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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, December 20, 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, Dec. 20, 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.

I thought today would be a nice slow news day -- perfect for the release of my year-end column (White House Year in Review: Bush Loses His Parade) and the beginning of a little break. Ha!

Bush yesterday sat down for an interview with The Washington Post's three White House correspondents, and made some news right out of the gate: Throwing his support behind an expansion of the armed forces.

Then today he held a year-end press conference.

The other big news is that it's pretty clear now that Vice President Cheney will be the star witness at the upcoming Scooter Libby trial. I refer you to my May 25 column, What Would Cheney Say? to read about how important that could be.


Austin, Tex.: Hi Dan,

Thanks for taking my question. I'm interested in your take on one aspect of Bush's press conference this morning. I wasn't able to listen to the entire conference, but most of what I did hear was focused on Iraq and Bush's plans for changing course/strategy. I didn't hear anything that suggests he will do anything other than "stay the course" or, worse, increase troop levels and our involvement in the sectarian warfare that defines the struggle.

Do you think Bush still lives in such a bubble that he will follow through on this in spite of the last election and what the military is telling him? What do you think the chances are the new Democratic Congress will use the power of the purse to curb his enthusiasm for deeper involvement in Iraq?

Dan Froomkin: There was no sign of any fundamental shift today. In fact, asked if he'd had any "painful realizations" he said he has never questioned his decisions thus far.


Richmond, Va.: The Valerie Plame Matter -- Frank Rich said something in 2005 that stuck with me. Joseph Wilson, he argued, was a MacGuffin. The real story is how this administration sold a bad war to the American people. Will the Libby trial expose that campaign?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think the Wilson-Plame story is a MacGuffin. If you want a metaphor, I think it's a thread that needs pulling.

A MacGuffin is a plot device that turns out to be irrelevant. The real story, as you so well put it, is how the admininstration sold a bad war to the American people (and then was desperate to cover up the evidence that they did so).

The Plame case -- particularly with Vice President Cheney as the star witness -- now has the potential once again to expose some of the administration's inner workings.

From what we know about special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, there are two things to keep in mind. One is that his cross-examination of Cheney is likely to be withering. High drama. The other, however, is that Fitzgerald is likely to keep very close to the case at hand: i.e.: "Isn't it true that Scooter Libby had every reason to know that discrediting Joe Wilson was a very high priority for you, and not just a trivial and forgettable task?" Not adding: "Because you were so intent on hiding the fact that you had conned the American people."

My fondest (but probably naive) hope is that the trial, if not directly addressing the elephant in the room will nevertheless remind journalists that there is indeed an elephant in the room. And maybe they'll do a little more, you know, reporting.


Roseville, Calif.: Hello Dan,

Today's press conference was maddening. How many times are we going to hear the president say his goal is an Iraq that can "govern, defend and sustain itself" that is an "ally in the war on terror"? Isn't this stay the course by another name?

The President constantly talks about what needs to be done, but he never says how. How does he plan to diminish the level of violence? How does he plan to disarm militias? What are the steps that will make this happen, and given his record why should anyone - Americans, Iraqis, anyone - believe that he can actually do it?

And how for pity's sake is he going to secure even the Baghdad airport? We've been in Iraq longer than we fought WWII, but Bush, Rice, and now Gates have to fly into Iraq in secret under cover of darkness and we get these silly pictures of Condi Rice walking around in a flak jacket and helmet. Does he even sense how pathetic this is?

Dan Froomkin: The how question is a good one.

The "why should we believe you this time" question is also a good one. I am constantly frustrated that reporters fail to ask that one.


Winston-Salem, N.C.: I listened today to both the President's and SecDef Gate's press conferences. Is it unfair to say that this whole idea of a "surge" of troops has now evolved into a concept in search of a mission?

Dan Froomkin: What an interesting comment. I sort of got that impression, too.

