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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, May 23, 2007; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, May 23, at 1 p.m. ET.

Has Bush Given Up on Immigration? (washingtonpost.com, May 22)

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House chat.
Former Justice Department White House liaison Monica Goodling is testifying before the House Judiciary Committee even as a I type. (I'm going to have to turn it down to pay attention to you guys.)  Her testimony somewhat delayed my column, but it should be coming out soon. (I'll let you know when.)

In a nutshell, it seems to me that her testimony -- hugely anticipated after she refused to say a word without being granted immunity -- failed entirely to resolve the central mystery of last year's firings of U.S. attorneys: Who wanted them fired them and why? And how extensive was the White House involvement? She described herself as a bit player who couldn't say for sure how anyone showed up on the list, which she made clear belonged to Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's former chief of staff.

Goodling did admit that she crossed the line in applying political litmus tests to career hires. And she accused Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty of being "not fully candid" to senators in February. Goodling said McNulty knew more about White House involvement in the replacement decisions and the White House's interest in placing Tim Griffin as the U.S. attorney in Arkansas than he let on.

She also divulged one particularly intriguing tidbit related to Griffin, a former aide to Karl Rove. "In 2005," Goodling said, "I had a social call at some point with Tim Griffin, who indicated to me, and he was working at the White House at the time, that he may have the opportunity to go back to Arkansas because some U.S. attorneys may be replaced, and if [Bud] Cummins was one of them, he might get a chance to go home."

How could Griffin possibly have known that? And yet it all turned out just as he predicted. Cummins, the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, was told to resign in the summer of 2006 and Griffin was given his job.


West Chester, Pa.: So, this bin Laden "alert" was declassified for use today even though the key people involved (Zarqawi and others) were killed last year? Does this reek of desperation on the part of the White House, or is it just me?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I'm not sure it will have the desired effect -- which is alarming the hell out of everyone and making them flock behind the president.
Here's an Associated Press story out of Bush's commencement address to the Coast Guard Academy, where he talked more about this newly declassified finding.

I have to wonder whether talking about this stuff doesn't remind people that bin Laden is still on the loose, and make people ask how exactly we turned Iraq into a laboratory for al-Qaeda in the first place.


Chicago, Ill.: I don't think I've paid enough attention to the new War Czar position to know where it ranks in the administration's pecking order. Does Lt. Gen. Lute answer to Secretary Gates? Does he report directly to the president? If Congress calls someone to testify about the war(s) is he the witness? Was there ever any consideration of appointing someone to be the "Reconstruction" Czar instead of "War" Czar ... wouldn't that have sent a better message to the world about where America's focus is?

Dan Froomkin: I can't answer all those questions. Technically, assuming everything goes according to plan, Lute would report directly to the president as an "assistant to the president." But he would also be "deputy national security adviser" -- to national security adviser Stephen Hadley. And even though he's a three-star general, he would also theoretically be "coordinating" four-stars -- and Cabinet secretaries -- what to do.

From what I can tell, there is growing doubt that he will be able to do much good. And in fact I generally find that adding a layer of bureaucracy is not the way out of a problem.


Irvington, N.Y.: Thank you for taking my question. Is it fair to say that GWB has a short attention span for anything not related to Iraq/Iran/terrorism?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think that's fair. For instance, Bush continued to flog his Social Security overhaul long after it had any chance of survival, and long after a whole lot of his supporters thought it made sense for him to do so. So he does have the capacity for non-GWOT tenacity.

That's why I found his relative lack of stumping for the immigration agreement (at least so far) worth noting in yesterday's column.


Washington: "Has the president lost his enthusiasm for immigration? Is he just biding his time? Or does he realize he doesn't have what it takes to move the ball?" No. 3 seems most likely, but also: a big push for this bill would enrage some of his remaining GOP supporters, and he probably doesn't want to see his job approval polls fall into the 20s.

Dan Froomkin: I have to think that's a factor. As I wrote in Friday's column, on immigration, Bush's few die-hard supporters aren't going to back him up. The hard-right law-and-order fans who give him what little support he still has in Congress and in the polls are also the people most opposed to the sort of bipartisan compromise that Bush favors on immigration. (They call it "amnesty.")


Eugene, Ore.: Hi Dan. It appears from the early testimony I've read that Monica Goodling is pointing the circular arrow -- just as Kyle Sampson and McNulty seemed to have done. Is this just more of Gonzo's "I don't recall" strategy, and will Congress be able to crack what appears to be a well-rehearsed Kabuki? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Well, someone must have put those names into play.
I just heard one congresswoman say they won't know what happened until Karl Rove is sitting in that chair, and that may be right.

