White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Tuesday, March 30, 2004; 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.

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! Big day for the White House.

If you haven't done so already, go read Mike Allen's story on washingtonpost.com. Two White House reversals this morning: National security adviser Condoleezza Rice now has the OK to testify in public, under oath. And Bush and Cheney are offering to meet -- together -- with the entire 9/11 commission, though in private. (Previously they had only agreed to meet in private with the chairman and vice-chairman.)

All of this came out just this morning, in a letter from White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. Here's the letter in PDF form or in text form.

Clearly, there was some big-time horse-trading going on -- lots of promises being exacted from the commission. For instance, the commission has to promise not to ask anyone else in the White House to testify, or Rice won't come.

So how will it fly? How will it be spun? Stay tuned.

I'm here to answer your questions and hear your comments.

Also, in yesterday's column, I wrote about how Karen Hughes may be coming to Bush's rescue. So what advice would you give Bush if you were Karen Hughes?

OK folks. Bring it on.


Dallas, Tex.: The White House reversal now allowing Condi Rice to testify seems like a loud signal that Karen Hughes is back and the power struggle between her and Karl Rove is once again surfacing. What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: I am one of those who happens to believe in Hughes's nearly godlike powers. She gets modern politics, and plays the soundbite better than anyone. That said, you can't give her credit for everything the White House does right and blame her absence every time it goes wrong.

As Jay Carney wrote in Time this weekend, Hughes actually was partly responsible for one of Bush's biggest pratfalls, his flight-suited landing on an aircraft carrier to declare the end of "major combat operations" in Iraq.

And in this case, there is evidence the Karl Rove wanted to stop the bleeding himself.


Dan Froomkin: This just in from the print pool traveling with Bush today on his quickie visit to Wisconsin.

In his morning gaggle, press secretary Scott McClellan said that the president had directed the staff over the weekend to see if there was a way to allow Rice to appear without setting a precedent, and that he wanted to change the focus from process to the substance of what the commission is doing. The time and place of Rice's appearance - not to mention those of Bush and Cheney -- have not yet been set.

Also: Bush is going to make remarks about the 9/11 commission after returning to the White House this afternoon.


Long Beach, Calif.: I found the frowning photos of Condi Rice with her arms folded next to the flag to be high comedy. Surely the White House knows by now she's coming off like a grinch. She's also coming out with one misstatement a day of late. How long can she keep up this clip?

Dan Froomkin: Well, there's some cheerier imagery today (see today's column.)

But I wonder how to interpret this morning's White House decision. Was it a kindness to Rice, who was looking like she had something to hide? Or is the White House putting her out for the wolves?


New Orleans, La.: What is the real reason for the flip-flop on Dr. Rice now going before 9-11 Commission? Is it an attempt to put this behind the White House or is it hanging Dr. Rice out there to slowly twist in the wind?

Dan Froomkin: That's the question all right. Time will tell.


Albany, N.Y.: Why hasn't the furor over Richard Clarke's allegations had more of an impact on Bush's popularity ratings, which have been rising? He still beats Kerry going away on leadership and the "war president" issue. Is this an issue that matters only inside the Beltway, or does it just take time for an issue like this to sink in?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, yes, and one more thing. When people vote for a president, I think they want to have a strong visceral positive sense of who they're voting for. There's nothing like being president to make you look presidential. So it takes a lot to overcome that. Plus people don't really have a full sense of Kerry yet.


Japan: With all the broohaha over the Clarke testimony, there seems to be a lot of debate over the charge that the early Bush White House regarded terrorism as an "important" but not "urgent" issue. Either way, it seems to be the consensus that 9/11 would not likely have been prevented even if terrorism had been a top priority. It seems to me that Clarke's more serious assertion is that by invading Iraq, Bush has undermined his War on Terror making future attacks even more likely. Why is this charge, while mentioned, getting so much less attention?

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good question. On your first point, Washington Post In the Loop columnist Al Kamen noted yesterday that maybe everyone should just agree that Clarke was right that "while the Bush administration didn't ignore concerns over terrorism, he felt it didn't consider the threat to be a matter of great urgency before Sept. 11."

After all, in a Dec. 11, 2001, Washington Post story, Bob Woodward and Dan Balz quote from an interview with Bush in which he says as much himself.

But to answer your question, I don't think either of Clarke's assertions have yet to run their course.


Germantown, Md.: What do you make of the stipulation that Bush and Cheney appear together? I suspect that Bush is afraid of bungling if he were to do it on his own.

Dan Froomkin: That will inevitably be a topic of delicious speculation amongst the chattering class. It is kind of funny, isn't it?


