White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, November 9, 2005; 11:00 AM


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Briefing Live Online. So much to talk about! As I write in today's column, the flailing Bush presidency is spinning off so many new compelling story lines each day (yesterday it was torture, today it's Bush as electoral albatross) that it's hard to keep up. But we'll try. Let's go right to your questions.


Baltimore, Md.: In Tuesday's article, you quoted a White House statement opposing the McCain amendment banning the use of torture, saying it was: 'unnecessary or duplicative' and could restrict 'the president's ability to conduct the war (on terrorism) effectively under existing law.' "

How is it possible for something to be both 'unnecessary or duplicative' while at the same time hindering, or affecting anything else in any way? The administration is clearly hiding their motives for opposing this torture ban. Is anyone asking Scott McClellan this?

Dan Froomkin: In yesterday's contentious press briefing , journalists repeatedly asked McClellan to explain the White House's motives for opposing McCain's legislation, but he went from unresponsive to belligerent.

Yours is an excellent question that absolutely deserves a response.

Here, by the way, is that

White House statement

. You'll want to go to page two and find the section entitled: "Amendments Interfering with Effective Conduct of the War on Terror." It reads, in part: "The Administration strongly opposes such amendments, which would interfere with the protection of Americans from terrorism by diverting resources from the war to answer unnecessary or duplicative inquiry or by restricting the President's ability to conduct the war effectively under existing law."


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Recently, the White House Press Corps has proven unable to figure out how to ask questions to get answers. First, during the Fitzgerald press conference, they couldn't understand his ground rules so instead of getting answers to relevant questions, we were treated to numerous repetitions of "I told you, I can't answer that." Also, nobody seems able to ask a question about Rove or Libby that can't be pushed off with the "there's still an investigation going" dodge.

Why don't they ask better questions? Do the reporters need to take courses from trial lawyers or something?

Or specifically on the Rove matter, why not ask Fitzgerald for a list of questions that he would allow the White House to answer and then go to McClellan or Bush armed with these allowable questions?

Dan Froomkin: I actually thought most of the questions to Fitzgerald were pretty good. And I found his candor, well, refreshing. Even when he said he couldn't answer.

As it happens, I myself have asked Fitzgerald's office whether or not his request for witnesses to keep mum still applies, and whether it ever reasonably precluded the White House from answering some basic questions. But Randy Samborn, Fitzgerald's spokesman, would not give me an answer.

(I even rephrased the question several times, hoping to get an answer. At one point I put it this way: "The White House is hiding behind Mr. Fitzgerald's skirt, and I wanted to know if he was still wearing one." That may have gotten a chuckle -- but still no answer.)


Dan Froomkin: My column is apparently once again stuck in some sort of technological purgatory. I'll try to let you know when it is up. My apologies.


Laurel, Md.: Which sessions of the remedial ethics classes at the White House are Bush and Cheney scheduled to attend?

Dan Froomkin: They are the only two people in the White House who don't have to go.


Anonymous: Hi Dan,

Thanks for all of your hard work. Your column is a daily must-read.

Just had to comment: I'm really sick of all of the hysteria around whether the U.S. is torturing suspects. I think all the President just needs to stand at the podium, look directly at the camera and state in a clear and commanding voice:

"We do not have tortual relations with those men, the terror suspects."

He should even point at the camera and wag his finger. That should do it.

Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Yup, that would take care of things once and for all!


Richmond, Va.: First off, I'm a big fan.

Second, bravo to The Post for breaking two important stories--the CIA secret prisons and how the Patriot Act has allowed ordinary persons to be investigated.

It seems like the media has awoken from a long, poppy induced sleep and is just starting to investigate this president. Why hasn't there been sustained coverage on this torture issue since Abu Ghraib?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you.

I don't entirely agree with you that the press is just waking up, however.

When I look back, I'm actually kind of amazed at all the really good hard-hitting coverage of this administration that has, at one time or another, appeared in the pages of The Washington Post and other major newspapers.

For instance, pretty much all this stuff about how Cheney and friends exaggerated the nuclear threat (in particular) posed by Saddam Hussein in the run-up to war was first reported ages ago, by Walter Pincus and others.

What's missing -- and you allude to this yourself -- is the



What happens is that these stories come out -- and then go away. Without sustained coverage -- or, I should note, Congressional oversight -- they are quickly forgotten.

As for torture, well, I think torture emerged as one of the defining issues of our time the day the Abu Ghraib photos were made public, and I think that every major news outlet in American should have immediately assigned at least one reporter to the story.


Newark, Del.: CNN reported today that the White House is preparing a major campaign plan to rebute a lot of the charges made against the administration in the past few weeks. They seem especially focused on restoring the perceived trustworthiness of the President and are again going to argue that the intelligence on Iraq was faulty. Not that the administration intentionally mislead the American people.

