Mock the Press

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, July 11, 2007; 1:14 PM

At this morning's ribbon-cutting for the newly renovated White House Briefing Room, President Bush dropped in just long enough to rub reporters' noses in his cheerful refusal to take them seriously.

There would be no answering questions about the war, or Bush's recent assertions of executive privilege, or his role in the CIA leak case. Instead, the president was in full frat-boy mode, clowning around during introductory remarks by C-SPAN's Steve Scully. Despite Scully's effusive "thank you" from the press corps -- for letting them return to their West Wing space after a year of renovations -- Bush apparently felt Scully went on too long. "I like a good, short introduction," Bush jeered as soon as Scully gave up the podium.

Here's the transcript. "We missed you -- sort of," Bush said.

The president seemed most impressed by the improved air-conditioning in the previously overheated room, saying that the change means "a fellow like me would feel comfortable coming in here and answering a few questions without losing 20 pounds."

But of course he didn't. When reporters finally tried to ask questions, Bush waved them off.

"Maybe some other time," he said.

Then he came up with a little game: "Let me cut the ribbon -- are you going to cut it with me, Steve -- and then why don't you all yell simultaneously? (Laughter.) Like, really loudly. (Laughter.) And that way you might get noticed.

"Q It doesn't sound like you're going to answer --

"THE PRESIDENT: . . . I'll, like, listen --

"Q And leave?

"THE PRESIDENT: -- internalize, play like I'm going to answer the question, and then smile at you and just say, gosh -- (laughter) -- thanks, thanks for such a solid, sound question.

"Here we go, ready? I'm going to cut the ribbon. (Laughter.) Then you yell. I cogitate -- and then smile and wave. (Laughter.)"

As the end of this video shows, he then did exactly as advertised.

"Brilliant question," he said, cocking his head, then adding: "Thank you all. See you soon."

Thus did the president inaugurate a room dedicated to interaction with the press with an act of stonewalling.

Here's a photo from over Bush's shoulder, showing a full house. Here is a Reuters photo showing Bush's notes, left at the podium. (Here is a readable version.)

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that "the look of the place generally was praised. The media's work quarters are sleek and uniform -- no-frills, industrial-style desks and booths of tan, silver and black. There even are marble walls, granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances.

But the briefing room backdrop, intended to be a high-tech wonder appropriate for a modern, 24-hour TV world, was widely panned. Its layered frosted-glass panels and two 45-inch flat-screen monitors, flanked by fake white columns and featuring rotating decals depending on the speaker, were derided for lending a gaudy, game-show aura to the most visible face of the White House.

In her Houston Chronicle blog, Julie Mason describes the new podium in two words: Caesar's Palace. And by golly, she has a point. Here's Caesar's; here's the White House.

In the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes that Bush willingness to appear at all was an indulgence to the press -- and an act of desperation.

"Back when he was riding high in the polls, when his every utterance made headlines and the press planes trailing him around the country were still full, President Bush had little need to indulge reporters with ceremonial pleasantries.

"But that is what Mr. Bush intends to do Wednesday, when he cuts the ribbon for the renovated White House briefing room. It is the latest sign of how times have changed for a president who now must work to hold the attention of a press corps that often seems to have lost interest in him. . . .

"Mr. Bush is confronting the fact that he can no longer drive the news agenda as he once could.

"'The president is struggling to assert himself as president and as a powerful figure,' said John M. Elliot, a professor at Kenyon College in Ohio who studies the media in American politics. 'It's harder for him to make news. The American public isn't really listening to him.' . . .

"[S]aid Ron Hutcheson of McClatchy Newspapers, who has covered the entire Bush presidency but is leaving for a job in public relations, 'The truth is that the president is not making the kind of news he made in the first term or even in the start of the second term, especially now that immigration has gone down.'

"Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, disputed that assessment. 'Last time I checked,' he said, 'the White House ends up on the front page every day.'"

Regarding this morning's event, Stolberg writes: "With the White House press corps under attack from liberal bloggers as being too cozy with the Bush administration, some reporters say they feel a little bit queasy about attending. Mr. Snow said the president would not take questions, which poses a quandary for journalists uneasy about being seen with him at a purely ceremonial affair."

USA Today reports: "Some members of the Fourth Estate have protested the lack of questions and answers, especially in light of the politics surrounding the Iraq War, executive privilege and the commutation of Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's prison term."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Like its earlier incarnations over the last 37 years, the room is still over President Franklin D. Roosevelt's enclosed swimming pool, in an area that once also housed massage rooms and servants' quarters -- metaphors, some might say, for a relationship between chief executive and the media criticized as overly cozy."

Here's a " fact sheet" on the briefing room from the White House.

