White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, June 15, 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 answers your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web in his online chat.

Read today's White House Briefing: Blame the Democrats.

A transcript follows.

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


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome. Today's column leads with President Bush's forceful speech last night, lashing out at Democrats and giving not one inch on his ambitious agenda.

Yesterday's column was all about my newly updated West Wing floor plan which shows the whole new cast of characters in the most powerful place on earth.

And now, to your questions....


Washington, D.C.: Comment:

I'm surprised the White House allows you to print a floor plan. I had heard long ago that floor plans of the White House weren't allowed to be published anymore for security reasons. Interesting article though.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. The White House actually helped me put this together. Let's be honest here: If you're an evildoer, and you know where the Oval Office is (and that's no secret) then does the rest really matter at all?


Washington, D.C.: Interesting floor plan. Where do support staffers (admin. assistants./secretaries, interns, etc.) sit? Are you telling us the office layout on the set of The West Wing is totally wrong?

Dan Froomkin: Some are scattered amongst the senior aide's offices, in what we have labeled as reception areas. But the vast majority of people who work for the Executive Office of the President, i.e. the "White House," do so in the two executive office buildings nearby.

And yes, I believe the TV show pretty much has it all wrong. Someone have a link to the "West Wing" floor plan?


Orlando, Fla.: Does the President help the Army or Marines recruit when he travels throughout the country? Most of his talks are for 'the base'; these patriotic Republicans support the war in Iraq therefore, they would be an ideal group for a recruiter.

Dan Froomkin: You know, that is a very interesting question.

Recruiting numbers are seriously and understandably in the toilet due to Bush's increasingly unpopular war. Wherever he goes these days, he does say something to the effect of: "And for those of you with a relative in the United States military, I want you to do me a favor and thank them on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief, but more importantly, thank them on behalf of a grateful nation for their sacrifice and service."

In a recent roundtable interview , he said: "The hardest thing I have to do is sit down as the President with loved ones who've either lost a soul or have a wounded person, severely wounded." He cries a lot, he said.

But gosh, what if Bush started encouraging folks to sign up? Particularly those who are selected to attend his events due to their support for his policies in the first place?

I remember during the campaign, Bush staffers would canvas the attendees looking for people to make phone calls. Maybe they should set up recruiting stations now.


Arlington, Va.: Is the White House now hopeful that with the Jackson trial behind them, that finally, FINALLY, the media will begin to cover their plan to reform Social Security?

Dan Froomkin: Funny. You are referring, no doubt, to the oddball theory espoused by Fox News's Neil Cavuto, in his softball interview with Bush last week, that I wrote about last Thursday .

Cavuto asked Bush if he didn't think that maybe all the attention on the Jackson trial had hurt his attempts to get people to pay attention to Social Security.

But I don't think Michael Jackson is to blame, and I don't think anyone in the White House seriously thinks so either.


Kennesaw, Ga.: You mentioned Dina Powell, whose appointment to the State Dept. was announced three months ago but who evidently has not moved from the White House yet. Campaign heavyweight Karen Hughes was also announced in March to be Powell's boss at State in charge of public diplomacy. Her nomination has not even been submitted to the Senate yet, and reports suggest she won't be on the job until the fall.

What is it about this administration and prominent appointments? And what is it about the press that prompts them to be all over an announcement and then neglect to cover the follow-up?

Dan Froomkin: I don't get why the White House announced the Hughes/Powell with such fanfare in March -- and then let things sit.

Robin Wright and Al Kamen did follow up in April in The Washington Post.

But your point is good, and all I can say is that reporters have a strong and easily exploitable tendency to report about what has happened, rather than about what hasn't happened.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Re. White House spokesman David Almacy's reaction to the memos: "There was significant postwar planning. The memo in question was written eight months before the war began -- there was significant postwar planning in the time that elapsed."

Really? This administration planned for the mass looting, kidnappings (not just of foreigners, but Iraqis for ransom - which is rarely reported), massive insurgency, thousands of coalition casualties and tens of thousands of dead and injured Iraqi civilians and no end to the war in sight?

Funny, because I don't recall hearing that prior to the war. I'm still waiting to see the rose petals promised by Dick Cheney.

Dan Froomkin: Well, Almacy is right, to a certain extent. There was a great deal of planning by folks at the State Department, the Army War College, and many other places. The White House and the Pentagon brass just decided to ignore it.


New York, N.Y.: Hey Dan,

I don't know if you've ever seen it, but Wonkette occasionally runs an amusing graphic showing the unemployment index of the Bush twins, Jenna and Barbara. Seriously though, do you think that the twins' continuing unemployment will become an issue for the President? Do you think there is any chance that the girls would do something that might actually be helpful to their dad -- like joining the army and volunteering for service in Iraq?

Keep up the good work. I look forward to your blog every day.

