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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, November 14, 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, Nov. 14 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome! My column today, Pick Your Bush, leads with the growing budget battle, and how it's turning out to be a contest between two opposing views of President Bush: Is he a guardian of fiscal responsibility or a negligent spendthrift?

There's also a lot of good stuff further down, including excerpts from Fox Business Channel anchor David Asman's spectacularly sycophantic Bush interview and my own reporting on Bush's unilateral stealth executive order
setting up extensive new procedures for every government agency to assess the performance of each and every one of its programs.

So go read it. Come back. And share your questions and comments.


Reston, Va.: How is the White House going to react if the new attorney general finds problems with the NSA's Terrorist Surveillance Program?

Dan Froomkin: They will have a cow. But don't hold your breath.

Mukasey may be more independent than Gonzales (talk about a low bar) but I don't think he is going to challenge them on any of the core executive-power issues. That's why he got the nod. (See my Sept. 18 column, The AG Bush Needs.


Washington:: I appreciate that Congress is taking a crack at estimating "real" costs, as Harvard's Nobel-winning Stiglitz has, but now that the blue team is in the majority and ostensibly managing the budgeting process, why haven't they attempted to fuse the supplemental's with the regular fiscal year budget? The public would see an actual fiscal deficit that way, laying bare the reversal of fortunes (projected surpluses tilting to massive deficits) the administration has orchestrated and overseen. Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: Well, I don't think it's exactly a secret that Bush is running up deficits. (Although I bet few Americans could correctly guess the amount of the federal debt -- now a shocking $9 trillion and counting, up $3 trillion since Bush took office.)

Folding the supplemental into the regular appropriation would be a big battle -- and I think that to the extent the Democrats have any fight left in them, it will be directed at getting Bush to swallow some sort of withdrawal timetable.

P.S. Here's an update on that Stiglitz estimate. And don't miss Stiglitz's big piece on Bush and the economy in Vanity Fair. He writes there:

"Up to now, the conventional wisdom has been that Herbert Hoover, whose policies aggravated the Great Depression, is the odds-on claimant for the mantle 'worst president' when it comes to stewardship of the American economy. Once Franklin Roosevelt assumed office and reversed Hoover's policies, the country began to recover. The economic effects of Bush's presidency are more insidious than those of Hoover, harder to reverse, and likely to be longer-lasting. There is no threat of America's being displaced from its position as the world's richest economy. But our grandchildren will still be living with, and struggling with, the economic consequences of Mr. Bush."


Fairfax, Va.: I know you have said your primary focus is not the Democratic Party but can you make an exception and speculate why the Democrats almost never bother to respond to what Bush says when he attacks them? For example, his speech yesterday in Indiana was replete with one charge against Democrats after another, but none of the "leading candidates" responded, nor did the DNC. Why not? Do the Democrats actually believe Bush's statements have no effect on the electorate, or that Democrats don't need to argue their case to the people? It is like a basketball team that has a small lead in the first quarter and decides to freeze the ball for the rest of the game -- not a winning strategy, is it?

Dan Froomkin: Okay, I'll make a partial exception. First of all, you're assuming that no Democratic leaders are responding, rather than that you're just not hearing about it. In fact, Democratic congressional leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi regularly respond to Bush charges. It's just that no one really writes up what they say.

Which gets back to the part of your question where you ask why the leading presidential candidates aren't responding to Bush's attacks. And that's a very good question indeed, because I do think they have a better chance of getting some traction with those responses than do Reid and Pelosi.

In fact, I would hazard to guess that what a lot of the nation is looking for right now is a standard-bearer for anti-Bushness, and I'm kind of surprised that none of the leading candidates are actively taking that role.

Maybe I'm wrong -- and I have not been watching the Democrats very closely -- but I would be a lot more impressed with their claims of having leadership ability if they showed some now.


