White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, May 18, 2005; 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 Wednesdays at 1 p.m. ET.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org . You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com .

A transcript follows.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk.

So much to chat about today, including the White House's foray into media criticism (main subject of my column today), the British memo that might tend to suggest that the fix was in on Iraq long before the White House was willing to say so in public, whether President Bush is a Sith , the semi-rebellious Republicans in Congress - and the president's enforced obliviousness last week even as the White House was being evacuated. And that's just the last week!


Del Ray, Va.: After a few years of watching the White House press secretaries, the inevitable question arises. Who are these people and why would anyone want to do this job? The lying, the evasions, the non answers to the non questions, and the non sequiturs just keep on coming, and the whole bizarre dance just begins to seem sooooooo superfluous.

Dan Froomkin: Your question, like most that I get here, to be honest, not only reflects your distaste for this White House, but your inability to see things from another perspective. The press secretaries at the White House see theirs as a noble mission, to get the president's message out. Pure and simple. Anything else is a distraction, a risk, or an indulgence.

They see most of us reporters as conflict-obsessed gotcha-wielding malcontents who must be skillfully manipulated into being the bearers of that message. Just imagine, for a moment, that you were in their position. Why in God's name would you answer a question forthrightly if it distracted from the message? When Scott McClellan repeats, over and over again, the same pat phrases that are in fact utterly nonresponsive to the questions being posed, he thinks he's doing a great job. And by his definition, he is.

Now all that said, I think it is reasonable to ask: Why is it that forthrightly answering questions is seen as distracting from this administration's message, rather than amplifying it? I've been meaning to try to write something about that.


Anonymous: I started thinking you had left The Post.

Where have you been?

Dan Froomkin: I'm guessing you are referring to the difficulties some people are having finding and, once found, reading my column. Ever since the washingtonpost.com Web site installed a new publishing system there have been, um, problems. I hope to be able to tell you all soonish that they have been resolved.

In fact, technical difficulties are - even as we speak -- apparently preventing today's column from getting published, even though I finished it hours ago. Awfully sorry. Will try to let you know when it's out.

In the meantime, here's a taste of the top:

Simmering tensions between the White House and the media about such issues as credibility, accountability, and the appropriate role of the press burst into full boil yesterday as spokesman Scott McClellan took to his podium in the briefing room and proceeded to tell Newsweek magazine how it should do its job.

In one of the most belligerent briefings yet (here's the complete transcript ) McClellan and the press corps traded shots in the wake of the news magazine's retraction of a report that a Pentagon investigation had confirmed that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay threw a Koran in the toilet.

McClellan said that Newsweek should make further amends for its mistake "by talking about the way they got this wrong, and pointing out what the policies and practices of the United States military are when it comes to the handling of the Holy Koran."

To which ABC News's Terry Moran replied: "With respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek? Do you think it's appropriate for you, at that podium, speaking with the authority of the President of the United States, to tell an American magazine what they should print?"

"Are you asking them to write a story about how great the American military is; is that what you're saying here?" asked New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller....

Not explicitly stated in the briefing room, but the buzz of the blogosphere, is what some consider the ironic nature of McClellan's position, given that the Bush White House has made considerably bigger and vastly more consequential mistakes than Newsweek ever has - but hasn't exactly jumped to make amends itself.

And a big question in today's coverage is whether the White House is jumping all over Newsweek for purely political purposes.


Washington, D. C.: In your May 13 "Memo Watch" about The Post not covering the Downing Street memo's allegations by the head of the British Secret Service that Bush was fixing the facts to justify his desire to invade Iraq, (quite a serious charge); you said, "What is left to study about the use of intelligence?". Since then The Post's Ombudsman called a Post investigation of the memo as "journalistically mandatory" as it was the assessment of our key ally in the war. Do you still feel that The Post should continue to avoid investigating the implications of the memo and not look into whether the allegations by Mr. Dearlove were true or false? After all, why would our President direct the intelligence be "fixed"?

Dan Froomkin: Whoa whoa whoa. Here's the May 13 column .

I didn't ask that. Rick Levin asked that! I was quoting Levin, the president of Yale University and a member of the White House's WMD commission, from a fascinating Q and A in the Yale Alumni Magazine .

Herewith the perils of cutting and pasting so much.