Bush didn't actually confirm that he's planning a "surge" -- or expansion, as some would put it. But he said that such a surge would need a "specific mission." And I, too, suddenly got the image of a ton of Pentagon people spending their Christmas break trying to come up with one.


Atlanta, Ga.: I'm at work today, so missed the news conference. Was there any news involved?

Also wanted to thank you for all your hard work this year. I look forward to the new year. (It aught to be an interesting one!)

Dan Froomkin: Thank you, and no, not a whole lot of news, as can be illustrated by the first headlines: "Bush Concedes Iraq War More Difficult Than He Expected" says the Times Web site. "Bush Maintains 'Victory in Iraq Is Acheivable'" misspells the Post Web site. You get the idea. Here's the just-out text.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I was happy to hear Matt Damon say on Hardball Monday night that the Bush twins should be in the military. He's 100% right!

Why shouldn't the Bush daughters, nephews, nieces and cousins be serving their country in time of war? They sure were out front and center during the campaigns. Bush and the GOP trotted them out during the Republican National Convention, and they were front and center for the inauguration festivities. Why aren't they in uniform?

During WWII, President Roosevelt's children and General Eisenhower's children were all in the military and frequently on the front lines. It would have been shameful for the children of politicians and military leaders not to serve. I believe it's still shameful!

My son was over in Iraq for two tours and in between those tours, he was insulted by members of the Young Republicans at a political event. The cowards told him to go fight for his country. They didn't know he was a platoon commander in civilian dress. When he asked them if they were serving, or had served, they responded that "they had other priorities." Imagine that?

Dan Froomkin: The twins do seem to inspire a lot of passion. Here's the transcript of the Damon interview.

As I noted yesterday, People Magazine, of all places, was the first to ask Bush why the twins weren't helping the war effort:

People: This year, we invited readers on our Web site to ask you questions. Here's one: Nina Frazier of New Braunfels, Texas, asks: If you believe in the war, why didn't you encourage your own daughters to fight for your country? Or did you?

THE PRESIDENT: I believe Americans can contribute to the security and well-being of our country in a variety of ways. That's why we have a volunteer army. What we say to young people is that if you want to serve your country you can do so in the military, or you can do so by teaching children in inner-city Washington, D.C., like one of our daughters did. Or you can help form education programs in New York City, like our (other) daughter. There are all kinds of ways to serve.


Weehawken, N.J.: We've read lately how the Vice President has been advising the President on Iraq. But what's Karl Rove been up to? Is he going to be tasked with selling what seems to be a politically unpopular "doubling down" of forces in Iraq?

Dan Froomkin: All I could do is speculate. I'm waiting for someone to report. I think that's a fine question.


Long Beach, Calif.: Do you think Fitzgerald will question the Vice-President's credibility? Surely he could create a litany of non-truths the VP has uttered and reiterated? Why should he be considered a credible witness?

Dan Froomkin: I hadn't thought of that.

My initial thought is that Cheney, though being called as a defense witness, could make an excellent prosecution witness. Fitzgerald's best argument that Libby couldn't have "forgotten" that he outed Plame was that Cheney (his boss) was obsessed with the whole issue.

But I guess if Cheney denies said obsession, then yeah, Fitzgerald could try to discredit him. But I doubt he'd do it in the broad terms that I suspect you are hoping for.

That said, Fitzgerald's a heckuva prosecutor. Remember this story about his grilling of the "memory expert"? Priceless.


Las Vegas, Nev.: Did anyone make anything out of the Pres'. comment referring to Rumsfeld that they "have been through war together"?

That made me scream at the radio. What war has Bush seen? I was and am incredibly offended by this comment and am surprised it hasn't gotten more travel.


Dan Froomkin: You know, that went right past me. But -- goodness! -- it does seem pretty outrageous.

Here's what Bush said last week, at Rumsfeld's retirement bash: "Don Rumsfeld has been at my side from the moment I took office. We've been through war together."

I think everyone was in so much of a rush to see Rumsfeld go, we didn't pay much attention. But you would think that people who really *have* been through a war might find the comment highly inappopriate.