I was just wondering if you knew anything more about this story. What level of campaigning the White House will attempt? Is there a possibility this might backfire by refocusing the debate back onto failures of the administration?

Dan Froomkin: You're referring to Dana Bash 's interesting report, which I mention in today's column.

There have been signs of such a strategy emerging over the past few days. I've heard McClellan and others talking about all these quotes they've collected from Democrats, saying Saddam was a threat.

But the liberal blog


offers this succinct analysis today: "So, let me get this straight: the grand strategy to save Karl's ass is to point to Democrats using the faulty information given to them by the Administration? The faulty information deliberately fed to members of Congress and the American public by the WHIG and the neocons at the DOD?"

So yeah, I think it's quite possible it might backfire.


Arlington, Va.: Dan- What is your sense of how the administration's defense of torture as a necessary and valid tactic is playing across the country? I am personally shocked and horrified that it has come to this, but I am not getting the sense that the rest of the country is on the same page. Do I just have beltway blinders?

Dan Froomkin: I think that would be a great question for the pollsters -- and for some man-on-the-street stories. Because I assume that most Americans are horrified at the concept of their government torturing anyone -- but maybe I'm wrong.

I did notice what pains McClellan went to yesterday to explain what sorts of people these exemptions -- that he wouldn't even acknowledge the White House was asking for -- would presumably apply to.

"David, let's talk about people that you're talking about who have been brought to justice and captured. You're talking about people like Khalid Shaykh Muhammad; people like Abu Zubaydah," McClellan said. "Now, the people that you are bringing up -- you're talking about in the context, and I think it's important for the American people to know, are people like Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi Binalshibh -- these are -- these are dangerous killers."

Do Americans feel that these (not convicted, but nevertheless presumed) terrorists don't deserve to be protected by rules against torture? I suppose it's possible.


New Haven, Conn.: Many scenarios of how Libby's indictments play out involve the presumption that Bush will pardon him; especially the scenario that he will drag things out as long as possible to protect Cheney, then plea bargain some minor version of the charges.

Also consider the pardons after Iran-Contra.

Is there any way that Congress (okay, not THIS Congress) could enact a law that limits the Presidential pardon to anyone other than White House staff? Or would it require a Constitutional amendment?

Since this is unlikely/impossible, could you please encourage the media to press Bush to promise that he would NOT pardon Libby if Libby were convicted? Wouldn't that be consistent with Bush's claim to want to clean up the White House?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not an expert, but I believe that the pardon is a presidential power that cannot be abridged by Congress.

That said, the Democratic leadership yesterday called on Bush to promise he wouldn't pardon Libby. And I think you can count on the media asking Bush if he's willing to make such a pledge at the next several news conferences.


Austin, Tex.: Hi, Dan,

I asked my husband (another loyal Froomkinite) what question to ask you this week, and this is his response: "When can we have our democracy back? When can I hold my head up high when the flag passes by?"

Of course it's not fair to put such pressure on you, a (presumably) mere mortal, but we look to you, Dan, as our beacon of hope. I'm looking for some kind of "Yes, Virginia, there is a noble nation" response.

Thanks, as always.

Dan Froomkin: Always glad to hear from Froomkinites. But that's quite the loaded question.

Let me address it this way: There are a few ways I could see things changing dramatically in Washington in the coming years.

For one, Congress could start exercising oversight again. (That of course is more likely if Democrats win a majority in either the House or Senate next year; but not entirely unlikely even before then.) Also possible: Bush could clean house at the White House. Depending on who he brought in, that could result not just in a "fresh start" but some dramatically new directions.

In either case, you might well see some rolling back of the "imperial presidency" of the moment.


Ashburn, Va.: Did Harriet Miers go back to her old job?

Dan Froomkin: Yes. In fact, she and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card are in charge of these ethics briefings being held for the White House staff.


St. Paul, Minn.: It is often said that the press holds Scott McClellan in personal high regard and clearly he is in a difficult position with respect to his statements on Rove in the Plame leak case. Reading recent White House briefings I am blown away by how McClellan's goal seems to be to just not answer even straight questions.. For example, why could he not just say whether or not Cheney went to the ethics refresher class? I know it's a barbed question, but it does have a simple yes or no answer. When he obfuscates on stuff like this it seems to me he loses even more credibility. Quite honesty, I can't quite figure out why the high regard from the press.... I find his robotic repetitive talking points non answers incredibly annoying.

Dan Froomkin: He does seem to have an aversion to actually answering questions, doesn't he?

And after yesterday's extraordinary performance, I have to wonder how much longer he can trade on his accumulated good will with the press corps.

