White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Friday, May 21, 2004; 11:00 AM

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.

Dan is the former editor of washingtonpost.com. You can also e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

The transcript follows.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone. I'm here to take your questions and comments about all things White House. Bring it on.


Boston, Mass.: Reading your articles this week, it almost seems as if this election will be decided not by the candidates, but by external factors. If Bush's approval levels keep falling, what can he do to still win the election?

Dan Froomkin: Let me turn this around and ask my readers. What do you think, readers?


Boston, Mass.: Is there any sign in the White House that since the Post has gotten their hands on the prison abuse pictures the Administration thought (naively in my opinion) they could keep under wraps that they will now release them, or does the Post have essentially all of them? One of the articles describes far more pictures than were published -- including videos. Also is the White House treating the sworn statements of the detainees published in the Post as being untrue and untrustworthy, despite the fact that they seem to agree with the pictures?

Dan Froomkin: Obviously, this is the story of the day. But I'm afraid I can't add much to it. I haven't heard anything out of the White House this morning yet (been too busy writing my column.)

And I strongly encourage all of you with questions about the new prison-abuse photos and video and stories on washingtonpost.com this morning to submit them to Post Executive Editor Len Downie, whose Live Online is coming up right after mine.


New York, N.Y.: Hi Dan,

Bush met with the Republican Congress yesterday to quell their obviously growing fears. Howard Kurtz's article mentioned that although a Q&A session was expected, Bush left without taking questions. On TV, those who were interviewed appeared positive. How much of this do you think is for the public's benefit, to project an image that they are unified? How can a 45 minute pep rally ease months of tension? Thank you

Dan Froomkin: Good question. It's one I address at some length in my column this morning. In short: No, I don't think it worked.


Dan Froomkin: And I have another question for you readers. I keep on writing about the presidential commission looking into prewar intelligence failures regarding weapons of mass destruction. It's holding its first meeting in secret next week.

I think it's fascinating. I put together an All About the WMD Commission page. But almost nobody else seems to be interested. What's up with that?


Washington, D.C.: Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the outing of a CIA agent by a senior Bush official is reportedly winding up. Do you get a sense that the White House is worried about the results of that investigation, or are they confident that there won't be any major embarrassing findings?

Dan Froomkin: What I hear is a lot of people asking what other people hear. Nobody hears much, as far as I can tell. We're all waiting. The latest story out there is this one from Newsday.


Fairfax, Va.: The Democrats and Nancy Pelosi are at it again, aiding and abetting the enemy. Why hasn't she and others like her been arrested and imprisoned?

Dan Froomkin: Well, there's this amendment to the Constitution, see?

But Pelosi's comments have stirred up a hornet's nest. And it's a question worth raising: If we're at war, should that limit our speech in any way?


Why Bush Will Win: Kerry is the tall Dukakis: aloof, arrogant, pedantic, and out of touch with the needs of real Americans. PLus, he was Dukakis' LT. Gov. Oh, and he makes Ted Kennedy the conservative Senator from Massachusetts. Does that answer your question?

Dan Froomkin: Well, that wasn't exactly the question, but thanks for your comment.


Arlington, Va.: Re: the WMD -- I think it's yesterday's news at this point and people are more focused on what they perceive to be a more egregious problem -- the prison abuse.

Dan Froomkin: That could be it.


Manchester, N.H.: Please enlighten us on Iraqi oil. Who extracts it? How much oil is extracted? Where does this oil gets shipped to? Who keeps this revenue? Who are the sub-contractors involved from beginning to the end of Iraqi oil? Nobody seems to know or wants to tell us. Therefore, please enlighten us with the above questions. Respectfully.

Dan Froomkin: I am no expert on Iraqi oil. It does seem like an important issue, though. And I found this Bloomberg story fascinating the other day:

"Iraq's daily oil output in the year since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has fallen as much as a million barrels short of the 3 million barrels that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney predicted.

"Cheney, who for five years headed Houston-based Halliburton Co., the largest oilfield services provider, said in April 2003 that Iraq should be able to produce 2.5 million to 3 million barrels a day 'hopefully by the end of the year.' Iraq in December pumped 1.98 million barrels a day, based on Bloomberg data. The highest output since the war started was 2.38 million barrels a day in March, or 4 percent below pre-war levels."

I mean, that oil would be kind of nice to have right now, for all sorts of reasons. Right?


Washington, D.C.: The recent Bush meeting with Congressional Republicans seems to confirm rumors that congressmen running for office in 2004 are worried that their association with Bush may hurt them. Meanwhile, a few Republicans, most notably Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, have been on TV a lot lately, being quite critical of Bush.

Is there a chance that, if Bush's dim electoral prospects do not improve, that the GOP may effectively have to distance itself from their party leader in order to avoid losing the Senate? And is it already happening?

washingtonpost.com: Bush Visits Hill to Reassure Republicans (Post, May 21)

Dan Froomkin: Excellent question. But the answer may lie in a quote from the story that producer Meredith linked to right there.

"Most members are from pretty safe districts," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), "so there's no panic up here."

The Senate is different from the House, of course, and some centrist Republicans are quite publicly distancing themselves already from Bush's tax-cut plans, causing the leadership a great deal of consternation.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: Has the vaunted Bush political apparatus lost it? First, as a candidate who ran as a "uniter," he goes to the Capitol and snubs that "other" party. Then, after spending $100-plus on political advertising, he is diving in the polls. Do you think it's possible that they never anticipated a rough time in Iraq and simply didn't have a strategy for dealing with that?

Dan Froomkin: You left out the "million" after $100-plus, but I get your point.

On the one hand, I think last week was a real turning point for the Bush campaign. When your negatives outweigh your positives, suddenly you don't look like a "winner" anymore. And people don't like "losers."

That said, do not count these people out! They are very good at what they do, and there are a lot of people out there who don't just like Bush -- they love him.

And there is still plenty of time for the "winner" and "loser" label to go back and forth several times.


Boulder, Colo.: Dan, is the President going to have a press conference in the near future to deal with the cascading questions re: Iraq, the budget, etc.? He's not taking questions from his own party, he's refusing access to reporters at times when it would behoove him to display a modicum of mental agility or at least civility. Why is this man so afraid if the press? Does this lack of openness and dread of the unscripted hurt him with the press corps?

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's a very good question. I think he should have another press conference. Excellent idea.


Washington, D.C.: Just checked out your WMD Investigation page. Why is everyone on the committee so old? It is ridiculous! The youngest member is 57. Is there noone under the age of 40 they could have found? What about the voice of the next generation?

Dan Froomkin: Blue-ribbon commission tend to draw from a crop of super-experienced wise people with credentials a mile long. But McCain sort of acts like a young guy, doesn't he?


Alexandria, Va.: Dan, Help a girl out -- what's this about Pelosi? What did she say?

Dan Froomkin: Read today's column! Pelosi said, among other things:

"The emperor has no clothes," she said. "I believe that the president's leadership in the actions taken in Iraq demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment and experience, in making the decisions that would have been necessary to truly accomplish the mission without the deaths to our troops and the cost to our taxpayers."


Ann Arbor, Mich. : Well, if the WMD issue hinges on the fortunes of Mr. Chalabi, it's pretty obviously that it was flawed (or fabricated) "intelligence" bought with money and blood. THAT'S what's up.

I think we've been "had," as they say.

Dan Froomkin: He isn't exactly in anyone's good graces right now, is he.


Washington, D.C.: Dan, the President is quoted as saying yesterday that the Iraqis are now ready for the "training wheels" to be taken off. I'm not an expert in Arab culture, but I'm wondering if that's the sort of metaphor that ANY foreign country that has been through a lot of recent trauma is likely to appreciate. Who in the administration is coming up with metaphors like that? I presume whoever it is was not trained in diplomacy.

Dan Froomkin: I was sort of wondering about that as well. And that line, as far as I can tell, was about the only original thing he said, too. I bet he wishes he hadn't said it.


Chicago, Ill.: I'm wondering if the story of Bush remaining in the Florida classroom after learning of the second plane attack has gotten any new traction after reports that Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 makes a reference to it. That, and the WSJ article that noted the 9-11 Commission would be looking into it. Could they have asked Bush about it during their visit to the Oval Office?

Dan Froomkin: I understand it makes for pretty haunting footage in Moore's movie, the president just sitting there for, what, several minutes? I would like to know more about it, myself. But it's also ancient history by now, isn't it?


McLean, Va.: Re: WMD. The problem with the weapons of mass destruction story is that everyone is being cautious. Neither John Kerry, nor any of the other Democrats, nor the media want to stake a claim that the weapons don't exist...only to find out later that they in fact did. I for one don't believe they existed, but only Bush knows whether they existed or not. I guess we will just have to wait until Colin Powell's book (if and when he publishes one) comes out.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting. It's also interesting how the story about the sarin gas artillery shell died down so quickly.


College Park, Md.: I don't care about the WMD Commission because I know they will not accomplish anything. The Bush admin and the intellegence community will continue to lie to cover their mistakes.
I see them meeting two or three times before November -- where the result will be moot (if Kerry wins) or they will be immediately disbanded (if Bush wins).

Dan Froomkin: An interesting point.


Washington, D.C.: RE: Bush's falling approval ratings -- I'm amazed that anyone still can approve of Bush, when he clearly lied to the American public about WMD, when he supports staff (Rummy and his White House Counsel) who make a mockery out of the Geneva Conventions, which have only further eroded the American reputation in the eyes of every other country. These aren't external factors -- these are the qualities (or lack thereof) of one of the candidates -- Bush.

Dan Froomkin: Another voice heard from.


Delmar, N.Y.: What do you make of the dispute that went public yesterday between House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senator John McCain? What was Congressman Hastert thinking when he questioned Senator McCain's Republican "bona fides" and questioned whether he, McCain undderstood the meaning of sacrifice. Few public figures have the personal courage and understand sacrifice like Senator McCain does! Do you think Congressman DeLay put Hastert up to this? Do they want Senator McCain to leave the party ala Senator Jeffords and endorse Senator Kerry? What doesn't Hastert understand about the argument that the only persons that are being asked to make sacrifices are those serving in the Armed Services and especially those who are in the Reserves?

Dan Froomkin: All I can tell you is that the White House wants none of it.
Reuters reports:
The White House stayed out of the crossfire on Thursday between two prominent Congressional Republicans quarreling over tax cuts and federal spending.
House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert lectured Arizona Sen. John McCain on Wednesday over war sacrifices after McCain attacked both Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday for refusing to give up tax cuts and spending agendas in wartime.

"Speaker Hastert is a friend; Senator McCain is a friend," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "Well, I certainly wouldn't want to get between someone who has a history in wrestling and someone who has a history in combat."


Arlington, Va.: We should absolutely not limit our speech. Under that theory, the US government could do whatever it wants because if we say anything about it, we'll be arrested. Some of us love our Bill of Rights.

Dan Froomkin: But in war, there is the issue of treason, is there not? And of course people in the armed forces have limited speech rights.


New York, N.Y.: Keep up the great work.

Many of the interrogation practices which have lead to torture in Iraq can be traced back to practices used in Afghanistan. When is the white house press corps going to focus in on what the President's role was in deciding to hold prisoners from Afghanistan without Geneva Convention protections?

Dan Froomkin: That has already been, and continues to be, a focus of the press corps' inquiries. Surely you saw Newsweek's story on Monday. Neil A. Lewis has more today in the New York Times.


Freemansburg, Pa.: How does the White House plan to parry the harm of the newly released pictures? One shows a naked prisoner in a hallway at Abu Ghraib, apparently covered in excrement. Is President Bush considering an address to the American people on this sordid subject? It is not only Iraqis who suffer humiliation when they see these photographs.

Dan Froomkin: I think everyone agree that President Bush has a lot of explaining to do. It starts, by all accounts, on Monday.

Here's Dana Bash on CNN yesterday, talking to Lou Dobbs:

"Senior Bush aides say the president will step up, as you mentioned, his direct communication with the American people about the situation in Iraq between now and June 30, because they say it's a very critical time for him to do so. They say that he's going to give about one major speech a week, starting, as you mentioned, with the Army War College in Pennsylvania. That will follow an address the following week at the Air Force Academy.

"The White House simply says that they know they can't control the bad news coming out of Iraq. But with the president's poll numbers falling and support for Iraq, according to the polls, also falling, they hope at least to get the president's voice into the mix in a more aggressive way. And they also say that things are going to be changing and they hope falling into place between now and June 30, and they hope in a quick way.

"So they want the president out there to give the American public an update on what exactly the plans are as they fall into place. And they also say that they understand that anything that happens in Iraq essentially has a short shelf life, including the president's remarks, so they want him to get out there in a very public way. They also want him to set expectations, Lou, that even after June 30, when Iraqis do have at least some control over the government, it doesn't mean that troops are going to come home and it doesn't mean that bad news is going to stop out of Iraq for the American people."


Bethsda, Md.: Wow, Dan, that was pure TV -- something that happened less than three years ago is "ancient history?" The fact is, one of the only remaining areas in which Bush's poll rating is strong is on the perception of his effective handling of September 11th. If, in fact, the President did not assert strong leadership but in fact sat dumbfounded in a classroom as a third plane sped toward the Pentagon, gave a shaky, unconvincing speech, then disappeared into a concrete bunker under cover of a bogus story about a threat to Air force one, that's pretty important.


Dan Froomkin: Well, OK. Maybe. Definitely worth finding out more.


Nashville, Tenn.: Have all presidents gone to the Hill in order to speak only to their own party's members? Do they ever try to rally support in a non-partisan manner? It gives the appearance of politics not policy.

Dan Froomkin: Well, they speak to everyone at least once a year: The State of the Union address!


Los Angeles, Calif.: I am wondering how seriously the abuse in the prisons will be investigated. I am outraged by the newer revelations and photographs. I would like to convey to President Bush that as a citizen, I expect strong actions against those responsible or who could have had knowledge of this.

Dan Froomkin: Consider it conveyed.


Washington, D.C.: Dan, you commented that no else seems as interested in the WMD commission. To me it feels like it is beating a dead horse. Do you think anything will come out of it that we don't assume already?

Dan Froomkin: I think there are definitely some lessons to be learned. Don't you?


Silver Spring, Md.: In my opinion, Nancy Pelosi is stating the obvious. Why has there been no mention of impeachment or censure for George W. Bush & his administration's mishandling of Iraq? If this were Bill Clinton's mess, he would have been impeached already. By the way, I'm sure the metaphor referred to in an earlier question was propably something Bush came up with on his own. He can't be trusted to make intelligent comments without a script. It is an embarrassment. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Lots of folks here jumping to Pelosi's defense. I'll post a few.


Re: Pelosi: The truth hurts, no? Everything Pelosi said about the President is right on, and the way people (Democrats, Republicans. and journalists alike) have been avoiding/dancing around the President and his monumental failures is pathetic.

Seriously, name something positive that's amounted from this Administration (for those of us who don't own stock in oil or defense companies).

Dan Froomkin: Here's another.


San Francisco, Calif.: I think Pelosi's comments reflect the great "elephant in the room." I mean, hasn't the Administration made great currency of the fact that Kerry voted for the war in the first place? I think Democrats were afraid to speak out until recently for fear of being labeled "unpatriotic." It's about time someone spoke up with the natural conclusion that there's been a lack of competency in the handling of Iraq. Half the country feels that way.

Dan Froomkin: And another.


WMD Commission: Like you said, "It's holding its first meeting in secret next week."

I don't think there's a lack of interest, but more like a lack of information to express interest about. Once details from the commission start leaking otu or if they hold public hearings, I think you'll see an upsurge in comments about it. No one really gave a hoot about the 9-11 commission (aside from some initial controversy) until leaked details and public hearings occurred.

Dan Froomkin: You could be right.


Rockville, Md.: Mr. Froomkin,

These are the words you wrote:
But Pelosi's comments have stirred up a hornet's nest. And it's a question worth raising: If we're at war, should that limit our speech in any way?

This is my response: Are you quite serious? Being at war should not limit our speech. That is clear. Lives are being sacrificed (our and those of Iraqis) and debate and discussion and critique are appropriate and necessary. We can hardly export democracy if we don't ourselves have a democratic exchange of ideas. Dissent is patriotic and necessary.

Dan Froomkin: Dissent, yes. No question.


Washington, D.C.: Since people are throwing around the "T" word, I thought the legal definition might help:
"Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and
shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States."

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Wheaton, Md.: Why didn't Bush order a veto of the one-sided UN resolution condemning Israel for defending itself? I don't remember the UN condemning the disgusting terrorist murder of the Israeli mother and her four daughters.

Dan Froomkin: I was taken by surprise by the White House's relative about-face on Israel in the course of 24 hours. One day it's an AIPAC Love fest; next day it's condemnation. I wrote about this in Wednesday and Thursday's columns.