St. Petersburg, Fla.: Dan, you're the man. Thanks for all the great work you do, and here's hoping you and your family have a great Christmas, a happy and healthy New Year, and that 2007 is a darn sight better than 2006 for all of us, but especially for the poor souls in the U.S. military stuck in Iraq, and for their families who must be without their loved ones...

I was absolutely floored to read in Michael Abramowitz piece "On The War, Determined To Go His Way" the following quote from our beloved president:

'...There's not a lot of people saying 'Get out now." Most Americans are saying, 'We want to achieve the objective."

Oy! Is this guy out to lunch or what???

I urge all your loyal readers to do what I immediately did: e-mail the White House at comments@whitehouse.gov the simple message: GET OUT NOW!

What else can we do to try to get the will of the people through the thick heads in the White House?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words.

Bush is intentionally misreading the will of the American people. And flooding the White House with e-mails won't make a difference, I'm afraid.

That was actually one of the more interesting exchanges in the Post interview. (Here's the full text.)

Abramowitz: "But the election results seemed [to indicate that] people wanted to bring the venture in Iraq to closure. That seemed to be the strong lesson. And what indications are there that you're actually listening to that sentiment?"

Bush: "Oh, Mike, look, I want to achieve the objective. I think the American people -- I know the American people are very worried about an external threat and that they recognize that failure in Iraq would embolden that external threat, and they expect this administration to listen with people, to work with Democrats, to work with the military, to work with the Iraqis to put a plan in place that achieves the objective. There's not a lot of people saying, 'Get out now.' Most Americans are saying, 'We want to achieve the objective.'"

Abramowitz didn't give up: "But there are a lot of people who are saying, 'Let's get out with a phased deployment over a certain period of time.'"

To which Bush replied: "If they felt -- if that leads to victory, it needs to be seriously considered. And I'm considering all options and listening very carefully to a lot of good people who have got different opinions about how to proceed."

The thing is that most people who support withdrawal believe, with some justification, that victory is impossible. So when Bush says: "if that leads to victory, it needs to be seriously considered" what that means, of course, is "I'm not considering it."


Wind Point, WI.: Dan,

Now that it appears that Vice President Cheney will testify in the perjury trial of Scooter Libby, it's a good time to point out that the WHB was instrumental in keeping the Plame affair alive long before it became front page news. You deserve credit for recognizing a story before most others did, and for having the courage to push continually for the facts in the case.

My question: didn't Cheney (and Bush) sit down with the Special Prosecutor once before--but not under oath? If so, and if he contradicts his previous comments, could he himself be subject to perjury charges?

Dan Froomkin: Well, thanks. You exaggerate my role enormously. But I have often expressed my surprise at how little enthusiasm the story aroused among my colleagues.

I don't believe Cheney was under oath, technically making a perjury charge moot. But you can be sure that both sides are carefully reviewing what he said then.


McLean, Va.: Hi Dan,

Thanks for all the great work you do. Definitely the most informative column I read. My question is regarding signing statements. It has been suggested that president Bush might be even more aggressive in his signing statements once Democrats take control of Congress. I am assuming that Democrats may very well make an issue out of it (someone needs to). However, is there anything Congress can technically do about these signing statements? Can Congress sue the executive branch in order to take it to the Supreme Court and challenge the Constitutionality of this practice?

Thanks so much for taking my question and I hope you have a great holiday season!


Dan Froomkin: Thanks so much.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the incoming Judiciary Committe chairman, has suggested Congress could dissuade Bush from issuing more signing statements by threatening to withhold funding or blocking nominations, according to the Associated PressWWe'll see how this turns out. I was amazed to see such a bald signing statement issued just this week, on the Indian nuclear deal. It got very little media attention, however.

And sadly, most of the questions I raised about signing statements last June on NiemanWatchdog.org remain unanswered.


