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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, April 26, 2006; 1:00 PM

Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone. A dramatic day for us White House watchers.

First Fox News's Tony Snow is officially named press secretary.

Then it turns out Karl Rove is testifying in front of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury again today -- for the fifth time!

Today's column, which should be out very shortly, is about the Snow selection. It's a fascinating move, and I think it will lead to a honeymoon of sorts with the press corps. But there are all sorts of fascinating, longer-term questions still in play.

Among them: Will Snow simply represent a more charming, energetic, engaged and plugged-in way of continuing to tell the press nothing? Is Snow's appointment a genuine attempt to re-engage with the mass media and the general public or just a better way to communicate with Bush's increasingly restive base? Is it too late for anyone to turn things around?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

And I have some thoughts of my own on the latest Karl Rove news.


Richmond, Va.: I admit when I heard that Rove would lose his policy responsibilities, I wondered if it had anything to do with Fitzgerald's CIA leak investigation. Today we find out Fitzgerald is meeting with the Grand Jury; Rove is talking with his lawyers...


Dan Froomkin: Rove's recent loss of part of his portfolio may or may not have anything to do with his legal jeopardy. We just don't know enough yet.

Let's review what we do know.

John Solomon writes for the Associated Press: "Top White House aide Karl Rove prepared to testify Wednesday for a fifth time before the federal grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA officer's identity, two people familiar with the case said.

"Rove consulted with his private lawyers before a scheduled afternoon court appearance and was prepared to answer questions about evidence that emerged since his last grand jury appearance last fall, the person said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because of grand jury secrecy rules.

"That new evidence includes information that emerged late last year that Rove's attorney had conversations with Time magazine reporter Viveca Novak during a critical time in the case.

"Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald met with the grand jury Wednesday. Among other things he is investigating why Rove originally failed to disclose to prosecutors that he had talked to Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper about the outed CIA operative, Valerie Plame, back in 2003."

Don't remember Viveca Novak's role in all this?

Back on Nov. 29, Jim VandeHei wrote in The Washington Post: "The reporter for Time magazine who recently agreed to testify in the CIA leak case is central to White House senior adviser Karl Rove's effort to fend off an indictment in the two-year-old investigation, according to two people familiar with the situation."

VandeHei wrote that "a person familiar with the matter said [Rove lawyer Robert] Luskin cited his conversations with Novak in persuading Fitzgerald not to indict Rove in late October, when the prosecutor brought perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges against Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby.

"'This is what caused [Fitzgerald] to hold off on charging' Rove, the source said. But another person familiar with the conversations said they did not appear to significantly alter the case."

On Dec. 2, Richard W. Stevenson and Douglas Jehl wrote in the New York Times: "A conversation between Karl Rove's lawyer and a journalist for Time magazine led Mr. Rove to change his testimony last year to the grand jury in the C.I.A. leak case, people knowledgeable about the sequence of events said Thursday.

"Mr. Rove's lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, spoke in the summer or early fall of 2004 with Viveca Novak, a reporter for Time. In that conversation, Mr. Luskin heard from Ms. Novak that a colleague at the magazine, Matthew Cooper, might have interviewed Mr. Rove about the C.I.A. officer at the heart of the case, the people said."

In my Dec. 12 column, I summarized Novak's own first-person account, now behind a subscription firewall at Time.

"Novak writes that she had three informal meetings with Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, in January, March and May of 2004. She doesn't recall at which one she told Luskin that she'd heard Rove was one of fellow reporters Matt Cooper's secret sources for his story about Valerie Plame."

My initial thought here is that Rove is a really effective fighter, especially when the going gets tough.

Back in October, I called his furious attempt to get himself out from under a possible indictment: Rove's Last Campaign.

I asked: "Will Karl Rove, architect of President Bush's improbable political career, snatch one last victory from the jaws of defeat? (Or at least avoid getting indicted?)"

The question still applies.


washingtonpost.com: Today's White House Briefing: The Snow Forecast, (Post, April 26, 2006)


Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi Dan...would you or I be afforded FIVE CHANCES to explain our answers and actions to a grand jury if we were involved in an investigation?

Dan Froomkin: What's amazing about Rove's fifth visit to the grand jury is not that he is being allowed that many, but that he's actually willing to appear that many times.

The more you talk to a grand jury, the more likely you are to create conflicting stories that will hurt your case should it come before a criminal jury.