Here's what I wrote in today's column (hopefully online in its entirety sometime before nightfall):

There were many heated exchanges at yesterday's compellingly readable "http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2005/11/20051108.html'>press briefing. Press secretary Scott McClellan was questioned repeatedly and persistently about what sort of exemption the White House is requesting from a proposed Congressional ban on torture. He wouldn't say. And when the journalists in the room wouldn't back off, he lost his cool. When Hearst columnist Helen Thomas kept interrupting McClellan's talking points and demanding a "straight answer" about the exemption, McCllelan shot back: "You don't want the American people to hear what the facts are, Helen, and I'm going to tell them the facts." After NBC's David Gregory jumped in -- again asking McClellan to explain why an exemption is necessary -- McClellan accused his interlocutors of being, essentially, anti-American. "Well, obviously, you have a different view from the American people," McClellan said. "I think the American people understand the importance of doing everything within our power and within our laws to protect the American people." Moments later, he repeated the accusation: "This involves information that relates to doing all we can to protect the American people. And if you have a different view -- obviously, some of you on this room -- in this room have a different view, some of you on the front row have a different view." At which point CBS News reporter Bill Plante plaintively pointed out: "We simply are asking a question." Later, when American Urban Radio reporter April Ryan took up the question again, McClellan accused her of "showboating for the cameras" and told her she needed to "calm down."


Dale City, Va.: I don't handle classified info at my government job, but I am still required to pass an ethics class every year. Why are these high level types just getting the training after screwing up that all us grunts get every year? Besides, with poor Karl Rove's faulty memory what is the point of any training?

Dan Froomkin: You raise an interesting point. Perhaps someone will do a story on what sort of training White House staffers are required to get.


Vienna, Va.: Hi Dan,

Read all you columns and love it.

With respect to Cheney's misrepresentations related to WMD issues it is now clear that the Iraq policy was largely coordinated by Cheney's office with support from so called "neocons" in the administration. Is it so hard to penetrate this small group to get the information out?

Dan Froomkin: Thus far, impossible.

The closest we've gotten to an unvarnished insider's view has been from people who weren't entirely insiders to start with.


Rockville, Md.: Are there any indications that Mr. Fitzgerald has conducted any more Grand Jury investigations? Any news on the likelihood of additional indictments?

Dan Froomkin: We would probably know if he was working with a new grand jury -- not because he would tell us, but because someone would spot him or his team around the courthouse. And my understanding is they have not been seen there since the indictment.

But beyond that, who knows?


Washington, D.C.: Dan - Interesting week.....the White House press briefing yesterday was quite a show. It doesn't read as well as it sound, because McClellan really lost his cool and raised his voice testily so many times.

To all Frommkies out there: C-SPAN archives the videos of the press conferences on their site. They make interesting viewing. http://www.c-span.org/

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. The White House also offers the transcripts and the video here .


Silver Spring, Md.: Just an observation towards non-partisanship by a White House journalist. I truly admire how that the only questions you post on your page are individuals that are "Big Fans" of yours, who only agree with your point of view, and seeming dislike for the White House. And I know you will come back - put up the question and I will post it. But clearly, in this case evidence speaks for itself. Good day.

Dan Froomkin: I do not cherry-pick questions along partisan lines. I encourage people of all persuasions to post. But you knew I was going to say that.


Washington, D.C.: Why does the White House Press Corps love McClellan so much? I find him to be incredibly disrespectful if ever a reporter shows any follow-up, any lead (or being on to something), or disagrees with him (the admin). Why do they all say that he is so wonderful? I thought the way he responded to April (last name is escaping me) yesterday was childish when he told her to calm down and that she was playing things up for the cameras.

Dan Froomkin: I will be interested to see if the personal warmth between Scott and many members of the press corps survives much longer.


Olympia, Wash.: Dan,

Love your columns and these chats. They are essential to my state of mind. Forget about the folks complaining how long it takes to get your column up -- it's worth the wait.

My question is this:

If Bush pardons Libby, could it then be possible to subpoena him and force him to testify since he will not have Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination? Sort of like what happened with John Dean?


Dan Froomkin: Well, he'd have to be subpoenaed first -- do you see any sign of that happening with this Congress? But it's an interesting scenario.


Wilton, Conn.: Dan -- Regarding the "observation" from Silver Spring implying that you skew the Q&A. This strikes me as basically a "misdirection" tactic that's a staple these days of the Republicans; absent any "good news"...and cranky about all the "bad news"...they'd rather whine and accuse journalists of bias rather than face the facts that, well, they are in melt-down mode on every front.

Keep up the great work.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Dan Froomkin: OK, I have to run. Thanks for all the great questions. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page.


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