Delmar, N.Y.: In the summer of 2002 Richard Clarke gave reporters a briefing "on background" to refute charges criticizing President Bush's conduct of the "war on terror" made against his Administration that appeared in Time Magazine. The Bush Administration authorized Fox News to identify Mr. Clarke as the source of this background briefing to highlight contradictions between what Mr. Clark said in the briefing and his testimony before the 9/11 Commission last week. Yesterday on the Imus radio show, Evan Thomas of Newsweek speculated that Mr. Clarke was the source of Time Magazine story that Mr. Clarke refuted in his capacity as a member of the Bush team. Have you heard this? Could it be that Mr. Clarke was defending the Administration from what he had leaked to Time?

Dan Froomkin: OK, that would be a twist, alright.

Here's that Time story from Aug. 12, 2002, by Michael Elliott, in which he writes that proposals Clarke developed in the winter of 2001 "on an aggressive plan to take the fight to al-Qaeda... became a victim of the transition process, turf wars and time spent on the pet policies of new top officials."

It was, indeed, a very flattering portrait of Clarke.

And the Washingtonian's Harry Jaffe reports that "Interviews with reporters on the terrorism beat suggest that Clarke has always been savvy in using the press."

But I have absolutely no first-hand knowledge of this.


New York, N.Y.: Does the decision to allow Rice to testify open up Cheney to being compelled to comment publicly regarding the Energy Task Force?

Dan Froomkin: There are some unintentionally funny lines in Gonzales's letter, particularly where he goes to such great pains to insist -- and get assurances -- that this is not a precedent. So no.

Until of course someone cites it as a precedent. ;-)


Washington, D.C.: So, do you cover the White House or just cover those who cover the White House? I don't see you on TV asking questions at the briefings. How else are you going to get a presidential nickname?

Dan Froomkin: I do my job at something of a remove from the White House, gleaning the wisdom from those who are closer. But I dream of someday being called "Web Boy."


Missoula, Mont.: Geoge Bush has given fewer press conferences than any president in my memory. Will Karen Hughes put him in front of the press? Or, are his extemporaneous-speaking-skills too much of a liability?

Dan Froomkin: In that story from Time I mentioned above, Jay Carney notes that Hughes thinks so highly of Bush that "Even his tendency to mangle words is a sign, to Hughes, of a 'highly intelligent' mind outpacing a sluggish tongue."

That said, I don't think any friend would advise Bush to face the press extemporaneously more often, until or unless there is a massive outcry over his refusal to make himself accountable to the public via the media. Which there might be.


Washington, D.C.: Dan,

Have you heard any word on the ongoing Plame investigation and grand jury? In light of Karen Hughes' return to Washington, and her role in the Iraq Group that many suspect was the source of the leak, I'd like to hear more on what the shakeout might be.

Dan Froomkin: Ah, nice to see the conspiracy theorists are in the audience. This reader is referring to the mysterious Iraq Group whose existence came to light in a story by Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus in The Washington Post last August.

Records of that group were requested by the grand jury investigating the Plame matter in January.

I haven't heard anything new in weeks. That doesn't mean nothing's happening. Grand juries are supposed to operate in secrecy.


Washington: Frist wants to declassify Clarke's earlier testimony to congress re: Bush and the war on terror. If Frist is able to show CLarke perjured himself then, doesn't that imply that he's telling the truth now?

washingtonpost.com: GOP Leaders Seek Release of Clarke's 2002 Testimony (Post, March 27)

Dan Froomkin: I don't think a perjurer makes a good witness for anyone. This attempt is transparently aimed at discrediting Clarke more than determining the truth. It's called politics.


Chapel Hill, N.C.: Thanks for your daily column.

In the last 2 weeks Clarke's testimony/interviews/book, claim that Bush didn't do enough before 9/11? and this is getting traction now due to the current commission looking into 9/11. Let's say I am willing to accept that the events of 9/11 probably could not be stopped (it helps me sleep at night). It seems to me that the larger story on Clarke has to do with the pre-determined path to go to Iraq and how this is not really fighting the war on terrorism. Do you feel this is getting enough attention?

Dan Froomkin: It definitely hasn't gotten as much attention. That may change.


Washington, D.C.: Has there been any "official" comment on the protesters who showed up at Karl Rove's house this weekend? No matter what their political affiliation, I was just appalled at their approach. There is a way to get your voice heard in this country; they did not follow it. Of course, I also don't think that Rove handled it very well, but then I don't know how I'd handle it if busloads of protestors started banging on my windows.

Dan Froomkin: I haven't heard any official comment. The Post's Steven Ginsberg wrote about this in Monday's paper. I think pretty much everyone agrees it's below the belt.