So what we're seeing here is an almost unprecedented attempt by someone to avoid being charged. It's like Rove is going all out to avoid being indicted -- knowing that an indictment would end his career -- even at the risk of making things moderately worse for him later if he does get indicted.

At least, that's my impression.


Yem,Wash.: Tony Snow seems to have a lengthy record of snarky comments on Bush to go along with the typical fawning over all things republican, which Fox News is notorious for. How much will Tony Snow be the story when he mans the podium in the WH press room? Is he intended to be a diversion?

Dan Froomkin: He's not a diversion. Certainly not in the sense you mean.

I don't think his (actually very few and far between) critiques of Bush are a big deal. The liberal Web sites are having a blast, but the vast vast majority of Snow's words have been effusively supportive of the Bush White House.

I think Snow's critiques will be the story very briefly. More to the point, I think Snow's appointment will result in a honeymoon period with the press corps, where they are all just so happy to have someone other than McClellan to talk to -- and someone so charismatic, as well!

And I think it's even possible that Snow's appointment will turn out to be a symbol of significant change in the White House, and therefore a pretty big story.


Washington, D.C.: Welcome back Dan. Too long without you!

I am more interested in the Karl Rove situation that is developing. I really think this is a sign of something not so goodish for Rove/Libby. Additionally, does this account for the Rove shuffle from policy to campaigns last week?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. You guys really make me feel guilty for taking any time off.

As I said above, I'm not sure what it means yet. But I can assure you there's no joy at the White House that we're even talking about it.


Houston, Tex.: Tony Snow has a great relationship with the vice president. Don't you think this was Cheney's hire, not the presidents?

Dan Froomkin: That's an angle I haven't seen before. Interesting.

He certainly has had quite a lot of very, um, friendly interviews with Cheney. As I wrote in Friday's column: "Vice President Cheney has repeatedly taken refuge with Snow, most recently on March 29. A sample question from January 11: 'Everybody wants me to ask you ... would you please reconsider and think about running for President?'"


Philadelphia, Pa: Dan...maybe reporters should start outing their anonymous sources and background briefers who have been found to have lied, misled and pursued a solely political agenda, what do you think?

Dan Froomkin: Outing sources really rubs reporters the wrong way -- but to some extent I agree with you.

Granting anonymity should not be done lightly, and when a reporter does agree to give a source anonymity, that is implicitly in return for the source telling them some version of the truth.

I would suggest making that agreement more explicit. Then reporters wouldn't feel so hinky about actually opting out when the sources have overtly violated their part of the agreement.

That said, one person's lie, misdirection or spin is another's reality -- certainly these days. So it's complicated.


San Diego, Calif.: Hi Dan, I just wanted to thank you for the link to Ashton and Banta's piece in neimanwatchdog.org about gas prices. It's clear that in this case it is not truly a free market. My question: is there any chance at all that government will address this issue?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. You're talking about this article.

I've tried to fathom this whole gas price story, and all I can tell you for sure is that it's very very complicated.

But when it comes to price gouging, I think it's safe to say that the average Joe has a different sense of what that means than the White House does.

For instance, when crude oil prices go up, but gas prices go up even faster, and oil company profits go up even faster that that, then isn't someone gouging? Or at least taking unfair advantage? And isn't that the case? I'd like to see some more stories about this.


Laguna Niguel, Calif.: LOVE your column, Dan.

I've read that people are surprised that Bush chose and an "outsider" (Tony Snow of Fox News) to be the new Press Secretary. Since when is anyone at Fox News an outsider to this White House? I'll bet that in some future remodel of the Oval Office electricians will find cables that lead from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to the Fox Newsroom. And I wouldn't be surprised if an audit discloses that Tony Snow and the rest of his cohorts have been on the White House payroll since the 2001 inauguration.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Suggesting that Fox News and the White House are to some degree likeminded is not unreasonable.

But at this point, I consider anyone an outsider who isn't Cheney, Rove, Bartlett, Rice, or Rumsfeld.

And contrast this move with virtually all of the other recent staff shuffles, which have just moved around people who already worked at or near the White House.

So the possibility that Bush will actually be listening to someone new -- even someone likeminded -- is absolutely fascinating. In fact, I'm not sure I believe it.


Washington, D.C.: When Snow takes over, do you think there'll be any substantial difference in the message coming from the podium? Or will the only change be that when he doles out a "I think that's already been covered" or "We can't comment on an ongoing investigation," he'll do so with a grin?

