White House Watch columnist
Wednesday, October 31, 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, Oct. 31 at 1 p.m. ET.
The transcript follows.
Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.
Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to a special Halloween edition of White House Watch live online discussion.
Should we talk about what scares you the most about the next 15 months? About who is most likely to be the next to disappear under suspicious circumstances from the Bush administration? About the monsters we've created -- or turned into?
My column today, Bush Stomps His Feet, leads with the observation that when Bush goes out in front of the TV cameras like he did yesterday and bitterly rails against Democrats, it may not just be political posturing. Apparently, a year of dealings with a Democratic Congress -- even one as supine as this one -- has sent him into a fury. And he may have given up on reaching any accommodation with them at all.
Okay, let's hear what you have to say.
Chaska, Minn.: There is a Washington Post article that asserts Bush seems to have decided he won't work with Congress. But really, how has that position really changed? Bush's White House basically dictated policies when the Republicans were in charge of Congress and is vetoing just about anything the Democratic Party proposes. So really the only thing that has changed are his tactics on getting his way. Is the White House press corp really that oblivious to Bush's my-way-or-the-highway approach to governing? How many times does he have to tell us he is the "decider"? Kind of makes me wonder if he skipped his civics classes when they were explaining the three coequal branches of government. Maybe some of those White House reporters were with him when he skipped those classes.
washingtonpost.com: To Implement Policy, Bush to Turn to Administrative Orders (Post, Oct. 31)
Dan Froomkin: I was just arguing about that with my editor! I agree that Bush's absolutism has not changed. It's been quite consistent, certainly since Sept. 11. But his ostensible position since the November election has been that he and his staff have been trying to reach accommodation with the Democrats. If the semi-official position is that they have now given up, then that's news. Heck I would say that's big news.
It also shifts the attention from him to the Congressional Republicans, who have expressed some interest in negotiation. In fact, if Congressional Republicans and Democrats start to cobble together veto-proof majorities on such issues as SCHIP, that will be huge news. And bad news for Bush.
Portland, Ore.: Hi Dan. Thanks for keeping up the torture watch. Judge Mukasey may not make it past the Senate Judiciary Committee because he won't call waterboarding illegal torture. If his nomination dies, what do you think are the odds that we'll reach the end of George W. Bush's term without an Attorney General, given that no nominee is likely to admit to the obvious?
washingtonpost.com: The Stench of Torture (Post, Oct. 31)
Dan Froomkin: I'm still not entirely convinced that the Mukasey nomination is in danger. The Democrats sometimes talk tough -- but have you noticed that time and again, they fold?
If his nomination does die, though, things will really get interesting. It's really inconceivable that the Justice Department could go without an AG for much longer. The entire leadership is missing right now.
But a de facto no-waterboarding litmus test pretty much rules out anyone who would be remotely acceptable to Bush and Cheney. (See my Sept. 18 column, The AG Bush Needs.
Colorado Springs, Colo.: Dan, what does America stand for? What does the intellectual construct "America" mean today? We used to have values and principles, and people in other lands wanted to emigrate here because we were that beacon of something. But now I read that even Karen Hughes has given up on the failed administration.
washingtonpost.com: Bush Advisor Hughes Leaving State Department (Post, Oct. 31)
Dan Froomkin: Well, I don't think that Karen Hughes's resignation is a sign of our moral decay. At least not directly.
I'm not sure what amazes me more about her: That she took such an utterly impossible job in the first place or that she lasted as long as she did.
There had been some thought that when she took the job she would actually have some impact on the policies that made her job impossible -- but that didn't happen either.
As for your central question, what does America stand for? I think that would be a swell question to ask the presidential candidates.
Woodbridge, Va.: What is happening with the vote on the spy bill? Will the Dems stand firm against it and follow Sen. Dodd's example or will they collapse yet again?
Dan Froomkin: A fine question. History suggests they will collapse. But you never know.
Linthicum, Md.: Why are the Republican presidential candidates the only ones going after their opposite numbers in the other party? Rudy et al are going after Clinton, as is Obama, but the Democrats aren't returning the favor. One would think the Republicans would be on the defensive but that doesn't seem to be the case.
washingtonpost.com: Clinton's Foes Go on the Attack (Post, Oct. 31)
Dan Froomkin: I'm not following the campaign nearly as closely as many of my colleagues, but here's my hunch: The Democrats want this election to be a referendum on Bush; the Republicans want this election to be a referendum on Hillary.
