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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, May 24, 2006; 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'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, May 24, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org .


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk.

My column today is about how "President Bush's exclusive focus on suicide bombers -- 'suiciders,' in his parlance -- when asked about violence in Iraq yesterday once again suggests that he lacks a realistic sense of the current state of chaos in that country."

We can talk about that, or about a million other things. The White House is a busy beat these days.

I also wrote in yesterday's column that, in honor of the chef who told Bush in Chicago on Monday that he's running the country the way a chef would, I'll be accepting your suggestions about what you think Bush is cooking up.


San Jose, Calif.: Hi Dan,

Thanks for the revealing information about Peter Wehner and the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives (strategery) in yesterday's column. Keep up the good work!!

Regarding the President's guest worker proposal, and after his speech last week, it seems pretty amazing to me that no one is calling him out on his actual motive for such a proposal: cheap labor so that his wealthy constituents can get wealthier. Not only are no Democrats calling him out on it, but neither did any WaPo columnists either. All I see is those columnists calling the President a centrist, trying to find a middle ground, which is puzzling because he's been pushing this guest worker proposal since day one. Ironically, other than the columnists and bloggers on the left, the only person I see calling the President out on the people he actually advocates and governs for is, of all people, Richard A. Viguerie in Saturday's Post. What gives?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Wehner is one of my favorite White House figures.

And that's a very good point.

Viguerie, in his Live Online on Monday was particularly blunt: "It is not entirely true that Bush has betrayed everyone. The 1% of his voter support that came from big business corporate America - he's been truthful to them. They have gotten the legislation, the appointments; I can't think of any issue that they have strongly supported where Bush has opposed them."

The guest worker element would be a clear win for corporate America.

And the left and immigrant groups find it utterly distasteful. But I think they're mostly not making a big stink about it because they think it may go away when all is said and done, and they're concentrating on the pathway to citizenship stuff.


Toledo, Ohio: Dan, My Republican friends disagree with me, but I can think of no events short of another terrorist attack which would skew positive for Mr. Bush. Oil prices may drop, but it won't be much; the good numbers on the economy seem to be offset by the individual uncertainty felt by the people of the middle class;Iraq probably won't improve as U.S. troops prepare to spend their fourth summer in the blistering heat and the legal problems of Messers Abramoff and Libby (and Rove?)will continue to simmer. Where can the administration hope to find any news that could generate anything more than a slight up-tick in their poll numbers?

Dan Froomkin: Catching bin Laden would be good. There would certainly be a lot of celebrating.

Bush himself, in his interview with NBC's David Gregory acknowledged that the big momentum force is Iraq. Although, as you point out, that momentum may not change. Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei wrote in The Washington Post on Monday that "President Bush and his team are focusing on the fall midterm elections as the best chance to salvage his presidency."

In other words, if Republican majorities survive the mid-terms, Bush can declare another victory and start to lead again.

Me, I wonder if putting as much attention on governing as he does on politics might result in some slow but steady progress. New Gingrich might have been suggesting that at the end of the Baker-VandeHei story, when he suggests Bush take the Clinton approach.


Balboa, Calif.: Have any of the "Tony Snow questions" you collected actually been asked by the White House press corps?

Dan Froomkin: You mean these questions?

No, not so much -- with the notable exception of Helen Thomas.

From Friday's gaggle

"Q The new Italian Prime Minister says that the President's invasion of Iraq was a grave error. As the new kid on the block, can you give me the latest rationale the U.S. has for invading Iraq?

"MR. SNOW: There has only been one rationale, as you know, Helen, and this that Saddam Hussein had resisted -- what is the proper number, 17 United Nations resolutions -- and had refused repeatedly to permit weapons inspectors to do their work, and consistent with that. And also we had cited other concerns in terms of democracy and human rights. That case has never changed."

I'm not sure how he managed to keep a straight face while saying the rationale for war in Iraq has been consistent over time.