Dan Froomkin: Ho ho.

The first time Snow (accidentally or on purpose) uses one of McClellan's pathetic and timeworn catchphrases, I expect you'll be able to hear the howls and catcalls for miles.

I think Snow is (stylistically at least) in a totally different league than McClellan.


Lewiston, N.Y.: Allow me to be the first (?) to declare that henceforth the official name for a press briefing will be a "Snow job"...as opposed to previously, when that was just the unofficial name.

Dan Froomkin: You're the first. (At least here.)


Alexandria, Va.: Would you be willing to speculate on what a Rove indictment would mean for the White House and November elections?

Dan Froomkin: Sure. It would be very, very, very bad.


Anonymous: Why are people making a big deal of Snow being a reporter? Journalists can make great press secretaries because they know the business, and other journalists might trust them more. Ken Bacon at DoD in the Clinton administration is a great example.

Dan Froomkin: Well, this allows me to raise a question I have. Was Snow ever actually a "reporter"? He's getting a lot of nods for having been a journalist -- but hasn't he always been an opinion-writer and/or talk-show host?

With all due respect to my opinion-writing friends, writing editorials and columns and punditizing is a far cry from reporting, covering a beat, trying to get people to answer your questions, trying to be fair in presenting a range of alternate views, etc.

How does working on the editorial page of a newspaper prepare you any better for being a press secretary than being a PR person? I guess you at least socialize with real reporters.


Nashville, Tenn.: Given that Bush really needs to hold the House to head off investigation-itis and that gas prices are hurting him big time, why hasn't he opened the strategic petroleum reserve? Reagan's former energy secretary John Herrington wrote an Op/Ed in the LA Times the first week of the war titled "Make Iraq Our New Strategic Oil Reserve." Now that we have Iraq, doesn't that give Bush the cover he needs to do just that?

Dan Froomkin: We have Iraq? Are you being facetious?

The first part of your question however raises an interesting point.

The decision to stop filling the reserve was a complete about-face compared to May 2004, when Democrats were pushing Bush to do it and he said it would weaken us at a time of war.

I have two thoughts about this.

One: There was almost no mention of this in the coverage. Why not?

Two: This may be the beginning of a period of intense political pragmatism with one goal, and one goal only, which would be to not lose Congress.

Tom Raum had a good piece for the Associated Press that I didn't link to today only because it's so obvious:

"President Bush is not on the ballot in November, but he might as well be. Republican losses could make an already difficult situation in Congress almost untenable for him.

"If his party loses control of one, or both chambers of Congress, the next two years could be a political nightmare for Bush and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill....

"Democratic control of committees in either chamber could lead to investigative hearings on Iraq, awarding of government contracts, the role of lobbyists, fraud and abuse, Pentagon divisions, any number of activities."

But possibly this bears repeating.


Nashville, Tenn.: Please elaborate on why a Rove indictment would be so bad. The President has the power to pardon him immediately.

Dan Froomkin: That, too, would be very, very, very bad.


Munich, Germany: I've only read about a recent 60 Minutes episode in the British press (Bush was warned there were no WMD, says former CIA man).

Has there been any fallout regarding the CIA's former European chief's comments that Bush was informed before the war that there were no WMD in Iraq?

Dan Froomkin: Amazingly little. I found the 60 Minutes segment on Tyler Drumheller fascinating, and wrote about it at some length in my Monday column.

The New York Times ran a short story on Saturday. But not a word in most other places, including The Washington Post.

And I can't possibly explain why.


Wilmington, N.C.: You know what would have been really cool? If you had addressed this new hire in a dismissive late paragraph and stayed focused on substantive issues like the revelations from the former CIA Europe station chief, ongoing black sites in other countries for torturing alleged "enemy combatants," ongoing illegal wiretapping of American citizens, our first "preemptive war," our upcoming second "preemptive war," etc. I understand it fits the focus of your column, but really, what difference does it make who stands at that podium? Why give the administration a day pass from actual scrutiny just because they pointed and said look over there?

Dan Froomkin: I'm sorry to disappoint you. And I suspect that you're right, and the Snow appointment will be forgotten long before those other issues you mention.

But this column is avowedly "of the moment" -- even while I like to think that it is cumulatively substantive.

And the McClellan/Snow switcheroo is, at this moment, simply fascinating!

Then again, it's quite possible that you will get your wish, to some extent, if the Rove news drives out the Snow news in this cycle.


