White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, November 17, 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 also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org. You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

The transcript follows.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. Today's column focused on the National Security Council -- its new leader, Steve Hadley, and its departing one, Condoleezza Rice.

And regular readers will know that I've been tracking, for the last three days, what appears to be a second-term plan to consolidate power among a handful of highly motivated, unstintingly devoted veterans of Bush's first-term White House.

I'm eager to hear your questions and comments. So bring 'em on.


St. Louis, Mo.: An acquaintance who works at the State Dept. told me 6 months ago that Powell would be replaced by Rice. And that he regarded her as less ideological than the other possiblilities. Your take?

Dan Froomkin: Today's coverage (see my column) is actually somewhat split on whether Rice is, left to her own devices, a hawk. Personally, I'm not sure it matters, because it's quite conceivable that she will NOT in fact be left to her own devices at all. After all, Dick Cheney's not going anywhere.

But is she in fact a moderate, and can her exceptional personal relationship with President Bush trump the hawkishness of the rest of his inner circle?

Stay tuned.


Fresno, Calif.: Dan -- Do you think it's likely that there will be a number of fairly senior State Department folks leaving in despair over the departure of Powell and Armitage and their replacement with Bush super-loyalist Rice? Thanks

Dan Froomkin: Leaving in despair, yes. But of their own volition? Not so much.


Lewiston, N.Y.: Why is there almost no mention in the press of what was commonly acknowledged only a couple of weeks ago -- that Condi Rice was at absolute best a very indifferent National Security Advisor? How long is this fiction going to be maintained?

Dan Froomkin: Read my column today. There is some of that going around.

I always thought that if there were one person whose job description was taking responsibility if and when the president acted on poor intelligence, it was by definition the national security adviser. But I guess not.

It will be interesting to see how pointed the questions are during her confirmation hearing. But it is almost inconceivable that she won't get confirmed -- so all she has to do is not say anything incriminating.


Oregon: Dan, do you think the pressure exerted by the religious right on the White House will be problematic for gay Republicans on the Hill?

Dan Froomkin: There are some pundits out there who believe that the Republican party is in for a civil war in the coming months and years as the deficit hawks, the gay Republicans and the just plain moderate find themselves essentially left out of governing.

But as far as I can tell, most of those pundits are Democrats.


Washington, D.C.: Do the media, including the Post, interpret the President's election victory as some sort of eraser that has wiped away unresolved issues before the election, e.g., accusations that Ms. Rice lied about WMD intelligence leading up to the Iraqi invasion no longer need to be addressed by the media? Similarly could Time magazine's decision to put Karl Rove on its cover also be an example of post-election forgetfulness given that Rove played on religious bigotry to get his base to the polls?

Dan Froomkin: Regarding the first part of your question, no. I think some of the sense of urgency has dissipated, but I think that some elements of the press will continue to plug away at many of the mysteries of the first term.

As for your second part, I think that any story about Karl Rove, cover or not, needs to be fair and include various points of view. In fact about the only thing not debateable about Rove is how influential he was in this election.


Orlando, Fla.: You are obviously a man of poor judgement. We re-elected the President because we like what he is doing and the way he is doing it. He should have people that support his policies, and therefore ours, in the office and around him. These are independent thinkers that happen to agree with him -- get over the fact that the liberal Democratic side LOST -- because we, THE PEOPLE, voted him back in. Stay with your elitist friends that can write articles, but obviously are alienated from the rest of Amaerica, business and normal management policy. For goodness sake, get a brain.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for posting. My column is devoted to carefully scrutinizing the president of the United States and the goings-on in the White House. One of the potent critiques of this White House is that it doesn't brook internal dissent -- and by that, I mean by typical White House standards. I don't think anyone is suggesting he should hire a bunch of liberals -- but isn't there a danger in everyone being so agreeable?


Newport News, Va.: Will you be one of the many media types to throw your hat into Bush's ring? Looks like it with your comments today.
Welcome to the fascist media corps.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for your post. I get it from all sides.


Washington, D.C.: So, when Cheney steps down due to 'health' reasons, who will replace him? i.e. -- which one of the 2008 nomination hopefuls?

Dan Froomkin: If Cheney had coughed just a few more times, there would be no getting the Washington pundits to stop talking about this very interesting question.

It's a fascinating what-if scenario, though, isn't it.

The person he picked would get quite a leg up on his or her rivals, wouldn't he.