As Tim Grieve noted in Salon: "One that Snow didn't mention, at least explicitly, today: The threat, described by the president in his September 2002 speech before the U.N. General Assembly, that Saddam Hussein was going to give the weapons of mass destruction he didn't have to al-Qaida terrorists with whom he wasn't working."

By and large, the reporters are asking Snow small-bore, incremental questions, and his small-bore, incremental non-answers have made his briefings dull and eminently missable in record time.


Austin, Tex.: Bush is cooking up a monarchy. The FBI raid on Rep. William Jefferson's congressional office reveals a TOTAL disregard (and contempt) for the separation of powers.

Dan Froomkin: I was looking for something a little more figurative.

In fact, A few readers have e-mailed me their suggestions for Bush dishes.

Anne Dickson suggests the "Iraq Breakfast Special: Eggs, sunny-side-up served on (covering) burnt toast, with Hallibacon and rehashed beans (bupkes)."

Lisa Marshall recommends: "Caribou Anwr, thin slices of roasted juvenile caribou nestled in sauteed tundra grasses, dressed with light oil dressing" and "Bombe Iran, flaming medley of seasonal fruits."

I'm accepting further nominations.


New York, N.Y.: Hi Dan!

Here I was, minding my own and bringing up AOL to retrieve my email and I see the AOL news headline:

Osama bin Laden: "I am the one in charge" (this in relation to the attack on 9/11)

And this brought to mind the headline not long ago:

Bush: "I am the decider"

hmm...maybe these two have more in common than they'd like to admit?

Dan Froomkin: You're reminding me a bit of Bush's October 2005 speech where he was talking about Bin Laden and said: "And what this man who grew up in wealth and privilege considers good for poor Muslims is that they become killers and suicide bombers. He assures them that his -- that this is the road to paradise -- though he never offers to go along for the ride."


Eastern Montana: Dan,

I see Bush focusing on the midterm elections as their short-term strategy.

At what point does it begin to appear -- will the point get traction -- that campaigning may be all the Bush team knows how to do?

I'm really amazed at the focus turning to the elections instead of, say, governing. At what point do you think winning elections may not be enough?

And how could retaining congress be perceived as a 'mandate'?

Dan Froomkin: Good point.

I have long suggested that Karl Rove's legacy is the complete merging of policy and politics in the White House -- like they're the same thing. As I wrote in my now-dated mini-profile of Rove, ages ago: "Traditionally, governing is a considerably different matter than running for office, where winning is everything. Not so with Rove. If he eventually starts losing, he could end up taking the blame for creating a divisive presidency, aimed more at achieving partisan goals than the common good. But if he keeps winning, he will be a kingmaker even as his boss becomes a lame duck -- and his legacy could be a GOP that is indeed the ruling party for decades to come."

Jury's still out. But the deliberations are getting kinda ugly.


Newark, Del.: Dan, I know you've watched a lot of White House Briefings. What is your personal impression of Tony Snow?

The more I watch the more I dislike how he treat people culturally different. Now, I know there are loonies in the press corp there. But I'm not just talking about his tar-baby reference which I do believe was an honest slip. To give another example, there's an Indian or Pakistani journalist which I believe you've mentioned before in your column. One of the reporters Scott McClellan would call on when he wanted to switch subjects.

English is obviously not his first language. So, when he asked a immigration question, it wasn't put very succinctly. He was obviously trying to ask how the White House would spur economic development in Mexico. Because the reason immigrants are coming here is for economic opportunity. He tried to ask how Mexico could compete with low wage jobs going to China. But after struggling for a few seconds, it eventually came out as, "How is the White House going to move factories from China back to Mexico?" He did not put the question properly, but it was obvious what he was trying to ask, which is a legitimate question.

Tony Snow's response just astounded me. He rolled his head, his eyes widened, and he repeated the question in the most dismissive fashion. After suppressing a laugh, he moved on. He treated the reporter like he was a nutcase on TV. It was absolutely insulting.