If He Could Turn Back Time

Bush's unscripted " town meeting" with an audience of friendly Cleveland business leaders was notable mostly for how little new the president had to say. Despite the changing political landscape -- with a huge majority of the American public and, now, a growing number of Republican lawmakers demanding a withdrawal of U.S. troops for Iraq -- it was mostly a sloppy collection of old talking points and heartfelt but substance-free assertions.

Fred Kaplan writes in Slate: "It was, even by his standards, an unusually rambling speech, alternately folksy and haranguing. . . .

"Unlike earlier talks of this sort, in which Bush's speechwriters at least assembled some stray facts and passed them off as evidence of progress, this speech -- which seemed entirely improvised -- was founded on nothing but faith."

Said Bush: "I wouldn't ask a mother or a dad -- I wouldn't put their son in harm's way if I didn't believe this was necessary for the security of the United States and peace of the world. And I strongly believe it. And I strongly believe we will prevail. And I strongly believe that democracy will trump totalitarianism every time. That's what I believe. And those are the belief systems on which I'm making decisions that I believe will yield the peace."

But if there was a purpose behind Bush's talk, it may have been to try to set the clock back six months.

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "While most everyone in Washington believes the surge of 30,000 troops in Iraq that began last January is nearing its end, the White House insisted Tuesday that it is only beginning.

"As Senate Democrats began anew to try to force President Bush to withdraw American troops, each move by the White House seems calculated to shift deadlines and benchmarks forward -- and postpone a retreat from Iraq until after Bush leaves office in January 2009. "

When Bush first announced the surge exactly six months ago, the clear indication was that there would be significant progress resulting within a few months.

Consider, for instance, how at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 11, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice predicted significant progress within two or three months. Here is video of the hearing. This exchange with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is at 2:21.

Obama: "Are you telling me that if in six months or whatever time frame you are suggesting that in fact the Maliki government has not performed these benchmarks -- which, by the way, remain not sufficiently explicit, I think, for a lot of us to make decisions on, but let's assume that that surfaces over the next several weeks that this is being debated -- that at that point, you are going to suggest to the Maliki government that we are going to start phasing down our troop levels in Iraq?"

Rice: "Senator, I want to be not explicit about what we might do because I don't want to speculate. But I will tell you this, the benchmark that I'm looking at -- the oil law is important, the political process is extraordinary important -- that the most important thing that the Iraqi government has to do right now is to reestablish the confidence of its population that it's going to be even-handed in defending it. That's what we need to see over the next two or three months, and I think that over the next several months they're going to have to show that."

Obama: "Or else what? . . . "

Rice: "Or this plan -- or this plan is not -- this plan is not going to work."

But yesterday, Bush was suggesting that the clock had just started. "They just showed up," he said of the additional troops, who have been steadily arriving for months. "And they're now beginning operations in full."

'In a While'

There had been much speculation (see yesterday's column, A Karl Rove Solution for Iraq?) that Bush would unveil a new talking point, emphasizing his intent to draw down U.S. forces next year and move toward a more limited mission if security conditions improve.

But Bush made only the vaguest assertion along those lines.

As Jeff Zeleny and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "Fearful of a Republican rebellion over Iraq that his own aides believe could force him to change course, President Bush said Tuesday that the United States would be able to pull back troops 'in a while,' but asked Congress to wait until September to pass judgment on a future military presence there....

"[T]he president signaled more clearly than before that he might be open to shifting toward a smaller, more limited mission in Iraq in the future -- without stating precisely when."

Noam N. Levey and Maura Reynolds write that Bush "defied his critics again, largely repeating the calls for patience he has been making for years and restating his conviction that a successful surge would eventually allow a partial withdrawal."

On the Hill

Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post that a "growing number of Republican dissenters to rally and seek new ways to force President Bush's hand. . . .

"'I think we should continue to ratchet up the pressure -- in addition to our words -- to let the White House know we are very sincere,' said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who broke with the president last month. . . .

"Vice President Cheney attended a closed-door Republican luncheon to appeal for party unity in what Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) called 'a vigorous debate.' "

Kathy Kiely writes in USA Today: "Participants in the luncheon described the atmosphere as highly charged. 'Rip-snorting,' was the adjective [Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore] used."

Fact Check, Part I

While describing his view of the current situation in Iraq yesterday, Bush made a striking assertion: "Al Qaeda is doing most of the spectacular bombings, trying to incite sectarian violence. The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is the crowd that is now bombing people, killing innocent men, women and children, many of whom are Muslims, trying to stop the advance of a system based upon liberty."

But that's not true.

As Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Struggling to stem growing opposition to his Iraq policy even among Republicans, President Bush contended anew Tuesday that the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States are the same as al Qaida in Iraq, a violent Iraqi insurgent group that didn't exist until after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion....

"Al Qaida in Iraq didn't emerge until 2004. While it is inspired by Osama bin Laden's violent ideology, there's no evidence that the Iraq organization is under the control of the terrorist leader or his top aides, who are believed to be hiding in tribal regions of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan."

He adds: "While U.S. intelligence and military officials view al Qaida in Iraq as a serious threat, they say the main source of violence and instability is an ongoing contest for power between majority Shiites and Sunnis, who dominated Saddam Hussein's regime."

Michael Abramowitz notes in The Washington Post: "In his speech, Bush once again conflated two organizations, al-Qaeda in Iraq and the international network led by Osama bin Laden, saying that the same group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, is responsible for much of the violence in Iraq. While the Iraq militants are inspired by bin Laden, intelligence analysts say the Iraqi group is composed overwhelmingly of Iraqis and does not take direction from bin Laden."

And the Los Angeles Times reports: "By describing the U.S. effort in Iraq largely as a struggle against Al Qaeda, President Bush on Tuesday reached for a familiar -- but widely questioned -- way of defining the war."

Fact Check, Part II

Julian E. Barnes and Ned Parker write in the Los Angeles Times: "In the next few days, the Bush administration is scheduled to release a preliminary assessment of its overall Iraq strategy. Officials may point to signs of progress scattered across the country: a reduction in death-squad killings in Baghdad, agreements with tribal leaders in Al Anbar province, offensives north and south of the capital."

But, they write: "U.S. forces so far have been unable to establish security, even for themselves. Iraqis continue to flee their homes, leaving mixed areas and seeking safety in religiously segregated neighborhoods. About 32,000 families fled in June alone, according to figures compiled by the United Nations and the Iraqi government that are due to be released next week.

"U.S. forces have staged offensives to push insurgents out of some safe havens. But many of the insurgents have escaped to new areas of the country, launching attacks where the U.S. presence is lighter.

"And there has been no sign of any of the crucial political progress the administration had hoped to see in Iraq."

Barnes and Parker also put in context another one of the military's goals: "Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said that American troops at the end of June controlled about 42% of the city's neighborhoods, up from 19% in April.

"But to many Iraqis, that is little comfort.

"'The Americans do not make me feel safe,' said Amin Sadiq, a 30-year-old Shiite worker in the Ghadeer neighborhood of east Baghdad. 'When you hear the speeches of the top U.S. military leaders, you think that everything is ideal and perfect and Iraq will be better. But when you see how the U.S. soldiers behave, I really feel I should not trust the leaders.'"

Fact Check, Part III

The White House released its own " Fact Check" yesterday, "Responding to Key Myths" about Iraq.

Here are some of the assertions, listed as myths and facts. You decide which are which.

* "The war 'is lost.'"

* "The surge of operations is just beginning."

* "The U.S. is playing 'whack-a-mole' in Iraq."

* "The U.S. has an indefinite commitment in Iraq and should shift to training Iraqi troops."

* "The current strategy in Iraq is a temporary surge in military, civilian, and diplomatic resources driven by the views of our commanders on the ground."

* "Leaving Iraq to al Qaeda terrorists would endanger both Iraqis and Americans, embolden Iran, and solve no problems at all."

* "U.S. troops are 'arming' Sunni insurgents in Iraq."

* "Commanders are taking advantage of an important opportunity to reach out to locals who want to fight against al Qaeda and are recruiting them into the government of Iraq."

* "There is no evidence that Maliki or his wing of the Da'wa Party is an agent or puppet of Iran."

* "U.S. troops are sent to Iraq without proper training, equipment, or rest."

Executive Privilege

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's former political director Sara M. Taylor obeyed his instructions and declined to answer most of Congress' questions Wednesday about her role in the firings of federal prosecutors. . . .

"Taylor did reveal a few details: She said she did not recall ordering the addition or deletion of names to the list of prosecutors to be fired. And she disputed testimony by Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff, that Taylor wanted to avoid submitting a new prosecutor, Tim Griffin, through Senate confirmation. . . .

"Some lawmakers said by picking and choosing what questions to answer, she weakened Bush's executive privilege claim."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Mr. Bush's claim is baseless. Executive privilege, which is not mentioned in the Constitution, is a judge-made right of limited scope, intended to create a sphere of privacy around the president so that he can have honest discussions with his advisers. The White House has insisted throughout the scandal that Mr. Bush -- and even Mr. Gonzales -- was not in the loop about the firings. If that is the case, the privilege should not apply.