Geneva, Ill.: One question puzzles me about the whole Iran nuclear situation: 40 years ago there was an unfriendly country that actively was developing nukes, while we were engaged in a war in a country next door to it. That country had such massive internal divisions that they almost culminated in an extremists' coup d'etat. And as I recall, an awful lot of people expected some sort of confrontation between us, but somehow diplomacy actually did lead to at least a working peace between us and China. Is that experience now completely irrelevant? I haven't seen anyone mention the (what seem to me, at least) parallels between the situations.

Dan Froomkin: Drat, I just read a piece that made exactly that point, but now I can't find it. Sorry.

It's an excellent parallel, and deserves more attention.

I firmly believe that the fact that Bush refuses to meet with people who disagree with him will go down in history as one of his most defining and unfortunate characteristics. Domestically, that's the bubble. Internationally, that's his refusal to negotiate with anyone until they've already given him what he wants.

Here's what I wrote in my August 7, 2006, column, This is Diplomacy?:

"As President Bush's foreign policy oscillates between 'cowboy diplomacy' and 'post-cowboy diplomacy' and back again, it's worth pointing out that it's not really correct to call it diplomacy if he invariably refuses to talk to people who disagree with him."


Portland, Maine: I'm getting the impression that Bush is just going to veto practically everything from here on out, and I don't think it has anything to do with what's in the bills or how much they cost. It's more about sticking it to the "Democrat" Congress. "If I can't win, nobody wins!"

Dan Froomkin: Well, at some point, someone's got to give, or else we have no government. But every time the Democrats play chicken with Bush, he wins. So I wouldn't bet against him.


Las Vegas: Dan, great column -- I look forward to it every day. So, can you touch on how the administration's dual democracy policies have avoided any critical analysis by the mainstream media? As in "we are trying to spread democratic values, unless, as in Palestine or Pakistan, we don't like the results."

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. But I don't think that particular hypocrisy has escaped the media's notice, at least when it comes to Pakistan. I've seen and quoted from lots of stories that reach that conclusion. Perhaps it's that reporters don't make that point over and over again? (Which, perhaps, they should.) Daily newspaper reporters in particular tend to think if they've made the point once, they don't need to make it again. (Bloggers know better.)


San Francisco: Most presidents make a big deal about their bill-signing pens. Now that this one is vetoing bills, has anyone asked what happens to his veto pens?

Dan Froomkin: I want to know what happens to his "signing statement" pens. I want one as a souvenir.


Boston: So Bush is going to rebuild the Justice Department? Shouldn't there be a "Hippocratic Oath" in governance, "first do no harm"? I think W has done enough to Justice for one administration, thank you. The next president is going to have to clean out all the partisans he stuffed into career jobs there. I'm also not optimistic about the restarted Justice probe into warrantless wiretapping. Who are the lawyers who were given clearances (backgrounds, how did they get their jobs, etc.)?

washingtonpost.com: Justice Dept. Reopens Surveillance Probe (Post, Nov. 14)

Dan Froomkin: Just about every major post at the Justice Department is now vacant. No matter your politics, you've got to be in favor of getting those positions filled. Such spots are political appointments, and they will be filled by people who share the administration's priorities.

The key questions will be whether Bush's new crop is qualified or unqualified, extreme or not extreme -- and how they treat the career people, especially the senior career people, once they are in place.

Most people I know have faith in the Office of Professional Responsibility and its career lawyers. That said, law professor Marty Lederman blogs that OPR's mandate in this particular investigation may prove too narrow to satisfy critics.


Chicago: Dan, do you think that the "type" of people that reporters are -- ambitious, career-centered, workaholic, etc.? -- is a factor in the coverage that we normal 40-hour-a-week Americans receive? In other words, do you think that the personality characteristics it takes to become a big-time MSM reporter cloud their vision of politicians who share some of the same dysfunctionalities?

Dan Froomkin: Hmm. That's a big question and not within my field of expertise.

First of all, I think the vast majority of reporters are fairly normal people, motivated mostly by a desire to serve their communities.

If you're talking about Washington's elite political reporters, however, you may be on to something. Especially with the advent of regular TV appearances, I see them increasingly sharing some of the personal attributes of successful politicians (i.e. overcharged ambition and ego, a tendency toward opportunism) and therefore they may be hard-pressed to see those attributes as failings as much as the average person does.