As someone who deals with people from different backgrounds, races, and ages every day, that type of elitism infuriates me. It's almost as if he's culturally obtuse! Scott McClellan may have been a stone wall, but I rarely saw him treat someone with such total disrespect.

Dan Froomkin: What an interesting observation.

You're referring to an exchange Snow had a week ago with Raghubir Goyal, one of the more persistent briefing-room characters I mentioned in a columnlast year.

McClellan was always scrupulously polite with Goyal, and used him like you said (ergo the nickname, Goyal the Foil).

But Snow's exasperation is not entirely without some merit. Goyal and Lester Kinsolving seem to like to hear themselves talk more than they care about actual answers, and their questions are almost always a colossal waste of time.

Notable exception: When Kinsolving asked last Tuesday what Bush's position is on contraception. Snow laughed that one off, too. But it's an good question. (See Russell Shorto in the New York Times Magazine.)

But let's all stay tuned.


Rockville, Md.: Has Tony Snow made any significant difference as McClellan's replacement? He's still just the messenger, and no matter how well he crafts and delivers the message, isn't the result the same?

Do you think that the White House is now more forthcoming with information?

Dan Froomkin: Early to say for sure, but so far, I would have to say: No real change; and no, not more forthcoming.

Now that said, Snow is obviously way more comfortable on TV and signs are that he'll be using that medium way more that McClellan. For instance, he's sitting down with Lou Dobbs on CNN tonight! That should be worth watching.


Grantham, N.H.: I noticed that Peter Wehner send his missive from a .gov email account. Why is a political email attacking someone being sent from a government email account?

Dan Froomkin: Why is Karl Rove on the White House payroll?

The answer to both questions is that politics and policy have merged at the White House. And it's been like that all along.

My understanding is that the only thing flatly illegal is using a government office, e-mail address, etc., to raise money -- assuming there's any controlling legal authority at all. I need to look into that more.


Bel Air, Md.: I know this is old news, but it still concerns me that the White House Press Secretary could use the term 'tar baby' and not be held accountable. He never apologized to those offended and claimed his critics did not understand 'American Culture'. You would think his sensitivity level would be higher since his racist past was exposed during the vetting process for Press Secretary.

What are your thoughts on the White House Press Corps' failure to seriously question Tony Snow, the man who speaks for the President, on his comment?

Dan Froomkin: Good question.

My sense is there were two mitigating factors at work on the under-coverage of Snow's "tar baby" comment.

One is that there is no evidence it was in any way intended as a racist statement at all. Although this shocked me, apparently in some circles there is indeed no racist connotation whatsoever to the phrase. (Me, I'm abundantly aware of its racist history. I was floored when I heard him say it.)

The second is that it was Tony Snow's first day, and the obvious "honeymoon" angle was his choking up when talking about his cancer. It would have been awkward for a reporter to package those two stories together. (Me, I didn't have that problem; I was critical of his overall performance.)

Incidentally, DeWayne Wickham, a columnist for Gannet, wrote about it the other day: "It's obvious to me that Snow had no racial reference in mind when he uttered those words. Like others who use the term 'tar baby' in describing a sticky situation, Snow was probably unmindful of its more insidious usage."

But, Wickham wrote: "Snow has been touted as a press secretary who will be more forthright in his pronouncements. If so, he ought to begin by apologizing for his innocent use of the 'tar baby' term, which many blacks believe harbors an ugly embedded message."

Wickham also quoted a "cryptic message" the Rev. Jesse Jackson left on his voicemail: "As for the tar baby; the lips cannot conceal what the heart wants to reveal."


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Dear D. F.,

I have been interested in the latest news involving the Justice Department and Rep. William Jefferson (D-Louisiana). The strong response coming from both parties across both houses and predictions of a Supreme Court case seem to imply that the limits of the constitution have been tested. I would like to hear your ideas regarding this issue. How has the executive branch defined its role and powers in relation to the other branches of government under the Bush administration?