"Even if Mr. Bush was directly involved, [former White House counsel Harriet] Miers and Ms. Taylor would have no right to withhold their testimony. The Supreme Court made clear in the Watergate tapes case, its major pronouncement on the subject, that the privilege does not apply if a president's privacy interests are outweighed by the need to investigate possible criminal activity. Congress has already identified many acts relating to the scandal that may have been illegal, including possible obstruction of justice and lying to Congress. . . .

"If Congress backs down, it would not only be compromising an important investigation of Justice Department malfeasance. It would be doing serious damage to the balance of powers."

Bush's Legacy

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "Among pressing issues left on the table: What's next in Iraq. How to restore America's reputation around the world. Whether to extend tax cuts that expire in 2010. What to do about Medicare's looming shortfall. And how to complete the job of helping the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Katrina.

"No new president gets a clean slate -- global politics and the economy don't run in neat four-year cycles -- but presidential scholars say the unfinished business Bush will leave for his successor is unprecedented since at least World War II.

"'I can't think of a single modern president about to bequeath to his successor such a difficult agenda and such a damaged presidency,' says Paul Light of New York University. . . .

"White House spokesman Tony Snow says that Bush deserves credit for passing on a healthy economy and tackling daunting problems -- from Islamic terrorism to Social Security's finances to a broken immigration system.

"'What the president does bequeath to his successor is a much greater sense of some of the challenges of the world,' Snow says."

Furthermore, "Snow counters that Bush inherited serious problems from President Clinton, too, though they may not have been obvious at the time."

The Commutation and the Public

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush's commutation of a prison term for a former aide to Vice President Cheney did not play well with the public or even Republicans, a survey found.

"In a USA Today-Gallup poll released on Tuesday, 66 percent said Bush should not have intervened in the case of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, whose sentence for obstructing justice in the CIA leak case included a 2 1/2-year prison term.

"Thirteen percent said the president's move was correct, and 6 percent said Bush should have given Libby a full pardon.

"Bush didn't even receive much of a boost in support from Republicans. Among them, 44 percent said Bush should not have taken action in the case. Ten percent said he should have pardoned Libby while only 26 percent said Bush did the correct thing."

Bush Family Tradition

Frank Newport blogs for USA Today: "The senior President Bush underwent a job approval rating drop of 60 points during his career in the White House. Now his son had duplicated that feat."

Muzzling the Nation's Doctor

Gardiner Harris writes in the New York Times: "Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told a Congressional panel Tuesday that top Bush administration officials repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations.

"The administration, Dr. Carmona said, would not allow him to speak or issue reports about stem cells, emergency contraception, sex education, or prison, mental and global health issues. Top officials delayed for years and tried to 'water down' a landmark report on secondhand smoke, he said. . . .

"Dr. Carmona said he was ordered to mention President Bush three times on every page of his speeches."

The White House's cynical, nonresponsive comment: "It's disappointing to us if he failed to use his position to the fullest extent in advocating for policies he thought were in the best interests of the nation."

Here are some video excerpts from Carmona's testimony.

Cheney's Budget

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Democrats moved Tuesday to cut off funding for Vice President Dick Cheney's office in a continuing battle over whether he must comply with national security disclosure rules.

"A Senate appropriations panel chaired by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., refused to fund $4.8 million in the vice president's budget until Cheney's office complies with parts of an executive order governing its handling of classified information.

"At issue is a requirement that executive branch offices provide data on how much material they classify and declassify. That information is to be provided to the Information Security Oversight Office at The National Archives."

Bush's Brain (Surgery)

Mark Naymik blogs for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "President Bush made a 20-minute stop at the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Center, where he performed a simulated brain surgery.

"Standing before a rubber replica of a human brain, the president moved a hand-control that helps teach doctors how to implant deep brain stimulation devices. . . .

"The president was briefly interrupted by laughter induced by top-advisor Karl Rove, who was entertaining several reporters and White House officials nearby."

Bush's Comedic Stylings

Mark Knoller blogs for CBS News: "The late night comedy shows ought to put President Bush on the payroll. He makes it too easy for them."

In Cleveland, Knoller writes, Bush "offered up the presidential quote of the day:

"'Look -- nobody's accused me of being Shakespeare, you know?'

"We know.

"As the laughter died out, he offered what amounts to his philosophy of communications.

"'I just hope you can figure out what I'm saying.'

"Those of us in journalism often hope the same thing."

Clueless Quote of the Day

Bush spent a fair amount of time talking about health care yesterday, as well.

"The immediate goal is to make sure there are more people on private insurance plans. I mean, people have access to health care in America," he said. "After all, you just go to an emergency room."

Live Online

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Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on support for Bush; John Sherffius and David Horsey on the cost of the war; and Steve Sack on Scooter Libby.

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