But Cheney's fine, isn't he.


San Francisco, Calif.: Dan,

How do you not see Dr `I see a mushroom cloud on the horizon' Rice as a hawk?

Given her (questionable) expertise in Russian affairs, will the Cold War be fired up again?

Dan Froomkin: Well, she squawks like a hawk. But there could be a secret more dove-like Condi just waiting to be free. Or not.

And I think the Russians are OK. What was her famous post-war quote: "Punish the French, ignore the Germans, forgive the Russians"?


Houston, Tex.: Dan --
Keep up the great work. There was some discussion about a report by the CIA critical of some Bush appointees handling of Iraq intelligence. It was supposed to be held until after the election. Will it ever see the light of day now that Porter Goss is in charge?

Dan Froomkin: That's a fine question. I'll keep an ear out.


Arlington, Va.: I find it interesting that three White House aides were named to Cabinet positions and I am not sure that they have experience in managing large enterprises. I am even willing to bet that Rice's job as Provost at Stanford didn't have much of the nitty-gritty administrative experiences. I hope that all of these new people have experienced deputies to do the heavy lifting.

Dan Froomkin: Well, yes, but first they have to install their own heavy-lifting deputies. That's why a lot of people are looking at that next level down, to get a better fix on what Rice and Gonzales in particular will be like.


Biddeford, Maine: Dan,

You don't need to feel compelled to respond to kneejerk demagogues of either side of the partisan aisle (i.e. Orlando.) They're not really interested in your opinion, only to hear themselves talk. Personally, I can do without them in chats (and life in general.)

Dan Froomkin: Well, thanks. But I wouldn't want anyone to think that I'm thin-skinned -- or only willling to listen to one side or the other.


Washington, D.C.: Dan, love the column, read it every day. With that being said -- I do think you listen to both sides and present both sides very well. Keep up the great work! You and Howard Kurtz are my favorites over at the Post!

Dan Froomkin: Well, golly. Thanks. I also happily accept nice posts.


Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Dan, you're obviously a shill for the worst elements of liberal America. No, wait -- you're a spineless toady for the neocons in the Administration.

Or maybe you're just a decent journalist trying to call 'em like you see 'em. I enjoy the column -- keep it up!

Dan Froomkin: I love a lovefest!


Monterey, Calif.: According to The Hill, the day after the election the Secret Service revealed that the mysterious bulge in Bush's jacket during the first debate was, in fact, a bullet proof vest.

Being somewhat familiar with White House media tactics, this only makes me MORE suspicious of what was really there -- as releasing unsavory tidbits when other topics (election results) are dominating the news is standard operating procedure.

Indeed, with everything else going on, SOMEONE released THAT information the day after the election?!

So, Dan: when are you going to follow up? Is anyone still interested?

Dan Froomkin: Well, as I wrote in my Nov. 8 column, The Many Faces of Karl Rove, Rove himself -- after the not very well-sourced Hill item -- blamed the tailor again.

I'm keeping an ear out, but I suspect we've about heard the last of this.


Washington, D.C.: As a recent college grad, I have a plethora of knowledge about International Affairs. But perhaps the best thing I gained from my education is to look at each problem or issue with a multidisciplinary approach. By looking at all sides of the issue you make the best policy decisions for all. I think this is a valuable lesson that the poor sap from Orlando and the Bush Administration should take to heart. If we only make a decision based on one viewpoint then how do we know it was the best possible option out there- we don't. Discussion and arguments are here for a purpose- so our leaders don't lie to us and give the american public what they deserve- the truth and thoughtful policies that will benefit not only us but the world.

Dan Froomkin: Yes, I think everyone would agree. What folks don't agree about is how much of this has happened or will happen in the White House. For the record, here is part of an exchange from Monday's press briefing:

Q Scott, critics are coming out against this resignation by Colin Powell saying things like this signifies a Rumsfeld/Cheney win, hardliners over pragmatists, and basically saying that this administration is not happy with dissenting voices and Powell was one of those. What are your thoughts about that?

MR. McCLELLAN: What are my thoughts about that? I think that that's the typical D.C. speculation game that people like to engage in, no matter how wrong it is. That is not the way I would look at it at all.