Dan Froomkin: You mean this index ? Yeah, it's a hoot.

I think it is well past time that our first-lady- and puppy-chronicling press corps take a long hard look at what's up with the twins.

Joining the army is a nonstarter, for many reasons, but what about a USO tour? (If not, you know, a job or two.)


San Antonio, Tex.: Why is The Washington Post all over the ideological map when it comes to the DSM material?

You and Jefferson Morley have given the minutes lots of coverage--and really great links--and then your editorial department throws the wet blanket on coverage today by saying there was nothing new in the minutes--that now have turned out to be six or seven documents.

Why did The Washington Post promote Pincus' article on Sunday to front page material, only to have the op-ed guys today pan the documents leaked from Downing Street?

Dan Froomkin: We should preserve your question to use the next time someone accuses the news side of being overly influenced by the editorial side. See? It doesn't happen.

I would love to give credit to whoever first said this, but someone joked during the war that the Washington Post editorial board apparently gets its news from the New York Times, and the New York Times editorial board apparently gets its news from The Washington Post.

That's a joke. Not even remotely true.

But look at the latest from New York Times reporter Todd S. Purdum on the memos.


Wexford, Pa.: Call me cynical, but I don't for an instant believe the President's claim he took us to war as a last resort. The British memos, I believe, indicate otherwise.

Saddam (who was our pal during Reagan-Bush, but it's impolite to mention that these days) could've opened all of Iraq to inspectors and this administration would've still insisted the dictator was hiding WMD in his soap.

I've not watched McClellan's briefings in detail, but is the White House press corps grilling him more thoroughly about the memos now or are they simply ignoring the issue and letting him weave around the questions?

Dan Froomkin: There has not been the sort of concerted, detailed, insistent questioning that I think the Downing Street memos merit. The question you raise, for instance, is a good one. In retrospect, is there anything short of regime change that would truly have satisfied the White House pre-war? Do contemporaneous records suggest that anyone was actually trying to come up with an alternative to war? Specifics, please, not vague hand-waving.


Bridgton, Maine: You lead off today with the "new" Presidential stance of "blame the Democrats." How far do you think this is likely to fly beyond the true believers?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know, but it certainly does one thing: It arms the painfully "balanced" inside-the-Beltway pundits.

Now, every time they say: "Bush is tanking, polls show more and more people, even in his own party, oppose his agenda," they can then cheerfully add: But those Democrats are just obstructionists!


San Antonio, Tex.: "Well, Almacy is right, to a certain extent. There was a great deal of planning by folks at the State Department, the Army War College, and many other places. The White House and the Pentagon brass just decided to ignore it."

Easy (superficial) answer. No criticism intended or directed toward you, Dan, but how fully did State and Army and "many other places" place for occupation/logistics after the war?

How much was ignored? How much was not ignored? Who did the ignoring? And why did these individuals ignore the plans (meticulously detailed or not)? Sounds like a fascinating story for The Washington Post to pursue?

Dan Froomkin: That sounds like more "old news" that's nevertheless worth revisiting. I would hazard to say that some of these questions have been answered to some extent somewhere at sometime. But I wouldn't mind reading an authoritative account, that's for sure.


Omaha, Neb.: I enjoy reading your articles daily.

Do you believe that Bush's "Democrat bash" will hurt him in the long run? After all, for a person who said he wanted to be a uniter, he really does personify the adage "actions speaking louder than words". Also, who's keeping score on Bush's agenda winners and losers? Would it be Karl Rove, or Ken Lay?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think anyone should begrudge a president occasional moments of rank partisanship.

The question is what happens in between.

And I think Bush (and Rove) are susceptible to the charge that politics and policy have become one and the same in this White House.

I didn't understand your second question, sorry.


Berwick, Victoria, Australia: Where is the press secretary's office in your new graphic of White House offices ? I saw the assistant press secretary's office only.

Dan Froomkin: Scott's is the big one labeled No. 3.

And you go out his office, make two lefts, go down the ramp just north of the Cabinet Room, and you're in the "lower press office." Walk through that and you're in the briefing room.


New York, N.Y.: I can't for the life of me figure out why President Bush continues with his Social Security push. The more he campaigns on it, the lower the poll numbers go. It has no doubt had an effect on his overall approval ratings. Is he really as stubborn as some people claim and refuses to admit defeat? Or is there more to it?

Dan Froomkin: Well, Bush is a very, very stubborn man -- until of course he changes his mind. But seriously, I think what's driving him is less stubbornness than a real appreciation for the stakes. This is not just about Social Security's solvency, this is about a dramatic shift in social values.


Essex, Conn.: So Heidi Fleiss is building a brothel that looks like the White House - and Phillip Cooney, the former oil industry lobbyist who went to work in the White House and doctored global warming policy, is now going (back?)to work for Exxon/Mobil? Could you make this stuff up?