Four Blocks from the Man in Question: What do you think President Bush's approval rating will be when he leaves office?
Dan Froomkin: Interesting question. Should we start a pool?
Jacksonville, Fla.: Hi Dan, pardon me for being a cynic but what is the guarantee that the attorney general nominee actually would uphold his "torture is abhorrent" stand once he is nominated and takes up his job?
Dan Froomkin: Well that's precisely why the Democrats are so frustrated.
Without defining your terms, saying "torture is abhorrent" or "we don't torture" is absolutely meaningless. And when someone won't even say that waterboarding is torture -- even though it's been like the signature torture technique since the Spanish Inquisition -- it certainly calls into question their sincerity on the issue.
Boston: Would it be better to leave the Department of Justice with an interim leader rather than have the U.S. Senate give a seal of approval to waterboarding and Bush's claim that he can disregard the law by confirming Mukasey? Will the Democrats be rolled again?
Dan Froomkin: Now that the Democrats have drawn this clear moral line, it may return to haunt them. Here's how Massimo Calabresi put it for Time yesterday: "Turning waterboarding into a litmus test on torture was a morally clear, politically savvy move by the Democrats, but it is not without its own risks. Now that Mukasey has responded with a hedge democrats practically helped write, the burden of moral clarity is on them. Will they reject Mukasey on the moral absolute of torture, or will they quietly abandon the moral high ground in the interest of getting a competent hand on the wheel at the demoralized Justice Department?"
Princeton, N.J.: Not only did Rudy use a wrong figure on cancer survival rates in England, but after he was told about it, his spokesman said he would continue to use. That's real guts!
Dan Froomkin: I normally avoid campaign questions. But this may indeed be a good test of whether the Bush-Rove-Cheney never-admit-anything approach will be equally successful in a post-Bush era.
Bethesda, Md.: Dan, the scenario is that if Mukasey comes straight out with the answer that "waterboarding is torture," that runs the risk of automatically criminalizing past actions of those in government -- including Bush. But is this necessarily so? Does it have to be retroactive? Splitting hairs, yes ... but wouldn't that give Mukasey the ability to state that it is illegal without suddenly criminalizing it?
Dan Froomkin: Practically, I think you're right. I can't imagine the Justice Department ever filing charges against CIA agents who were following what they thought were lawful orders. From what I understand, on most of these sorts of cases, you have to prove intent to commit a crime, and good luck with that.
Peoria, Ill.: Dan, great stuff as always. Have you been following the bizarre saga over at Salon with Glenn Greenwald and Col. Boylan?
washingtonpost.com: A bizarre, unsolicited e-mail from Gen. Petraeus' spokesman (Salon, Oct. 28)
Dan Froomkin: I have. Bizarre indeed. I'm not entirely surprised, though. It's become increasingly clear just how overtly, even outrageously, political the top brass in Iraq is -- and no one's more gung-ho than the PR folks. See, for instance, my July 19 column, Bush's Baghdad Mouthpiece.
Boston: Hi Dan, in one of your answers you stated the obvious: "The Democrats sometimes talk tough -- but have you noticed that time and again, they fold?" To me it is amazing how they justify their weak behavior. They say all the right things, but then when it comes time for a vote they cave in. It isn't as if their stand is at odds with their constituents, and they are giving in to pressure from home? What do you think is their motivation?
Dan Froomkin: Here I've spent almost four years obsessively studying this president and his party, and you all keep asking me about Democrats.
Sorry, I can't fathom them.
I will note that Chris Matthews recently asked on his MSNBC show: "Are the Democrats being held hostage by the president?"
And one of his guests, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, had this to say: "They're afraid to take on Bush, even though this is a massively unpopular war, because they're afraid that it will somehow, you know, backfire on them. ... They're basically trying to keep possession of the ball, and they're afraid to do anything that might upset things. They're afraid that, one last time, Bush will pull the national security thing on them."
Bala-Cynwyd, Pa.: Why not ask Mukasey if pulling out fingernails is torture and illegal? That'll at least start the debate about what torture is. Note that pulling out fingernails does no permanent physical damage, not does it cause death. Therefore it is not torture according to the famous Gonzales/Yoo memo.
Dan Froomkin: I like that idea.
And also, since Dana Perino said yesterday that she was absolutely positive that Bush was not about to strike Iran, let's ask her that ever day from now on.
We'll take what crumbs we can get.