New York, N.Y.: Hi, Dan.

Earlier in the discussion, you wrote:

So the possibility that Bush will actually be listening to someone new -- even someone likeminded -- is absolutely fascinating. In fact, I'm not sure I believe it.

Can you elaborate on that last comment? You don't believe Bush is capable of doing so? You don't think Snow was hired for that purpose? Or what? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: I would like to hear more about how often Snow actually gets to bend Bush's ear, that's all.


Arlington, Va.: No joke, but a question so simple it's probably laughable: Why is President Bush so unpopular?

I've always disagreed with him 99 percent, and nothing he's done in the past 18 months has changed my opinion or surprised me at all.

But I'm at a loss to understand the millions of Americans who actually re-elected him, unequivocally, in '04--yet who now keep his approval ratings in the historical basement. Why have they so completely changed their minds?

Dan Froomkin: Many answers, but I will start with two:

1) Iraq. A lot of people have changed their mind about the war as it drags on.

2) There's no one right now that Bush can attack, to make himself look better. He does much better against opponents than on his own.

It's funny. Bush said today about Snow: "He's not afraid to express his own opinions. For those of you who have read his columns and listened to his radio show, he sometimes has disagreed with me. I asked him about those comments, and he said, 'You should have heard what I said about the other guy.'"

Well, who is the other guy these days?


Delaware: Dan,

I don't understand all of the breathless coverage of who's coming and going. While a fun spectator sport, whoever comes in is not going to fundamentally change the underlying problems of the administration--their policies. Mr. Snow will bring a Fox News polish to the spin but Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, etc. are not going to suddenly run down Pennsylvania Ave proclaiming they now understand the true meaning of Christmas.

Frankly, I'm a little disturbed by the naivete suggested by so many of these transition stories that somehow policy is going to change.

Dan Froomkin: It is not entirely out of the question that the Snow appointment, for instance, will lead to a change in media policy, such that the White House actually starts explaining things more to reporters, and by extension, to the general public.

To me, as a journalist, the belligerent nontransparency of this administration is one of its most defining attributes. So if this changes, I consider it a huge deal.

I'm not exactly hopeful. (See my skeptical questions in my column.) But even if it's possible, it's big news.


Washington, D.C.: Someone needs to ask the president what "price gouging" is. I assume it means that an oil company is charging higher prices than it "should" be. In a market economy, the gouging oil company would lose business to its competitors who aren't price gouging unless: (1) the oil companies are acting in concert with each other, which violates the antitrust laws; or (2) there isn't sufficient competition in the market due to all of the mergers in recent years. In either case, the solution is a government antitrust investigation into price fixing/output restrictions, etc., or a government action to unwind some of the mergers so there is less consolidation in the oil industry. I haven't heard Bush discuss either option, and there aren't any other real options.

Dan Froomkin: That would be a good question.


Whew, your back!: Dan-I am curious if Snow ever made derogatory comments about the WH Press during the random rounds of "let's attack the reporters daring to ask questions and getting frustrated" like the Cheney shooting incident. Do you know if he ever had an opinion on their role?

Dan Froomkin: Ooh, that's an easy one.

Here's some classic Tony Snow from February: "The politics of kneecapping failed utterly last week, when partisans tried to make hay of Vice President Dick Cheney's having shot hunting partner Harry Whittington....

"When people leap to exploit misery, they create sympathy for the miserable. Meanwhile, the news media must be careful not to become the Noise Media.

"In this case, some reporters, openly gleeful about Cheney's predicament, became unwittingly Shakespearean - fools telling tales, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."


Rantoul, Ill.: Any chance that all the references in this morning's "First Read" to the release of NBC's new poll tonight (they usually tease, but not this much) could mean that Bush's popularity has fallen below 30 percent? And if so, what will the fallout be?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know, but do admire your tea-leaf reading.

(Here's the link.)


Thetford Center, Vt.: How many gallons of fuel/day does the military use in Iraq now? How much has it used since the invasion?

Dan Froomkin: Good question.


Rockville, Md.: Dan:

Don't have time to mess with you today. Just to encourage you to listen to lots of people, read more and get out in the fresh air when you can. Life is too short to spend it all on complaining. But that is not my evaluation of your work, just a general comment. You are OK, I guess.

Dan Froomkin: Alrighty. I'm off to walk the dog, then.

Thanks for all your wonderful questions. I'm sorry I couldn't get to more of them.


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