Wilton, Conn.: Dan -- In the past month there have been numerous stories to the effect that Bush likens himself to Truman. The take-away here is supposed to be that Bush will remain resolute in the face of worldwide scorn and ever-declining support of the American people...but that history will vindicate him.

Such a perspective suggests that Bush has every reason to not make any changes because to do so would be reacting to the "popular will" rather than pursuing his own inner vision.

What I don't understand, then, is why he would jettison Rumsfeld. Why would Bush make a decision designed to lower the heat if he doesn't really care about such things? Were we seeing a potential revolt of the Brass Hats if Bush hadn't dropped Rumsfeld?

Dan Froomkin: The jettisoning of Rumsfeld is in fact the one outlying data point in Bush's otherwise "resolute" approach to Iraq. I think we'll know a bit more about what it really meant when we see what side of the fence Robert Gates ends up on. (See yesterday's column.)


Honolulu, HI: Aloha Dan,

Thanks for your column and chats. Sometimes it seems as though you're the only one in print who is willing to speak the obvious.

On that note, your yearly round-up of columns made me think of how short-sighted most news coverage is. So many news reports have focused on President Bush being in 'listening mode' when the long view shows that this is just another step in the President's deliberate ignorance of both the will of the public and the advice of his generals. Why hasn't the MSM taken a longer view of this, and why are the President's talking points taken at face value by so many, even now?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. I love that. "Speak the truth" has always struck me as terribly pretentious, and hard to defend. "Speak the obvious" -- that's my goal.

The White House has taken great advantage of the traditional media's short attention span. Daily newspapers, for instance, have a predisposition to write about what happened yesterday -- rather than put it in endless, boring (but in this case, essential) context.

In general, why isn't there more skepticism? I don't know. I think a lot of reporters are indeed skeptical -- but it somehow rarely makes it into their copy. That's the big mystery.


Montreal, Canada: The headline yesterday, for a while, on the Bush interview was to the effect that he stated "We're not winning" in Iraq. But in the transcript he in fact quoted General Peter Pace as saying "We're not winning. We're not losing." Bush simply described this phrasing as "interesting", he certainly didn't endorse it or say that he personally felt the U.S. is not winning.

So once again, a headline implies Bush has changed, but in reality he hasn't. Just thought this was worth pointing out.

Dan Froomkin: That's a good point... except you left out the fact that he also explained that when he said "absolutely, we're winning" before the election, "that was an indication of my belief we're going to win." So between those two things, I saw a shift in rhetoric.

Mind you, part of me goes: Who cares? I want to see if he changes what he does, not what he says. But given how important it has been to the White House that the public not lose hope in a "victory" (see this seminal June 2005 story by Peter Baker) this was significant.


Durham, N.C.: Here's to another great year of Froomkin-ness!

Dan, isn't this unprecedented in U.S. and possibly world history--the way this President avoids reality and the way his party and the media has supported him?

I think the voters, especially some Democrats, were onto this a long time ago--but couldn't be taken seriously. What did they call us? Cowards? Unpatriotic? Quitters?

Can this happen again?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks!

Unprecedented in U.S. history, yes. In world history? I'm sure there have been many totalitarian dictators who have enjoyed even greater insulation from reality. And of course there was that emperor -- the one who had no clothes.

I think the rare confluence of a president like Bush and an event like 9/11 allowed this to occur. I can't imagine it happening again. But you never know.


Arlington, Va.: I was reading your year in review piece and almost missed today's discussion. First, thanks for your work. For too long you have been a lone voice in the wilderness of MSM. It seems to me that the increasing popularity of news satirists such as John Stewart and Steven Colbert as well as mainstream commentator Keith Obermann evidences a growing demand on the part of the public for a more critical presentation of political news. Do you sense that the media generally, and The Post specifically, is prepared to reassert itself as a more adversarial element in our democratic process rather simply a regergetator of official sound bites.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much.

But I don't know. Certainly, the confluence of a resurgent opposition party with subpoena power and a badly wounded lame-duck president would seem likely to embolden any newsroom.

See, by the way, my somewhat foul-mouthed thoughts on reporters calling it like they see it over at the new Niemanwatchdog.org Watchdog Blog.


San Francisco, Calif.: People remember "I'm the decider," but the rest of the quote is "and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense." So did President Bush decide what's best was for Rumsfeld to leave? Of course he did, but why didn't anyone ask him this when Rumsfeld "resigned"?

Dan Froomkin: I have savoured that irony. Thanks for sharing.


Las Vegas, Nev.: Dan,

It seems that this administration can be summed up as living in the gray areas of the law and Presidential powers. They have had at least 6 cases go to the Supreme Court, the signing statement seems like an incredible overreach, there were taxpayer dollars spent on propaganda both here and in Iraq, war profiteering, the list literally goes on and on and on...

So many of Bush's core supporters seem to have this unshakable faith in the President. Finally, now after 6 years the faith has eroded appreciably. My question is: after all this water under the bridge will the media and more importantly Congress, stop being afraid of being labelled "liberal" and do their jobs of questioning and oversight? (This column, of course, being a rare exception.)

With literally a laundry list of issues that could have been justifiably investigated, where, in your opinion, should Congress start?


Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Although my year-end column is mostly about Iraq, a powerful sub-theme is about Bush's executive power overreach. I expect that Congressional hearings will bring this onto the national agenda in a big way in the coming year. Where to start is a tough question indeed.


Houston, Tex.: Thanks for the column and year-end review. Those links to the past columns will keep most of us WHB junkies from detoxing during your break...

Any thoughts on how the Military Commissions Act is going to play out - do you think Supreme Court is going to wade in or would the Congress revisit the act?

Also, why doesn't the administration ever talk about Iraqi loss of lives. They dont seem to value Iraqis at all. Rumfeld said recently - not all of Iraq is burning etc...

Have a good break.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

On the commissions, I think the Supreme Court gets the next big move. Hard to imagine Congress being able to override a Bush veto.


Alexandria, Va.: Froomie - The Plame case... as I've said in the past, is a much ado about nothing procedural trial.

And yet you continue to ignore me as a reader of your column, because you are Joe Wilson's lapdog and beholden to the liberal blogisphere.

Just turn over a new leaf for the start of the 2007 year and admit this fact.

Dan Froomkin: I admit nothing! Woof!


Washington, D.C: Hi Dan. Great Column. Quick question: why do think the Administration is still following the advice of the Heritage Foundation and the Weekly Standard instead of the Joint Chiefs and the Generals on the ground?

Dan Froomkin: The better question might be: Why are the Heritage Foundation and the Weekly Standard still listening to Dick Cheney, when the Joint Chiefs and the generals on the ground aren't?


Lake Forest, Calif.: Happy holidays to you and your family....If I were called to testify before a grand jury I would absolutely be required to testify under oath. How did the Vice-President of the United States get away testifying before the grand jury without being placed under oath?

Thank you for your time.

Dan Froomkin: He didn't go before the grand jury -- he just met with prosecutors. That's why the prospect of his actual testimony is so intriguing. I just wonder if Fitzgerald will make special accomodations, such as letting him testify by video. But I can't imagine Fitzgerald giving up the opportunity to cross-examine.


Studio City, Calif.: Dan, in terms of best columns, I especially appreciated your piece on Bush's straw men and similar columns on abuses of rhetoric. Your examinations of the media's reluctance to call a lie a lie were also great. Finally, you have a habit of covering important, overlooked stories before they enter wider discussion (if they ever do). In particular, you've kept a close eye on signing statements. Additionally, while your colleagues were understandably covering the torture issue in the proposed Military Commissions Act of 2006, you were one of the first to pick up on another essential issue: the elimination of habeas corpus also in the bill. Have a great holiday season, and thanks!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I do love lovefests! You are too kind.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks so much everybody for the great questions and comments, and the kind words and warm wishes. They are very much appreciated.

Here's wishing you all a very merry holiday season. See you in '07!


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