But to answer your question, I think there are lots of good questions to be asked, based on the memo, starting with how did Dearlove come to that conclusion?


Kansas: I believe it was editorialized in the New York Times that there has been a failure to report the Bolton story as one where Bush is doing his usual work of rewarding loyalty without regard to competence. Condi Rice doesn't need watching like Powell did; and these factors have more to do with the Bolton nomination, rather than any goal to reform the U.N. Do you have a view on this issue?

Dan Froomkin: Well, since you asked... I think the Bolton nomination is, at its heart, about one thing, and it's something you haven't mentioned. It's about Dick Cheney. Bolton is Cheney's man. My read on things is that Condi wanted him out of State, and Cheney was going to be golly-darned if Bolton got thrown out on his ear. So it was agreed to put him at the U.N. (by any accounts, an odd fit for a guy who thinks so poorly of it.)

After the election, even as Bush was very publicly putting his loyalists in key positions, Cheney was exceedingly successful at - very quietly -- installing his people in key "deputy level" positions throughout the White House. That gives him enormous and quiet power, even by his first-term standards.

The Bolton move, unfortunately for Cheney, had to be a bit more public.

Cheney doesn't like to lose, and I'm increasingly thinking that he won't lose this one. But he may ultimately lose for winning, since his people seem to do better out of the spotlight.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Dan. Love your work. The questions you wrote and recommended be asked of the administration were as good as I've seen and I sincerely hope any White House reporter who reads them feels free to use them (i.e., not too proud to use someone else's questions).

So, how would you question the White House regarding its reaction to the Newsweek story? Specifically, I've already heard some journalists taking the White House to task for saying, in effect, Newsweek was sloppy, their sources were unreliable, and people died as a result of their actions when, of course, the same sentence could be applied to the administration's action leading up to the war in Iraq.

What kind of question would you ask Scott McClellan (or George himself !!) if you wanted to get them to address this double standard (or make them look flustered in their evasions)?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you! I believe you're referring to the questions I suggested in my April 28 column , just before Bush's last press conference.

I despair of asking any question of McClellan that will throw him off his prepackaged patter.

As for Bush, let me turn this around: Do you folks have any questions that you think might get Bush to address this issue of a double standard? And the challenge here is not just to ask a question that sounds pretty when you ask it -- but instead to ask one that might actually elicit a thoughtful answer.


Columbia, Mo.: In the Midwest, we call people who act like Elisabeth Bumiller and Terry Moran "jerks". Do you call them "journalists" is D.C.?

Dan Froomkin: Yup.

But your reaction is very telling.

It's one of the reasons -- for better or for worse -- that you don't see scenes like yesterday very often.


Seattle, Wash.: Have there been any follow up stories about Bush's bicycling trip during the D.C. evacuation? It seems like this has dropped off the radar completely.

Dan Froomkin: I haven't seen a single one, with the possible exception of Marc Fisher 's column the other day about how "the same president who repairs to Patuxent for his recreation has saddled the refuge with budget cuts that have forced a sharp reduction in its public opening hours and other services."

I'm sort of astonished -- but this I guess is the fruit borne of the White House not telling us stuff. Someone asked about the issue at yesterday's press briefing, and McClellan just blew the question off.

How is it possible that the president could have wanted to remain uninformed while so much of official Washington was running out of their offices in panic? And while his wife was being evacuated?

All the commander in chief stuff aside, it's just not human.

So I want to know more.


Atlanta, Ga.: Dan: Isn't the White House's feigned outrage over Newsweek nothing more than an exercise in "changing the subject" from less pleasing topics like the ongoing carnage in Iraq and the President's obliviousness to last weeks "red alert" in the capital? Why does the media allow itself to get thrown off the trail of REAL stories so easily?

Dan Froomkin: Tradition?

I'm not sure they hadn't already sort of given up on covering those other stories, at least as much as they deserved.

And what's interesting about this story is that, should the White House lose its control over it, it actually threatens to call attention to what is perhaps the White House's least pleasing topic: The abuse of prisoners at the hands of the military.


Raleigh, N.C.: "Columbia, Mo.: In the Midwest, we call people who act like Elisabeth Bumiller and Terry Moran "jerks". Do you call them "journalists" is D.C.?