Many thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Wouldn't it be ironic if the raid of a Democratic congressman's office was what finally drove the Republican Congress to rebel against the Bush White House's unprecedented power grab?

Carl Hulse raises that prospect in the New York Times this morning: "Lawmakers and outside analysts said that while the execution of a warrant on a Congressional office might be surprising - this appears to be the first time it has happened - it fit the Bush administration's pattern of asserting broad executive authority, sometimes at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches."

But I think he's a little quick on the trigger, and in fact he pours a little cold water on his own idea: "There is no sign that Congressional Republicans' discontent over this particular matter may spread into a more general challenge to the administration's expansive view of executive authority."


Hampton, Va.: Just thinking out loud...how many turning points will it take before Bush realizes we are just going in circles?

Dan Froomkin: Funny.


Novato, Calif.: Sorry to submit two questions during the same session, but I just went and read your column from today about Bush repeating "suiciders" over and over, and it occurs to me that the White House is deliberately bringing this up in reaction to Baghdad ER. The show makes it extremely clear that IEDs account for more than 90% of their cases, and that the army still has little if any way to defend against them. It was appalling, really. And no, I don't work for HBO.

Dan Froomkin: What's amazing to me is that the White House's official narrative is that all the carnage we see on TV is what's getting us down on the president.

But where is that carnage? I don't see it on TV. Sure, I see the occasional bombing-wreckage (ergo, possibly, Bush's focus on those suiciders) but the day-in-day-out horrors, including the ceaseless killing and mutilating of our troops, the brutal murders of civilians by sectarian death squads, those aren't on TV! Neither, of course, are the returning coffins.

The American public has gotten severely down on the war and the president in spite of the fact that they are not seeing any visceral images of the cost of war, not because of those images.

So Baghdad ER is pretty much the first and foremost example of real, human, American carnage on TV. I think it could be huge -- though from what I gather, so far the reaction has been muted.

All that said, I don't think Bush is going to intentionally do anything to call any attention to that show. Quite the opposite.


Seattle, Wash.: Is a secret deal being worked out to withdraw most US troops from Iraq in time for the November elections, while at the same time marshalling them nearby for an invasion of Iran, or will Bush just go with the air bombing and use of nuclear warheads on Iranian facilities instead?

Dan Froomkin: You don't have to be particularly skeptical or conspiratorial to predict with confidence that there will be some sort of troop drawdown before November, and no attack on Iran until after.


Chicago, Ill.: In your column today you cover Bush's remarks about suicide bombers. Here's another thing to note, he also refers only to Sunnis. For anyone who's been reading the coverage of the chaos in Iraq knows that the Sunnis aren't the only ones killing US and British troops. Several factions of the Shi'ia are on the attack as well with the apparent support of Iran. And Bush makes no mention of this. Finally, there was a report of Iranian gunners shelling Kurdish positions in Iraq, and Bush (and most of the press) makes no mention of this. It's clear that the situation in Iraq is spinning increasingly out of control, yet the press dutifully covers Bush's remarks about the formation of a new Iraqi government without reporting the context of the actual situation in Iraq. Comments?

Dan Froomkin: In Bush's defense, he generally mentions the Sunnis, as he did yesterday, in the context of their participation in the government, and how important that is.

Bush has at least publicly been very clear on the importance of minority rights and representation in the new government -- it is, after all, the most obvious way in which the new government could accelerate rather than start to heal sectarian divisions.

You may find that ironic, but there it is.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan,

Have you seen any increase in the number of e-mails and comments that are worried that this president and his cohorts are aiming for a dictatorship/kingship?

Just curious if it is about the same, less, or more?

Dan Froomkin: Many, many more. But I would be the last to suggest that my e-mails are a scientific survey!