Silver Spring, Md.: Dan, silly question if I may. Why wasn't Bush taken to task for telling Musharraf he can't be President and head of the army at the same time? Um ... excuse me, Mr. President Bush, but you are our president and head of the Army (and Navy and Air Force) as our commander in chief. Doohickey!

Dan Froomkin: There was a lot of muttering about that comment, certainly in the blogosphere, but I think it was a cheap shot. There is a big difference between Musharraf, who is acting as head of the army independently of being president, and Bush, who is the civilian commander in chief by virtue of his office. That's why Bush's advice to Musharraf -- "take off your uniform" -- is an unfortunate turn of phrase but is actually an appropriate thing to say. I know some of you will find this hard to believe, but I try to avoid cheap shots.


Lititz, Pa.: Martha Raddatz's comment the other day about the White House and being a reporter left me speechless. Being assigned to the White House means you have to check your brain at the door? It does explain the lack of intelligent questioning by the press as a whole in recent years.

washingtonpost.com: Martha Raddatz, Putting Herself in the Thick of Things (Post, Nov. 12)

Dan Froomkin: Here's the quote I noted from Raddatz, who was talking to Howard Kurtz about her frequent trips to international hotspots: "I'd probably go crazy if I had to stay every second at the White House and not go out and be a reporter. ... I don't want to be a stenographer."

I think her point was that outside information adds value to being a White House reporter. But yes, there are other ways of accomplishing that than globe-trotting. No White House reporter should simply be a stenographer.


Long Beach, Calif.: Hi Dan. Thanks again for keeping us informed every day. I read a comments recently by John Dean regarding the administration's bypassing Civil Service regulations in stacking the Executive branch with loyal Bushies. His take was that it may take several presidencies to reverse that process. Can you shed some light on that?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'm not familiar with Dean's comments. (Do you mean these? I'll read them after the chat. But as I wrote in my Sept. 24 column, What Has Bush Done to the Government?:

"The admission by top officials at the Department of Justice that they engaged in a systemic pattern of putting political hacks not just in the traditional appointed slots, but in senior career-level positions as well -- i.e., the places where the hard work of government traditionally gets done -- has apparently been written off as an isolated incident...

"But it's well past time to ask ourselves: What has Bush done to our government?"

I also linked to a very important piece on NiemanWatchdog by David E. Lewis, a political scientist at Princeton University. He posed lots of good questions reporters should be -- but aren't -- asking about the politicization of government.

This is a huge issue just waiting to be explored.


Alexandria, Va.: Has anyone ever asked the President or any member of the administration this scenario: A U.S. soldier is captured. A video is released on the Web showing the captors waterboarding the U.S. soldier. Would the president tell the parents of the soldier that what their son was going through was torture, or would he call it enhanced interrogation?

Dan Froomkin: No, and it's a legitimate question. I suspect that if he was being honest, he'd answer somewhat like Rudy Giuliani, who when asked about waterboarding replied in part: "It depends on who does it."


Chicago: Losing or destroying e-mails and other actions that have the effect of covering one's tracks appears to be a White House strategy. If you include the fiasco regarding the lost e-mails at the Republican National Committee, one could conclude that covering one's tracks is not only a White House strategy, but one that pervades the entire Republican Party. I'm assuming that you have sources telling you what's really going on. What are they saying? What's your take on what appears to be a pervasive strategy to cover one's tracks?

washingtonpost.com: Where Are the E-mails (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 13)

Dan Froomkin: I think the two e-mail scandals are different. The one I wrote about yesterday, which involves several million e-mails lost from the White House servers, I have no reason to think wasn't an accident -- although there's really no excuse for the White House stalling when it comes to restoring them up off the backup tapes they claim to have.

The RNC e-mails are much more suspicious. There, top White House obviously intentionally and knowingly chose to conduct White House business in a way that would never be made available to the public -- in fact, they knew full well those messages were being deleted. See my June 19 column, Casual Lawbreaking at the White House.


