Meeting at a Glance

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, April 29, 2004; 9:22 AM

The 9/11 commission visits the White House today, and here's what we know about the meeting:

• It's taking place in the Oval Office.

• It started at 9:30 a.m. and is expected to last at least two and maybe as long as three or four hours.

• There will be no recordings or transcript, just note-taking.

• No one will be under oath.

• President Bush and Vice President Cheney were expected to be joined by White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and two other members of the White House legal team.

• All 10 commissioners were expected to attend along with one commission staff member (who one hopes knows shorthand).

• Details may not come out until the commission issues its report, due in late July. But some leaks -- and at least some announcement from the White House -- are expected after the meeting breaks up.

What They'll Cover

Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post that the commissioners will cover "a wide range of topics . . . including whether the administration could have done more to combat al Qaeda in early 2001 and whether it should have been better prepared for a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, according to commission officials."

Plus: "Panel investigators have discovered evidence that casts doubt on several official narratives that emerged about that day. One focuses on early White House statements that Bush initially did not return to Washington on Sept. 11 because he was told the White House received a phone call saying that Air Force One was a target."

Terence Hunt of the Associated Press writes: "President Bush has a good idea of the questions he'll face and who will ask the toughest ones when he steps into the Oval Office on Thursday to talk privately with the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. His central theme is expected to be that he had no hint about when or where terrorists would strike."

Jeff Zeleny notes in the Chicago Tribune: "Late Wednesday, an administration official said the interview with Bush and Cheney would take place in the Oval Office, the pre-eminent symbol of power inside the White House."

Problems With the White House Narrative

Scott J. Paltrow had a story in the Wall Street Journal last month that bears revisiting today because its revelations were almost completely overlooked in the scrum over the release of Richard A. Clarke's book.

Allow me to plagiarize from my own March 22 column:

Paltrow wrote: "Among other things, the commission is examining such questions as how long Mr. Bush remained in a Florida classroom just after the World Trade Center strikes, whether there really was a threat to Air Force One that day, how effectively American fighter jets reacted to the attacks, and who activated the national-emergency-response plan."

White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., who famously whispered in the president's ear, "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack," has previously said that Bush left the Florida classroom he was sitting in within seconds.

But Paltrow wrote that "uncut videotape of the classroom visit obtained from the local cable-TV station director who shot it, and interviews with the teacher and principal, show that Mr. Bush remained in the classroom not for mere seconds, but for at least seven additional minutes. He followed along for five minutes as children read aloud a story about a pet goat. Then he stayed for at least another two minutes, asking the children questions and explaining to Ms. Rigell that he would have to leave more quickly than planned."

Paltrow wrote: "Both Republican and Democratic commissioners have said they are focusing closely on what happened next -- and whether mere minutes could have affected the outcome on Sept. 11. The panel's investigators are looking at questions such as the timeliness of presidential orders about intercepting the jet that at 9:37 a.m. plowed into the Pentagon."

Paltrow also wrote that Bush could not have been telling the truth when he told a town-hall meeting in December, 2001: "I was sitting outside the classroom, waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower -- the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly myself, and I said, 'Well, there's one terrible pilot.' "

There was no such video until late that night, and the TV wasn't even plugged in, Paltrow wrote.

About That Joint Appearance

Washington eyebrows remain arched over Bush's insistence that Cheney accompany him to the meeting. (Or was it Cheney's insistence that he have Bush for cover? Some cynical readers have been e-mailing me with that idea lately.)

And on the eve of the historic meeting, two more nonresponsive answer about the reasons behind the joint appearance -- one from Bush, one from McClellan.

From Bush's photo-op yesterday with the Swedish prime minister:

"Q Yes, thank you, Mr. President. What does Vice President Cheney bring to your 9/11 testimony that you couldn't provide alone? And don't you owe history and the 9/11 families a transcript or a recording?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: What he's asking about is a meeting I'm going to have tomorrow morning, talking with this 9/11 Commission about -- my attitude and the attitude of the Vice President about our country, our security, what happened on that particular date, what happened leading up to that. And I look forward to the discussion. I look forward to giving the commissioners a chance to question both of us. And it's a -- it will be an ample -- it will be a good opportunity for people to help write a report that hopefully will help future Presidents deal with terrorist threats to the country."

And from McClellan's press briefing:

"Q Scott, just on the 9/11 -- I'm trying to -- I'm still trying to understand the argument behind insisting that the Vice President and the President appear together, and why a transcript -- why you all feel a transcript should not be provided. And I guess I just don't understand why the President wouldn't answer that directly, when it was asked of him today. He completely dodged the question.

"MR. McCLELLAN: The President is focused on helping the commission complete its important work. That's where the President's focus is. And I think I've been through --

"Q I didn't ask where his focus was. I mean, that's fine, wherever his focus is. I'm asking a specific question. I'm just wondering why nobody will answer it. I mean, we may just want to understand the thinking here --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, I think I have addressed it. I addressed it yesterday, David, when the question came up, and I addressed it a few weeks ago when it came up in the briefing room, as well, and I talked about that very issue. This is a good opportunity for the President and Vice President to sit down together with the commission and help them piece together all the information that they have been provided. This is not an adversarial process. We're all working together to learn the lessons of September 11th and look at what else we might do, in addition to the steps we've already taken, to win the war on terrorism. That's where our focus is.

"The President is firmly committed to doing everything it takes to win the war on terrorism, and taking all steps to try to prevent attacks from happening in the first place."