Seattle: You quote General Hayden as saying, "Our programs are as lawful as they are valuable." I think everyone can agree with that comparison; it doesn't answer the question as to lawfulness or effectiveness, though...
Dan Froomkin: Sometimes I just like to quote stuff like that without comment, to see if you guys are paying attention.
Vacaville, Calif.: Dan, it looks like Bush's "Petraeus strategy" and the general's testimony has worked in his favor as Iraq has fallen further and further from the front pages. "Kick the can down the road" is in full effect. My question is, whose head is in the sand more, the American people or the Beltway pundits?
Dan Froomkin: I firmly believe the American people and the Beltway pundits are in two entirely different places on this issue. The pundits may have been lulled into apathy by the Petraeus razzle-dazzle, but as I wrote in my Sept. 19 column: "The Public Ain't Buying. At last count, more than 70 percent of the public wants us out of Iraq, starting now and ending soon.
Washington: I remember going to a protest in the late '90s when Clinton started the policy of rendition, which was the beginning of more aggressive interrogations. Why is this fact being hidden by you in discussing this issue?
Dan Froomkin: I haven't written much about rendition, actually. But since you bring it up, rendition may predate Bush and 9/11, but as Jane Meyer wrote in the New Yorker last year: "Rendition was originally carried out on a limited basis, but after Sept. 11, when President Bush declared a global war on terrorism, the program expanded beyond recognition¿becoming, according to a former CIA official, 'an abomination.' What began as a program aimed at a small, discrete set of suspects¿people against whom there were outstanding foreign arrest warrants¿came to include a wide and ill-defined population that the Administration terms 'illegal enemy combatants.' Many of them have never been publicly charged with any crime."
The other issue is whether Bush has used rendition to de facto outsource torture. I don't think Clinton was ever accused of that.
Madison, Wis.: Great cartoons today. Especially Tony Auth. "George. Dick. We know it's just you."
Dan Froomkin: The cartoonists are amazing, aren't they? Day in and day out. But yes, Halloween has brought out the best in them.
Boston: Love them or hate them, the Republicans are perceived to stand for what they believe (whether that is reality or not is up to debate). Isn't the waterboarding/Mukasey issue one on which the Democrats can demonstrate they stand for something (a simple American value that we are not the evil ones waterboarding people)? If they can't stand up for this, what can they stand up for? Why do they deserve to be in a leadership role?
Dan Froomkin: We currently face the prospect of a choice in 2008 between a party with no convictions and a party with convictions that are not based in reality. That's not a good choice.
McLean, Va.: Dan: Didn't the president's comments yesterday -- that Congress is simply wasting time trying to find compromises for issues like SCHIP and instead they should just give him what he wants -- finally blow away the mirage that compromise is possible with this administration? He's got the ability to veto what they want to do and the Republicans in Congress aren't ready to (and probably won't ever) break ranks. If they want to fight him, they have to fight him all-out or simply give in and wait until November '08. Is there any other option?
washingtonpost.com: Video of Bush Press Conference (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 30)
Dan Froomkin: As I said above, if compromise is being even semi-officially ruled out by the White House, that's big news. No more pretending, people.
And yes, you're right, that would present the Democrats with a challenge. Do they start to fight back, or just twiddle their thumbs for 15 months?
Peaks Island, Maine: What do you think about the disconnect between Joshua Partlow's report on troops being "tired, bitter and skeptical" with the upbeat report on troop morale put forth by O'Hanlon and Pollack in the New York Times on July 30 where they wrote: "After the furnace-like heat, the first thing you notice when you land in Baghdad is the morale of our troops. In previous trips to Iraq we often found American troops angry and frustrated -- many sensed they had the wrong strategy, were using the wrong tactics and were risking their lives in pursuit of an approach that could not work. Today, morale is high. The soldiers and Marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference."
Dan Froomkin: One disconnect could have to do with the fact that O'Hanlon and Pollack were on a Pentagon-organized tour every minute of their stay in Iraq.
Telecoms and CIA torturers: Shouldn't Bush just pardon them both? That's the correct procedure in case of patriotic lawbreaking.
Dan Froomkin: Interesting question: Does Bush's pardon power extend to corporations facing civil suits? Or to unnamed parties? I don't think so. In fact I'm pretty sure not.
Dan Froomkin: Okay thanks everyone for all the great questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to them all. See you again here in two weeks and weekday afternoons on the homepage.
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