Seattle, Wash.: How accurate do you think Garry Trudeau's prognosticating will be in his recent strips, on Iran and a pretext? I know that on the surge, his cartoon was more accurate than most analysts.

Dan Froomkin: Well, you're aware that there is no such place as Greater Berzerkistan, right?

Beyond that, Trudeau is as usual dead on. If you believe a U.S. military strike on Iran is likely if not inevitable before the end of the Bush presidency, the most plausible scenario is that there will be some sort of pretext not entirely unlike the one Trudeau is weaving.


Stamford, Conn.: Hi Dan -- great piece today, as usual. You quote Kevin Drum as follows: "Democrats don't care about him (Bush), Republicans wish he'd go away, and the American public is bored with his snooze-inducing speeches." To which I would add that many Americans are utterly disgusted with the man. The only way for the GOP to regain some dignity -- and with it relevancy -- will be not to wish that Bush goes away but to repudiate and utterly disown this pathetic person (okay, so I'm not a fan either...). Will this happen, given the GOP candidates' desire to "out-Bush" each other?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

It would be political suicide for a Republican to attack Bush too strongly before the primaries. But as I indicated before, the nation at large may be looking for an anti-Bush standard-bearer -- and that person doesn't necessarily have to be a Democrat. So you may see a dramatic anti-Bush turn by the Republican candidate once anointed. In fact, I'll bet on it.


San Francisco: Will President Bush be held to his November 2005 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, which defines victory as an Iraq that is "peaceful, united, stable and secure," or has he successfully moved the goalposts?

Dan Froomkin: That would be: B) He has successfully moved the goalposts.
Reduced violence is apparently now the sign of success. At least that's what I read, see and hear pretty much everywhere.


Oklahoma City: I was wondering why, with all the talk on fiscal responsibility, no one has returned to the waste by private contractors in Iraq? With the news today about the FBI findings on Blackwater, this would be a timely subject for someone other than just Rep. Waxman.

washingtonpost.com: Report: Blackwater Killings Unjustified (Post, Nov. 14)

Dan Froomkin: Sure, but tell me who else but Waxman has the motivation, the means and the opportunity?


Berkeley, Calif.: Where are the legal challenges to the claim that the e-mails sent by Rove and other White House employees from RNC e-mail accounts are covered by executive privilege? It seems to me Rove and the others forfeited any right to executive privilege the moment they logged onto the RNC e-mail system to conduct official White House business.

Dan Froomkin: You might think so. But at this point, a legal challenge would require a) a contempt citation by Congress and b) someone in Mukasey's shop actually taking it to a grand jury. Neither is likely. So Rove gets away with it.


Fairfax, Va.: Just read your column and what comes through to me is how effectively Bush makes his case. He reminds me of a high school debater who is so focused on selling his point of view that he totally ignores the possibility that his listeners might actually know contradictory facts that he needed to answer. Of course Bush is our president, who is supposed to think about and talk about the whole story, isn't he?

Dan Froomkin: That's a really interesting way of describing his approach. Sort of suggests an affirmative role for the journalists covering him, doesn't it?


Lititz, Pa. (again): My initial thought on Bush's "take off your uniform" comment was similar, but there is a big difference between civilian control of the military and having an individual in the military being head of state. Yet another example of Bush not expressing himself as well as he should. Makes this quote (from your column) pretty ironic: "Words matter. And my words in particular matter."

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. But, as it happens, I'm pretty sure Condoleezza Rice was the first to use that particular construction!


Cave Creek, Ariz.: Dan, Thanks for all your hard work! Bush's signing statements are driving me crazy. Do you know the status on any lawsuits filed against this flagrant disregard for laws?

Dan Froomkin: There aren't any. It's hard to establish who has standing to sue, especially when no one's really investigated what the effect of them has been, and when Congress refuses to challenge Bush on them.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks everyone for all your excellent questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. See you again here in two weeks, and weekday afternoons on the home page!


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