Poll Watch

Richard W. Stevenson and Janet Elder write in the New York Times about some bad polling news for the president.

"Support for the war in Iraq has eroded substantially over the past several months, and Americans are increasingly critical of the way President Bush is handling the conflict, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll," they write.

Bush's approval rating "now stands at 46 percent, the lowest level of his presidency in The Times/CBS News Poll, down from 71 percent last March and a high of 89 percent just after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001."

In fact, Bush's disapproval rating of 47 percent is now higher than his approval rating.

There's lots more numbers and a graphic on the Web site.

But is the Times trying to defuse its own bombshell? An unsigned sidebar explains how its poll compares to other recent ones -- and why. In short: "The New York Times/CBS News Poll's main findings were consistent with trends in some other recent polls but somewhat more negative for Mr. Bush." But "in statistical terms" they're "virtually the same."

Attacking Cheney

Greg Hitt of the Wall Street Journal describes "an increasingly pointed Democratic strategy of trying to define the president -- and erode his personal credibility -- by turning Mr. Cheney into a symbol of Republican excess. . . .

"Just yesterday, Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey derided the vice president as the Bush administration's 'lead chickenhawk,' capping a volatile day on Capitol Hill that saw a series of jibes against the student deferments that kept Mr. Cheney out of Vietnam in the 1960s. Seizing on a Supreme Court case surrounding records of the vice president's energy task force, Democrats mocked the White House's commitment to secrecy.

"Mr. Cheney's scheduled appearance alongside Mr. Bush in closed-door testimony before the Sept. 11 commission today -- an arrangement critics say is meant to help the two men keep their stories straight -- prompted a Democratic National Committee memo titled 'What Do They Have To Hide?' "

An Embryonic Election Issue

Rick Weiss writes in The Washington Post: "More than 200 members of the House of Representatives petitioned President Bush yesterday to loosen current rules governing medical research on human embryonic stem cells, saying the system he imposed nearly three years ago is stifling the promising field and delaying the development of cures.

"The bipartisan push includes several of Bush's conservative supporters and is the latest effort by scientists, advocates for patients and others to place the controversial topic on the election-year agenda."

But, Weiss writes: "In a brief statement yesterday, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president 'continues to believe' the policy is adequate."

Can't remember what stem cells are? Or what Bush's position is? Go visit's Stem Cell Special Report.

The Court and Presidential Power

Charles Lane writes in The Washington Post: "As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in cases involving the military detention of two U.S. citizens suspected of membership in the Taliban and al Qaeda, the justices indicated that a central concern of the court is whether President Bush has acted with sufficient authorization from Congress.

"No administration anti-terrorism policy has aroused more debate than its contention that Bush, as commander in chief, has the power to declare citizens captured at home or abroad 'enemy combatants' based on intelligence information, and then hold them indefinitely, without criminal charges, for interrogation."

Linda Greenhouse writes in the New York Times: "A majority of the justices expressed some degree of concern over the breadth of the administration's position."

That Big Dinner

Washington Post columnist Richard Leiby keeps us up-to-the-minute on plans for Saturday's White House Correspondents Association dinner.

Even co-headliner Jay Leno is wondering whether Bush, who will speak first, is planning on making any jokes. Tradition calls for humor, but that backfired at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner a few weeks ago.

"I'm wondering if Bush is going to be very serious this year because he took so much grief about the weapons of mass destruction jokes," Leno tells Leiby.

What would you do if you were Bush? E-mail me at

Plame Watch

Leiby also has some highlights from the new book by former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. "Those hoping to solve the mystery of who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak . . . won't find a clear answer," he writes. "But in 'The Politics of Truth,' set for release tomorrow, Wilson points to Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, as 'quite possibly the person who exposed my wife's identity.' "

Here's some background on Libby.

The Jesus Factor

In the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley reviews the "Frontline" documentary "The Jesus Factor," on PBS tonight.

The central question, she writes: "Do most Americans realize just how fervent the president's evangelical faith really is? . . .

" 'The Jesus Factor' examines Mr. Bush's faith by mingling his public pronouncements with interviews with friends; fellow members of the Community Bible Study group in Midland, Tex.; evangelical leaders; and Texas journalists who covered him. . . .

" 'I believe that God wants me to be president,' is what Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, recalls hearing Mr. Bush say in a meeting with close associates on the day of his second inaugural as governor of Texas."

The Frontline Web site promises extra material after the show's broadcast.

Next Week's Calendar

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Shadowing his political rival, President Bush will forsake Air Force One next week and campaign by bus in Michigan and Ohio, two key battleground states.

"News outlets in Iowa and Wisconsin reported that Bush's bus tour would stop later next week in those states, but the White House refused to confirm the reports."

What's a Twitch?

Ron Hutcheson and William Douglas of Knight Ridder Newspapers write this morning: "If President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were roommates, they'd be the classic odd couple: an outgoing, mercurial twitch paired with a reserved, somber stiff."

Connections Help

Melanie Yeager of the Tallahassee Democrat writes about how Florida State University got Cheney to be its commencement speaker, this coming Saturday. Turns out a senior used his connections -- as an intern last fall for Karl Rove.

The visit has inspired FSU's Students United for Peace and Justice to launch an anti-Cheney Web site.

Late Night Humor

From NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" via Reuters: "Tomorrow President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are scheduled to testify before the 9/11 commission. Right now they're finalizing the seating arrangements, should Bush sit on Cheney's right knee or left knee?"

© 2004