Fly Zone in 2002 as a lead-up to the war.

Dan Froomkin: You mean this story by Michael Smith in the New Statesman?

I'll read it after the chat.


Santa Barbara, Calif..: Is the revelation of who was Deep Throat make the Bush White House even more paranoid about maintaining secrecy and control?

Dan Froomkin: More likely, it makes them feel even more smug.

I wasn't kidding above: I suspect Mark Felt wouldn't have lasted very long in the Bush administration.


Boston, Mass.: Why do you think there has not been more media coverage of the Pat Tillman fiasco? I am disappointed that, in the wake of the Newsweek saga, this story did not have 'more legs'.

Dan Froomkin: I can't answer that. It seems reasonable to me that someone should be held to account for the cover-up.


Portland, Maine: I heard recently a report in which Cheney referred to 2008 as a year for the battle of the first wives: Laura v. Hillary. Up until the recent coverage of Laura playing comic relief for her poorly-spoken husband, I had yet to see the idea of her running solo after her husband's done. Do you think all of her recent media coverage is, in fact, planting seeds for a run in '08?

Dan Froomkin: Not a chance. But keep your eye on Jeb. (See today's column for the latest.)


Birmingham, Ala.: You state that Bush will continue to get away with nonresponsive answers until the press corps starts really pressing him. What, in your opinion, can be done to encourage the White House press corp to be more assertive?

Dan Froomkin: Encourage their editors to read my column?


San Antonio, Tex.: You write today: "But at some point, it's not leading anymore if the country's not following."

What is the tipping point between leading/not having a following?

Also, to take issue with The Washington Post's lead op-ed today: What does it matter if Bush is holding more press conferences in his second term if he is saying as little as he did in his first term when he held fewer press conferences. If there is no real news from President Bush, why does increased access vis-a-vis more numerous press conferences matter?

Dan Froomkin: That's a fine question, and there's obviously no simple answer. It might be best answered historically?

That said, staying well and truly below a 50 percent approval rating for a protracted amount of time, particularly on your signature issues, has got to be a pretty big indicator.

As for your second point, I hear you, although I wouldn't agree that there was no news. But I do think that the press should now ask itself: OK, he's talking to us every month, now what are we going to do about it?


Leesburg, Va.: You've referred to your column several times, but I can't find today's column on this "new and improved" Web site. It isn't on the front page and it doesn't show up in a search on your name. Can you post a link?

Several times lately, I haven't seen your column referenced on the main page. I love reading the column, but finding it is getting to be something else again!

(And, any idea when the Web site redesign will finally be over and everything working again?)

Dan Froomkin: The Web site's technological and navigational problems continue, I'm afraid.

To find my column, try bookmarking this page: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2005/04/11/LI2005041100879.html .


Washington, D.C.: Ah Ha! The ol' answer the question with a question trickaroo... Very word crafty response.

Dan Froomkin: Which question are you talking about?


Los Angeles, Calif.: Hi Dan, I have repeatedly asked various Washington Post online chat hosts (not all of them Post journalists) why the MSM isn't pursuing the Downing Street Memo more doggedly and the question never gets posted. I see a poster just asked you on today's chat and you answered the 2nd question but did not address the Downing Street Memo. What gives?

Dan Froomkin: I wrote about this in my May 17 column , and frankly expected coverage to pick up afterward.

I said then that the memo story was possibly "less a dud than a bomb with a long, slow fuse."

So I guess that either the fuse is even longer than I had thought, and investigative reporters are digging away even as we speak, or the American press is cynical enough to consider this all old news.


Dan Froomkin: OK I've got to wrap things up. Thanks for all your great questions. Sorry I couldn't get to more. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page.


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