Dan Froomkin: No. I don't have nearly a twisted enough imagination for that.


Durham City, England: If a member of the wider public, such as I, sent an e-mail to the White House, addressed to the President, what are the odds of him getting to see it?

Dan Froomkin: Nil.


McLean, Va.: Dan,

I realize that the mainstream media feels it has an obligation to cover Scott McClellan's White House briefings. However, given the tone of the briefings and the refusal of McClellan to engage in a dialogue with the press, hasn't that sense of obligation become more of an obsession-compulsion? It time for newsroom managers to get some psychotherapy to deal with their unhealthy obsession with Scott McClellan's briefings? I have a daydream: What if the White House schedule a briefing and no one came?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you might see it this way, but apparently, some members of the press corps are quite addicted.

Consider last Friday. Scott wasn't planning on holding a briefing at all, because he was in meetings until 3, and he figured no one wanted to hang around at the White House that late on a Friday afternoon. But some members of the corps apparently insisted, so word went out that there would indeed be a briefing at 3.

I'm told that a total of 18 reporters showed up. Here's the transcript .


Ridgefield, Conn.: Is "Jeff Gannon" still going to White House press conferences or has he dropped that identity now?

Any other odd sorts we should look for asking question of McClellan?

Dan Froomkin: No, he hasn't been seen since the brouhaha.

Yeah, keep an eye out for Baltimore radio personality Les Kinsolving, and some of the others I mentioned in my February 15 column .

Interestingly enough, McClellan seems to be finally losing patience with Kinsolving, and his off-the-wall, sometimes sexually-oriented questions. See, for instance, Monday's briefing , asking about the porn star who was planning on attending a presidential dinner.


Re: McClellan briefings: Would a reporter ever ask Mr. McClellan, "Do you actually believe this stuff you're peddling?" That would be something.

Dan Froomkin: Not likely.

I once asked former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart if there was any question that could knock a press secretary off balance, and he said no, there are a million ways not to answer any question. His one suggestion: Get them when they're tired.


New Brunswick, N.J.: Dan, the reason they wanted a briefing on Friday is the habit of this administration of releasing ugly news on that day.

Dan Froomkin: Nope. 3 p.m. is way too early. The stuff could still make the network news. A true Friday night document dump comes at least a few hours later than that.


Arlington, Va.: Shoot I'd go to the press briefings! Some of the ones you've linked to recently had some good conflict in them. Has there been a noticeable shift in the attitude of the White House press corps or is it just because I didn't read them before?

Dan Froomkin: I think they've been considerably more combative more often lately. I personally think you could correlate it pretty closely to Bush's approval ratings, but I'm not going to suggest which way the causal link goes.

But keep in mind: These briefings are not supposed to be a good show. Reporters value them based on the news they produce; the White House values them based on how successful they are at getting the president's message out there. I think both sides have got to be a bit disappointed right now.


Floor Plan: I find it amusing that the people furthest from the President in that plan (one floor up and in the opposite corner) are the assistants for Legislative Affairs.

Dan Froomkin: Funny.


Astoria, N.Y.: Andrew Sullivan says of a question Fox News' Hannity asked the Vice President:

"Your thoughts? Can you get a more puff-ball gentle volley across the net? It's great to have conservatives in the media. But there's a difference between conservatives and supine vessels for government spin."

And I think we all know about Cavuto's 'puff-ball' interview of President Bush where he never asked about Iraq (you wrote about it). It is no wonder the administration loves Fox News. How can they possibly be considered fair and balanced?

Dan Froomkin: I think it's safe to say that most mainstream journalists think that Fox News's motto is a joke.


Buffalo, N.Y.: I think there comes a point where a President can waste the peoples' time pursuing an unrealistic or unpopular goal; Social Security and John Bolton come to mind.

Does the Bush White House mainly receive outside guidance from Congress, from lobbyists or businessmen, from local Republicans around the U.S., or does it work without guidance?


Dan Froomkin: This White House doesn't get guidance; it gives it.


Raleigh, N.C.: Dan, I have a question regarding Eggen's and Tate's story about extremely underwhelming number of convictions related to terrorism (39 out of 400) in contrast to the President's claims.

What are the odds that someone will confront either McClellan or the President about his "misstatement" and disassembly?

If I'm right and the chances aren't great then could you PLEASE talk to people at The Post (maybe Michael Fletcher?) and talk to them about this?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I sure would like to see someone ask for a reaction to that excellent story to which you refer.

Here you have the president caught saying something that is flatly misleading if not an outright lie.

How the press corps could possibly call itself an administration watchdog if it leaves this one unaddressed, I don't know.


Dan Froomkin: Wow. So many excellent questions -- I'm sorry I don't have the time to answer more of them. But I'll try to keep them in mind as I write my column in the coming days.

See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page.


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