Washington, D.C.: Dan, the reason Snow can keep a straight face on the rationale for war is because he is correct- the rationale has remained the same. They've just switched up the order a little. Before WMD's were the number one reason, but bringing Democracy to the Middle East and toppling Saddam were also repeatedly mentioned. Now they've just moved to the top of the list.

Dan Froomkin: You are very charitable. I recall a certain linkage to Al Qaeda, for example. And while I agree that in retrospect, democracy in the Middle East may have been a huge factor, it got very little mention in the run-up. Plus, all that leaves aside the both rationales you mention -- one for sure, and one for now -- show no sign of being well-founded.


Charlottesville, Va.: It seems to me that Bush's mindset of using midterms to get his Presidency back on track is a good plan, mainly because if the Democrats don't win control of either the House or the Senate the year will be deemed a failure for them (even if they pick up seats).

The media's hype about Bush's poll numbers, and a few tightly contested elections seem to obscure the fact that the Dems have a huge uphill climb to reclaim the Senate or the House. This hype seems to set the Dems up for a massive failure if they don't win in November, when in fact it's a long shot to begin with. Do you think the media is giving Bush an assist here?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, that's a pretty good narrative for Bush, you're right.

But it's not a media conspiracy that we're all focused on whether or not the Democrats win one or both houses. That's the big story of 2006.

And in some ways, that's not all good for the Republicans. They would probably much rather not "nationalize" local races -- it makes it easier for normally-near-invincible incumbents to lose that way.


Washington, D.C.: Greetings Dan,

Any thoughts on the theory that all the spying on ordinary Americans is not to prevent terrorism, but to prevent Democrats from being elected?

The evidence would center around Rove's obsession with electoral data, and the value of all the spied-upon materials could yield in that regard.

Dan Froomkin: I think you're being a bit conspiratorial there.

But the fact is that without the existence of demonstrable, trusted checks and balances, who knows what the hell they're doing with that stuff?

Do you trust someone like General Hayden to say no to Karl Rove? He didn't say no to the White House when they told him how to reinterpret the Constitution.


Washington, D.C.: Is Bush really out of touch?

The Iraq war seems much more justifiable if our enemy is a bunch of suicide bombers out to kill innocent people. The reality of it is much different, as you point out, but that reality is bad news for Bush and co.

Bush might not be out of touch as much as he's just continuing to spin the war in the best light possible.

Dan Froomkin: Well said.


Madison, Ala.: Regarding the Carl Hulse article, what about the "self-interest" angle he makes brief reference to? According to news reports in the last few months to a year, there are as many as a dozen GOP Members of Congress who may have believed their offices are their last refuge. Do you think this may strengthen what seems already to be an uncharacteristically swift and harsh reaction by the GOP House Leadership?

Dan Froomkin: You would think so. But you would also think that, oh, for instance, the authors of statutes that the president announces in a "signing statement" he doesn't actually have to adhere to would be a little ticked off, too. Or might at least ask for an explanation.

I could go on and on. To suggest that this Congress has been punked by this White House is something of an understatement. Where does it end? Who knows.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you think members of the press corps care when taken to task by blogs and others who accuse them of dropping the ball, carrying water or otherwise being duped?

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that they certainly notice, and take it personally. (They are very thin skinned.)

But they are also immensely self-rationalizing. So I don't see it changing their ways much.

Maybe you guys should try positive reinforcement! I'm not kidding.

(That's certainly part of my strategy with the press corps. Write something really insightful and non-stenographic about the White House, and you're almost guaranteed to see it excerpted in my column.)


Washington, D.C.: What little substantive information there is on the Rove/Fitzgerald courtship goes into your column, I know. Are there any hunches, gut feelings, or irresponsible rumors you'd care to share in this more freewheeling forum?

Dan Froomkin: OK, sure. What I hear, confirmed from multiple sources, and I know this will totally blow your mind is....

Oh, heck, I'm out of time. Sorry.

Thanks for all the great questions. See you again here in two weeks.


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