Buenos Aires, Argentina: Many people thought that after the elections, George Bush was going to pursue a more moderate foreign policy, trying to rebuild all alliances, considering that almost 49 percent of Americans voted against him. But we can see now with the replacement of Colin Powell with Dr. Rice that instead we will be pushed to more confrontation with Europe and perhaps China sometime in the future. Dr. Rice was the person who said, "We must punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia". Amongst her students at Standford she was well known by her authoritarian style. So what we can expect for the next four years, more pre-emptive wars? more misunderstanding and confrontation with the international community?, a weak United Nations, and a great deal of isolation of the USA.? What positive role the USA can do in the Middle East with all this hawks deciding what is best for the world?

Dan Froomkin: There's some interesting stuff in David E. Sanger and Steven R. Weisman's piece in the New York Times, offering up a different possible narrative. They write that "some officials who know Ms. Rice well do not expect her to take a hard-line hawkish view when she goes to State....

"According to officials who have heard accounts of the case Mr. Bush made to Ms. Rice, he argued that their strong personal ties would convince allies and hostile nations like Iran and North Korea that she was speaking directly for the president and could make deals in his name.

"'This is what Powell could never do,' said a former official who is close to Ms. Rice and sat in on many of the White House situation room meetings where policy conflicts arose. 'The world may have liked dealing with Colin - we all did - but it was never clear that he was speaking for the president. He knew it and they knew it.'"


Houston, Tex.: Dan, you do a great job as always. Is Rice going to get any tough questioning in her confirmation hearing? Is there anything the Dems can do to slow down or throw a wrench in the confirmation process? From her NSC performance any rational person would come to the conclusion she's incompetent and not qualified for the State job.

Dan Froomkin: Yes, no, and thanks for your comment.


Left Coast: It seems fairly clear at this point that one of President Bush's blind spots are exacerbated by a tendency to surround himself with yes men and yes women.

Is there any sign that "the Bush administration" (ie the Bush executive branch "institutionally") is genuinely reviewing its (fairly severe) policy mistakes during it first term and working to correct them?

Are there any signs of genuine humility?

Dan Froomkin: None that I have seen, no. Anyone out there spotted any?


Eau Claire, Wis.: Dan:

I asked you, pre-election, about the Valerie Plame investigation. Now that the election is over and the White House staff is changing, do you foresee a departing staffer being offered up by the administration as a sacrificial lamb to the investigation? Also, why is it that this story, with major security implications, gets so much less play than the scandals surrounding the Clinton administration? Are we, as a people, so shallow that we only care when the details are salacious?

Sorry if too many questions.

Dan Froomkin: Sacrificial lambs are not their style.

I think it's safe to say that most journalists have absolutely no idea what special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is up to, other than harassing journalists.

That makes it hard to write stories.

But I think a lot of people are hoping that, for everyone's sake, he wraps things up shortly.


Make Up My Mind, Will You?: Gee, Dan, I don't think that "everyone would agree" that looking at all sides of an issue is the best way to resolve something, as our recent grad friend suggested. Heck, we can't even get people in this forum to agree whether you're a liberal toady or a conservative shill, fair and balanced or shamelessly partisan, tall or short, and that Scott McLellan seems to be putting a lot less effort into his rebuttals of pointed questions these days.
That said, keep up the good work/unadulterated hackery.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. You readers are truly a delight -- most of the time.


Somewhere Out There: Does anyone in the Press Corps think it is strange that the White House made the 9/11 commission take an oath prior to its formation that it would not discuss the negligence of the President before the election, or is it just me? Isn't that kind of counter-intuitive? The commission is supposed to find out what went wrong and who is to blame, but it is not allowed to blame the President until after the election?

Dan Froomkin:
I've gotten quite a lot of e-mail on this (alleged) topic. From what I can tell, what set this off is an interview Bob Kerrey gave with Paula Zahn on CNN on Nov. 8. He said:

"KERREY: Well, the 9/11 report says in chapter eight -- now that it's beyond the campaign, so the promise I had to keep this out of the campaign is over.

"The 9/11 report in chapter eight says that, in the summer of 2001, the government ignored repeated warnings by the CIA, ignored, and didn't do anything to harden our border security, didn't do anything to harden airport country, didn't do anything to engage local law enforcement, didn't do anything to round up INS and consular offices and say we have to shut this down, and didn't warn the American people.

"The famous presidential daily briefing on August 6, we say in the report that the briefing officers believed that there was a considerable sense of urgency and it was current. So there was a case to be made that wasn't made."