It's also worth noting that David Iglesias, currently doing a competing washingtonpost.com discussion, had this to say: "If names weren't placed on the list by DoJ, the only possible place to look is the White House."


Richmond, Va.: Monica again -- she said, "I was not a decision maker" but in another breath, she said that when she asked for a name to be removed from the list, it was. I'm no lawyer, but would it be possible for one of these committee members to call her out for such a blatant contradiction?

Dan Froomkin: A good point. She certainly was not without influence. But if the question is who selected these people for firing and why, she insists she doesn't know.


Blacksburg, Va.: Dan: Great column -- a daily read for me. Keep it up! I have a viewpoint that I've been cultivating a long time, and which you've touched on in your columns.

That is the effect of the blogosphere on news, and how it is reported. I am of the opinion (perhaps tin-foiled hatted) that this administration did not count on the power and reach of the Internet, and particularly blogs, in being able to counter the message presented through the established "legacy" media outlets, of which they largely have consolidated through the past several years. I think this reason alone has caused no small measure of anger and desperation, in that they no longer have complete control over message. Notwithstanding excellent reporting such as that done at McClatchy newspapers, I don't think we as a people would know much of anything without the Internet and blogs. Do you agree?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And no, I don't agree. I'm a huge Internet and blogosphere fan. I think the blogosphere has had a significant influence on the MSM, sometimes emboldening it. And I think that the sheer persistence of the blogosphere (one of its greatest attributes) has been somewhat effective as an antidote to the White House's message control. But to suggest that people wouldn't know anything without the Internet and the blogs is going a bit far.


Dan Froomkin: My column is out! What Monica Doesn't Know.


Rolla, Mo.: Goodling was granted immunity for that?

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, really! Then again, her admission that she crossed the line in applying political litmus tests to career hires might otherwise have landed her in serious legal trouble.


Baltimore: What are the actual rules regarding recess appointments? Is there a legally defined minimum time that the Senate will be in recess before the President can recess-appoint people? (As opposed to some quaint convention that might be ignored.) More specifically, the Senate goes into Memorial Day recess this weekend. Can Alberto Gonzales resign at 9 a.m. Saturday morning, with Bush recess-appointing a replacement at 9:05 a.m., thus avoiding the confirmation process?

Dan Froomkin: Paul Bedard just had an intriguing item in U.S. News, in which he said that "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a little trick up his sleeve that could spell an end to President Bush's devilish recess appointments."

I don't know the exact rules, but I cannot imagine for a moment that Bush would try to appoint a Cabinet secretary through a recess appointment. It just wouldn't fly.


Baltimore: Dan: I know you like a laugh, because you often include Letterman links at the end of your column. So Andy Borowitz has a brief piece at Newsweek online headlined: Bush Names Wolfowitz to Lead al-Qaeda. The piece claims that, after the Iraq fiasco and World Bank disaster, Bush believes that Wolfowitz is the perfect man to destroy a terrorist group from within. The only problems being how can he join, and how can he rise through the ranks?

Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks. And here's the link.


Arlington, Va.: This administration obviously believes that "moral" and "not technically illegal" are the same thing. Why hasn't their credibility run out, especially with their supporters who so dearly try to hold onto the ethical high ground? Does "loophole morality" really play with that group?

Dan Froomkin: It is ironic that the administration that came into office vowing to restore morals to the White House now is engaged in one hairsplitting defense after another.


Hartford, Conn.: Bush keeps referring to Al-Qaeda as the enemy in Iraq. How many of our troops have been killed by al-Qaeda? How many have been killed by non-al-Qaeda Sunnis? How many have been killed by the Shiites? Seems to me we've created a whole host of enemy organizations.

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good question. But who would you trust to give you the answers?


Re: Bartlett on Immigration: If I understand your column correctly, isn't Bush saying that he won't help keep the bipartisan agreement intact because he only wants to support the bipartisan agreement if it stays intact? Isn't that backwards?

Dan Froomkin: Well, when you put it that way, yes. And because so much of the most intense hostility is coming from the right, it does seem odd for him to be sitting it out.


Bethesda, Md.: Wait a minute here. I haven't watched Goodling's testimony, but if she's saying "McNulty wasn't candid in describing the extent of the White House's involvement," isn't the headline "Goodling Confirms Extensive White House Involvement"?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you might think so. But pressed about what that involvement was, she's been vague. (At least so far.)

Goodling said that McNulty knew that "the White House was involved in the sign-off of the plan at the end . .. and that he at least knew that that was a process that had been going on for some period of months."

But that would definitely be a good place for more digging during the after-lunch session.


Ralston's Immunity Plea: Given that Goodling hasn't really spilled the beans about anyone's other than her own ethical or legal violations, was her immunity deal really worth it? Can we expect the same thing from Ralston about Abramoff -- a big overture but little show?

Dan Froomkin: A legitimate concern. But I bet Ralston could put on quite a show.

If you subscribe to Rovian theory, then you believe that people like Sampson and Goodling were getting their marching orders (sometimes second-, third- or fourth-hand) from Rove's political shop.

And who was right there at the heart of Rove's political shop? Susan Ralston.


Lexington, Ky.: I've heard some discussion that the current administration may have started the death spiral of the GOP; not sure that I would go that far, but they certainly have given the party a black eye. Is there any way that some progressives could get into a leadership position and help pull things back to the center?

Dan Froomkin: William F. Buckley apparently would agree with you about the death spiral. But there's no way a progressive is going to make any headway with GOP primary voters. A "true conservative" might, however...


Washington: "Roverian theory"? Are you turning into a conspiracy person that Karl Rove is this evil genius who is controlling the whole government? Give me a break, that is ridiculous. I can't believe someone from The Post, a respected newspaper, would advance this theory.

Dan Froomkin: That's "Rovian theory" -- and I guess you wouldn't be thrilled to hear I devoted the lead of my March 23 column to it. ;-)


Washington: Not a stellar day for the House Judiciary committee. Are they unprepared, or what? The only assertive questioning she got was from Maxine Waters. Who do you think is going to ask a real question this afternoon? And by the way, shouldn't a quality law student crave challenge and vigorous argument in law school rather than to be surrounded with "like minds"?

Dan Froomkin: I was sort of amazed at how ineffective most of the questioning was.


Washington: Hey Dan, how can any reporter write a story about things looking up for President Bush because of the bipartisan agreement on immigration when it is also apparent that he is doing little to nothing to support and promote the plan?

Dan Froomkin: Because that's what they're hearing from the White House?


Fairfax, Va.: Has Ms. Goodling thus far done anything other than prove she's a typical Bush-loyalist -- someone who's ecclesiastic credentials and fervor far outweigh any professional credentials or ability? Should the House not adjourn right now, send her on her way to ignominy and renew the calls for Rove to get his hyper-conservative butt in the seat occupied by Ms. Goodling right now?

Dan Froomkin: I think there is still plenty she could say, if asked the right questions about how decisions get made in this administration, and by whom. Her answers, even if not directly incriminating, could go a ways toward making an even stronger case for calling Rove to testify.


Washington: Re: Goodling's testimony -- has anyone ever determined how she is paying for high-priced legal help, such as John Dowd? He's a partner at Akin Gump and the man who got the goods on Pete Rose for Major League Baseball. Who is paying what is undoubtedly a very large bill?

Dan Froomkin: A good question.


Piatra Neamt, Romania (formerly Rockville, Md.): HI Dan. I enjoy your column and I'm glad it's online, but when I was in D.C. this year I never saw it in print. Any chance of that happening?

Dan Froomkin: Pretty much none, for a variety of reasons -- one of them being timing. I depend on the morning papers, and by the next morning what I've got can be a bit stale. I have thought about doing a weekly summary, but that never quite got off the ground. Thanks for asking though. I hate that a lot of print-Post readers don't even know I exist!


Davis, Calif.: Monica Goodling describes herself as a bit player; bit players carry out orders. Who ordered Monica to consider party affiliation in the hires?

Dan Froomkin: A great question. I hope someone asks it.


Claverack, N.Y.: Can you confirm for me something about the Goodling testimony? Did she say in her opening statement, categorically, "I never met Karl Rove and Harriet Myers about firing attorneys," before she was even asked about it? Doesn't that seem odd to you? Because such a statement might be both true and meaningless -- one can make one's wishes known without personally meeting or talking with someone.

Dan Froomkin: She did in fact say: "To the best of my recollection, I've never had a conversation with Karl Rove or Harriet Miers while I served at the Department of Justice, and I'm certain that I never spoke to either of them about the hiring or firing of any U.S. attorney."

That does leave open the possibility of e-mail and, more significantly, second- and third-hand instructions. As I said, I'd like her to be asked generally about how decisions are made and who lackeys like her are trying to please, whether they've been given specific instructions or not.


Dan Froomkin: OK thanks everyone. See you again here on June 6 -- and every weekday afternoon on the home page.


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