Dan Froomkin: Yup.

But your reaction is very telling."

Actually I think the press' testy questions were more telling of the press' biases toward itself. The reason there was such a strong session of questioning yesterday was because journalists felt like the administration was trampling on their own turf. Kind of like, "How dare Scottie tell us how to do our jobs!".

Too bad we can't get that kind of tough questioning on subjects that have a little bit more long term importance, like say....Bush's Social Security plan, or the impact of Bush's tax cuts on the budget in the next decade and beyond.

And if Columbia, Mo. had been following White House press briefings over the last four years, he might rethink who he thinks is the one acting like a jerk.

Dan Froomkin: An interesting point. Thanks.


Carl's Corner, Tex.: Dan: What's the President going to do when this highway bill hits his desk? Will he really veto it? (Something he's NEVER done before.) Or is the veto threat nothing more than big talk?

Dan Froomkin: Wouldn't that be exciting? An actual veto?

I think Bush has backed himself into a bit of a corner on this one -- but wait! There's still a House-Senate conference in the offing to help him out.

I suspect they'll work something out.


Wilmington, N.C.: Q: Scott, to go back to Dana's question, are you saying that General Myers was wrong, therefore, that this -- the violence he's talking about? Are you saying he was wrong in his assessment of what happened in Afghanistan?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, not at all. In fact, maybe you didn't hear me, but as I said, there are people that are opposed to the United States that look at every opportunity to try to do damage to our image in the region, and --

"White House concedes Afghan protest violence not connected to Newsweek Story". No?

Dan Froomkin: Ha!

Or how about: "McClellan Changes Subject Rather Than Answer Question."


Baltimore, Md.: In yesterday's briefing, a questioner asked "Richard Myers, last Thursday -- I'm going to read you a quote from him. He said, "It's a judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eichenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran." He said it was "more tied up in the political process and reconciliation that President Karzai and his cabinet were conducting." And he said that that was from an after-action report he got that day. "

First, who is Richard Myers. Second, was this angle covered in any news stories today, I may have missed them. If this is true and the demonstrations were the result of something else, it would appear the White House has jumped on Newsweek to deflect attention from the underlying cause of the demonstrations and we're all missing something. I'd like to read more about this, just haven't seen it reported yet and wondering if you have.

Dan Froomkin: He's the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

And my column is out!


In it, you will find among other things. a link to a story by Bill Straub of Scripps Howard Newspapers that I believe will meet your needs.


Columbus, Ohio: Re comments on reporters pressing McClellan: In our part of the Midwest, we wonder why the reporters don't stand up and ask for straight talk from the White House more often! I vote for the "jerks".

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Portland, Maine: Scott McClellan has created his own environment. He should consider himself fortunate not to face pitchforks and torches each afternoon. More power to the reporters. Make his life miserable until he accounts for himself and his President before America.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. What an image.


Cody, Wyo.: Mr. Froomkin - What is up with the twins? The Bush Twins, that is.

Dan Froomkin: Nada! But weren't they supposed to be getting jobs or something?


Lima, Ohio: Regarding your comments about Mr. Cheney: does his positioning of people in key places support the discussion that he intends to be a candidate for the presidency?

Dan Froomkin: Yes and no. They illustrate just how exceedingly ambitious and powerful he is, yes. But they also show how he operates much better in the shadows.


Planet Naboo: I loved "The Empire Strikes Bush." I must have forwarded that to half a dozen people (which is a lot for me.) It was equally great for me because for the first time, I looked at the events of the original trilogy through the eyes of a citizen of the Empire. They must have been horrified by the terrorist attacks that destroyed their Peace Star.

It also recalled a line from Vader when questioned about the ways of the Force. "I find your lack of faith disturbing." Given the current climate in Washington...chilling.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. That column did strike a nerve with a lot of people.

After the last two movies, me has a hard time thinking that this one will significantly impact people on a moral or intellectual level. But the reviews suggest it's pretty intense. So who knows?

I'll have more on Lucas in the next few days, too.


Columbia, Md.: I can't be the only one going crazy over this, but is there any other kind of vote besides up or down? McClellan said "up or down vote" 20 times in his briefing yesterday, the redundancy is nuts! Just once I'd like someone to ask him if a "back and forth" vote or "right or left" or some other kind of vote is possible and could he and other Republicans stop acting like some brainwashed cult with their buzzwords! All they need to say is vote, they sound like the Hare Krishna with the "up or down" adjective repetition.

Dan Froomkin: You would not last long in the briefing room.

But then again, neither would I.


Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Hi Dan,

Henry Kissinger wrote an op-ed in The Post a few days ago that seemed to me to be openly critical of the confrontational style of U.S. foreign policy. Maybe I have been asleep, but I have not seen any coverage of this. Is Kissinger obsolete?

Dan Froomkin: You're referring to this piece .

I'd say there are three leading possibilities: 1) He's obsolete. 2) No one understood what he was saying. 3) People are still mulling.

I'll admit to being at No. 2, though maybe I should give it a longer look.


Monterey, Calif.: White House hypocrisy reached a new low this week with Scott McClellen's touching assessment of the Newsweek story: "People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged."

How easily these words could flow out of Mr McClellen's mouth related to "the media", when he and his masters can't even begin to acknowledge the terror, disruption, massive loss of life, chaos, increased hatred of the United States that their own policies have unleashed on Iraq, the Middle East, and the world over the past four years.

(Not to mention how hard they work to suppress all of the information about that.)

Their tactics are so predictable, brazen, and bare at this point that watching it is just a pathetic tragedy. Poor Scott McClellen must be one of the most wretched human beings on the planet.

I get a sense that the American people, and the media, are finally catching on.

What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I certainly know what you think.

Let me answer your question this way.

The White House's response to increased anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world (and elsewhere, for that matter) has been, almost without exception, to see it as a PR problem, rather than as in any way a not entirely irrational response to White House policy. Now they've got something else to blame it on, at least for the moment: Newsweek!

Will it work? Among the conservative media and bloggers, yes. Among the rest of the country, and the world? Probably not. But you never know.


Louisville, Ky.: I want to thank you for following the Downing Street memo story when seemingly no one in the mainstream media wants to bring it to the forefront. Regardless of political persuasion, it is an important document and in less partisan times, it would be bigger news, right?

Given that President Bush declared the 2004 election to be his "accountability moment" and has (apparently) passed, do you think we are going to have to wait until a possible Democratic Congress in order for this and similar issues to gain any real traction? If the New York Times and the front page of The Washington Post won't carry particularly damning evidence of pre-invasion malfeasance right now, when will they?

Dan Froomkin: You're welcome, and I don't know.

I think there's plenty about the run-up to war that we still don't know for sure. And I'm a little surprised at the lack of appetite for this story.


Bethesda, Md.: Given the now legendary cowardice of our MSM during this administration concerning the Iraq lies, I'm here to a suggest a weaselly way that even OUR hapless media could put the administration on the spot: Ask Mr. McClellan if the President has any response to the 90 congressional Democrats who have queried him regarding the Downing Street memo. I know the media doesn't feel it is their place to actually ask pointed questions, but they could, you know, say that those 90 Democrats want to know.

Dan Froomkin: You're referring to this letter and the questions therein.

I think those questions could legitimately be asked by anyone. They are:

1) Do you or anyone in your Administration dispute the accuracy of the leaked document?

2) Were arrangements being made, including the recruitment of allies, before you sought Congressional authorization go to war? Did you or anyone in your Administration obtain Britain's commitment to invade prior to this time?

3) Was there an effort to create an ultimatum about weapons inspectors in order to help with the justification for the war as the minutes indicate?

4) At what point in time did you and Prime Minister Blair first agree it was necessary to invade Iraq?

5) Was there a coordinated effort with the U.S. intelligence community and/or British officials to "fix" the intelligence and facts around the policy as the leaked document states?


Columbia, Mo.: "Strong session of questioning" "tough questioning"

This is what's considered tough questioning? I would call them insults, mis-characterizations, not tough questions.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point.

To me, a good question is one that gets an interesting response -- or leaves everyone with a sense of disappointment that it wasn't answered.

I don't care if it's rude or unctuous.

But other people do.


Dan Froomkin: OK everyone, I have to run. Thanks for all the great questions. I wish I could have gotten to more. Stay in touch by e-mail ( froomkin@washingtonpost.com ). Try to read the column daily. And I'll see you again here in two weeks.


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