Some readers seem to think the member signed a blood oath. My sense was that they all agreed, not unreasonably, that they would try not to turn the commission into a political battleground. (Others, of course, were free to cudgel Bush with this stuff.)

But maybe I'm naive. I'd like to hear more from Kerrey about this.


Fresno, Calif.: Dan -- I am curious whether, given the several recent resignations of people of consequence at the CIA, you have heard any rumblings that the White House has had second thoughts about the wisdom of the appointment of Porter Goss as the new director. Thanks

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that they are perfectly happy, and that they subscribe (at least for now) to the theory that what is going on is necessary housecleaning -- not, say, a bugout caused by a Hill staffer gone powermad.

Of course that could change.

But isn't it more likely, given everything we've been reading, that the White House is actually pulling a lot of these strings itself?


Rockville, Md.: What I think some are missing about Dr. Rice getting the job at State is that she is very close to the President. When world leaders meet Dr. Rice during these next four years they will know that she speaks directly for the President and that there will be no misunderstanding. During the past years, it seems that some foreign leaders did not think Powell spoke directly for the White House.
Regardless of where you might fall on the political spectrum, isn't this a benefit of the move. AMerica's foriegn policy might run smoother, becasue when Dr. Rice shows up in a European capital they will know her word is the Presidents word as well.

Dan Froomkin: The policies may not make things run smoother, but I think you're absolutely right about the communication.


Bethesda,Md.: I'm confused. Rice is a hawk. It is formally possible that she will become dovish but it's also possible that she will become a Democrat. I'm unsure why journalists like to "mention" possibilities which are not really supported by any facts or reality. Another is this idea that Bush will be more concillatory to Democrats. What evidence or past history would make anyone think that was even remotely possible? Here's a good one, in his second term Bush might replace Cheney with Kerry!

Dan Froomkin: People do change sometimes.

Rice herself, I believe, was once a Democrat. And she used to be (like Bush) quite opposed to nation-building, for instance.

Events, of course, can change people. 9/11 changed a lot of people.

And Bush has actually changed his mind, under pressure, on a lot of things -- like the 9/11 commission, or a homeland security department.

So you never know.

But I wouldn't hold my breath.


Mahopac, N.Y.: Do you think Dr. Rice will be done in by the entrenched State Dept. Beaureaucrats?

Why does the press refer to her as Miss Rice?

Dan Froomkin: There was a wonderful line somewhere this morning about how these bureacracies do often tend to change their leaders, even as the leaders are trying to change the bureacracy. Actually, it was more elegantly said than that.

It's possible. But I don't think the Justice Department career people had much effect on Ashcroft, for instance.

As for Rice, I think it's only the Washington Times that uses the "Miss" construction these days. The Post and many other papers don't typically use honorifics on second reference. The NYT uses "Ms." whether the lady in question is married or not. And Rice is not.


Davis, Calif.: What happened to talk of reaching across the aisle and appointing a Democrat to an important cabinet post? I guess that is all down the drain now!

Dan Froomkin: I don't believe that was White House talk -- I believe that was outside the White House talk.

That said, stay tuned. There's more to come, including, one suspects, the departure of the only Democrat currently in the Cabinet, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Minetta.


Fairfax, Va.: I think the precedent was set way back with Ari Fleischer's resignation for the practice of replacing intelligent voices with robotic loyalists.

Scott McClellan is so unbelievably unresponsive and opaque in his briefings -- if he were to resign, couldn't they simply appoint a machine or one of those dolls with a string to pull to provide similarly illuminating answers? (Is it possible they've already done this and no one has caught on?)

Keep up the good work!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. As for McClellan, well, according to Mike Allen this morning, he's not going anywhere!


Raleigh, N.C.: Do you believe the White House press corp will take a more adversarial (and journalistic) stance towards the administration in this term?

Isn't there a point when the press realizes that the threat of losing 'access' to the administration is a joke because there is no access?

If nothing else how about boycotting the secrecy of the administration by just not reporting the talking points and lies. Leave it Fox News to be the mouthpiece of the Republican party. It's time for journalists to act like journalists and not stenographers.

Dan Froomkin: The corps is not exactly a beast with one brain.

But I think you are not alone in raising these issues. In fact, I'm quite sure you'll hear more about them in the coming weeks and months.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks everyone for another wonderful hour. You can always e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

See you again here in two weeks.


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