San Francisco, Calif.: I truly think lack of interest in the WMD commission rides on two things, the public has already made up their minds that none were present and the media has not pursued the issue. The latter is the more troubling issue, I think. I'd like to hear your take on the only recent awakening of the media to troubling aspects of the war in Iraq. It seems to be that there was great media silence in the post-9/11 era. I don't mean partisan sniping. I mean that kind of investigative, gotcha journalism that used to be more prevalent

Dan Froomkin: Well, there's no question that the media got more aggressive after the war. Or, more accurately, after the war started.


Sarin Gas Story: It died on the vine because the shell was from 1991. Even Rummy and Wolfie stayed clear of that one. Cheney probably ate it up though...

Dan Froomkin: But I though they were all supposed to have been destroyed. Was there only one out there?


Springfield, Va.: Any chance that the Republican leadership might "persuade" Bush not to run for reelection and nominate Senator McCain instead? Bush could announce that he needs to devote his full attention to Iraq and can't be distracted by an election campaign, just like LBJ.

Dan Froomkin: Not the tiniest smidgen of a chance.


Washington, D.C.: Really, Dan. I would think you would be above giving credence to the notion that a member of Congress speaking against a president and an unpopular war could be guilty of treason. We can't throw around words like that and then wonder why the political debate is so debased.

Dan Froomkin: I was just asking where the limits are. I was not suggesting that anyting Pelosi said was treasonous. I do not want to be part of the debasing.


Ft. Lauderale, Fla.: Dan...
Your comments on the White House 24 hour flip flop on Israel only further supports Pelosi's comments. Bush has got to be the worst president we have ever had.

Dan Froomkin: Did y'all see the item at the bottom of my column yesterday? A very unscientific study of historians, asking them, among other things, to say "Bush is the worst president since...."


Sarin: Well, there was only one shell and there was no way to prove exactly where it came from. I don't think the administration even wants to bring up the WMD issue anymore, espcially not it what WMD means is "one old shell that didn't even work right and ended up hurting no one."

Dan Froomkin: I was a bit surprised they didn't make a bigger deal out of it, but you make a good point.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm curious what President Bush thinks when he sees protestors at his speeches. Do you notice him reading the signs? Or does he brush them off? Do you think he cares or considers what they are saying? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: What I think is interesting is that there have been no large-scale protests at any of his events that I know of. Now, mind you, the White House and the campaign pick those events carefully, and are very expansive about security perimiters, but the numbers have been so few that he would be forgiven for paying them little or no attention.


Worst President Ever?: What did they think of Clinton?

Who did they say was the best?

Do we know their idealogy? Unless the breakdown was 50-50 Dem/Rep. or 33-33-33 Dem./Ind./Rep. I don't see how anyone can take the survey seriously.

Dan Froomkin: It's totally not scientific. And as one historian said, who I quoted in my Thursday column said: "I suspect that this poll will tell us nothing about President Bush's performance vis-?-vis his peer group, but may confirm what we already know about the current crop of history professors."


Hyattsville, Md.: I remember reading somewhere that approval ratings in the low 40's usually imply at least the threat of impeachment, but I think thats assuming an opposition congress.

How low do you think Bush's approval can go before a Republican congress would introduce articles of impeachment.

Dan Froomkin: Impeachment is not for unpopularity. It is for high crimes and misdemeanors.


Positive things from Bush 43 - just the facts: Protected homeland from another terrorist attack
Led military campaign against brutal regimes in two countries
50 million citizens of the world now taste the seeds of freedom
55 million and growing new Iraqi text books and
Killed lots of terrorists
Has not welcomed another terrorist (Yassir Arafat) to the White House
Public support of Palistenian State
And, if the The Anti-War protesters are right and Fear and Hate are the real WMD, than Bush deserves praise for removing WMD from Iraq (Saddam, Uday, Qusay)
Despite being dealt an unprecedented foreign policy crisis, the economy is finally turning around!

Also, what do you make of despite all the bad news, Kerry only has 1 point lead over Bush in SAFE BLUE states of California and NJ?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the list.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks for all the excellent questions. Sorry I couldn't get to all of them. See you in two weeks at my new more or less regular time: Wednesdays at 1 p.m. ET. You can also always e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

And don't forget to read White House Briefing every day.


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