Roseland, N.J.: How's Scott McClellan doing these days? Seemed he got a real beating from a newly aggressive press corp during the National guard flap. Has he adjusted? Has the corp's aggressive tone changed?

Dan Froomkin: In his Media Notes blog on washingtonpost.com, Howard Kurtz on Friday wrote about how liberal columnists are beating up on Scott McClellan -- for not being a good liar.

For instance, Jonathan Chait writes in the New Republic: "McClellan's ineptitude is made all the more noticeable by the contrast it poses with Ari Fleischer, his syrup-tongued predecessor."


Warsaw, Ky.: An awful lot of anti-Administrations questions are showing up. Am I the only person reading the Post who thinks the President is the best thing that's happened to this country in about 12 years!?

Dan Froomkin: Certainly not. I think they're all just lurking, silently, for now.


Herndon, Va.: Didn't the White House really have a point about not allowing advisors to testify? Even with all the promises of exception, I think Senator Schumer's comment fortels the future of any Congressional inquiry. In the future everyone will be compelled to testify.

Dan Froomkin: There have been, in fact, compelling arguments made by admininstrations from both parties, that allowing Congress to force White House officials to testify can have a chilling effect on their conduct. Everyone want the president to get the best, most honest advice possible.

That said, I think the White House was about the last to realize that this is an extraordinary case. Nothing, but nothing, should be allowed to come in the way of learning everything possible from this tragedy.


Anonymous: What can Bush do? The things that Michael Moore and Paul Krugman are saying about the President are extraordinarily harsh. The accusations against this sitting president are unheard of, at least in my life time. And yet, one can hardly call them "extreme" in their views any more. Their opinions about the president are so common among democrats--and increasing numbers of independents--that one can almost call it "mainstream." Is it fair to say that there is nothing that the President can do to alter these perceptions of his presidency in the next few months before the election? It seems like the most he can do now is damage control--try to prevent the negative viewpoint from becoming even more widespread. Is it worth it for him to try to appear more moderate, or should he just lurch ever more to the right, to shore to up his base?

Dan Froomkin: First of all, I must point out that you can still hear people talk about Bill and Hillary with at least as much venom as you hear directed (by others) at Bush.

But it's a good question. I think that you will see Bush cleaving to two messages until the last polls close: I'm strong, and he's weak.

And I think that can move the dial. Look at the polls I examine in today's column, and the effect that his ads (bearing, essentially, that message) had on the swing states.


Washigton, D.C.: What role do you think that Leno, Letterman, Jon stewart and other political comedians have on he perception of Kerry and Bush in the upcoming election? Jon Stewart is having Clarke on tonight, so a lot of young people will get to hear from him. He had Jon Podhoretz on a few weeks ago

Dan Froomkin: I think that they will have a not inconsiderable role. It used to be they were relevant just as a bellweather, to see who they were making fun of, and how. But increasingly, loathe as I am to admit it, they are a news source, and actually influential. So's Howard Stern.


Washington, D.C.: I disagree that the Rove protest on Sunday afternoon was below the belt. The White House is currently surrounded by a chain link fence with a canvas covering most of the area, so there's really no place for protesters to make a nuisance of themselves in a place where it's traditional to hurl invectives at political leaders or their staffs.

Sure, Rove said some teens were driven to tears by the incident. But we haven't heard about the tears of those families who, like Plame and Clarke, have been on the receiveing end of the Bush smear machine.

The White House seems to like over-the-top verbal attacks, so long as they're the ones dishing out the abuse.

Dan Froomkin: Wow.

I think there's a public sphere and a private sphere. But you make the point that there is some overlap that we tolerate, and some we apparently don't.


Athens, Ga.: Did you think the President's joking about not finding WMD was funny?

Dan Froomkin: I did, initially, yes. Then I was severely upraided by many readers. See Friday's column.


San Diego, Calif.: What do insiders at the White House feel about the national media's (the Post included) obvious bias toward the Democrats. The most recent displays of the liberal bias have been the last two "60 Minutes" episodes -- Stahl was fawning over Clarke, while Bradley attacked Rice with his questions. No mention in the mainstream media of the contrast in the interviews. Does this get under the skin of those in the White House, or do they just accept the bias for what it is?

Dan Froomkin: A lot of it is in the eye of the beholder. I have heard from some people who are outraged at Bradley's fawning on Rice, for instance, and who noted how tough Russert was on Clarke by comparison.


Dan Froomkin: OK, folks. So many questions, so little time. Thanks, and see you again soon. Don't forget to check out White House Briefing every weekday morning.


© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive