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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, January 25, 2006; 1:00 PM


washingtonpost.com: Another Shot at the Safety Net , ( Post, Jan. 25, 2006 )


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone! There are lots of wonderful questions already here waiting for me, so I'll get going right away.

First, I just want to say thanks so much to all of you welcoming me back from my paternity leave. My wife, Paige, and my boy, Max, are both doing great. The kid is thriving, and even sleeping in relatively long stretches at night. The first two weeks were a blur, but things have settled down a bit now. I love being a Dad!

Anyway, it's great to be back, and great to hear that I was missed.



is live, and it's about what looks to be Bush's Next Big Idea. This time, it's health care. My headline: "Another Shot at the Safety Net."


Annapolis, Md.: Am I the only person interested in seeing the pictures of the President with Jack Abramoff? This White House seems to be able to get away with whatever it wants. Now we are being told the White House knew about what Katrina would do 48 hours before making landfall. But, will anyone be held responsible? We are given a less than stellar response to any question regarding the handling of Hurricane Katrina? What is it hear no evil, see no evil but speak evil of anyone who has the audacity to ask a question the White House might not like but needs to answer. Looking forward to your response on the pictures.

Dan Froomkin: In answer to your first question: Hell no!

I was really fascinated by the divergent views of two Republican advisers quoted in

Jim VandeHei and Susan Schmidt's

story in The Post yesterday:

"The photos 'change the dynamic to the extent that the White House lets it change the dynamics,' said Mark Corallo, a veteran GOP communications official who is advising White House senior adviser Karl Rove in the CIA leak case. To minimize possible damage, Corallo said, the White House should release all of the photos immediately, explain how the photos are part of the normal meet-and-greet with supporters and show how Bush was a victim of Abramoff's schemes.

"Mary Matalin, an informal White House adviser, said the photos should not be released and that, if they are, voters are savvy enough to realize the images are not evidence of a Bush role in the scandal. A top White House aide said it would set a terrible precedent if the president were to release photos from private events."

I can see both sides of that argument from a White-House-strategy point of view. But as a journalist, I say: COUGH UP THE PICS.


Sandia Park, N.M.: Dan,

Welcome back! I hope you and your wife are doing well!

Personally, I do not see how President Bush can dodge the appointment of a special prosecutor now that the extent of his illegal NSA wiretapping program is coming clear. But he will certainly try to keep Congress from allowing such an investigation to proceed.

Do you think it's possible that weak-willed Republican senators, such as our own Pete Domenici here in New Mexico, will be able to buck their damaged leader and do the right thing at this point? I mean, Bush has not given them much cover to support his dubious belief in an "imperial" presidency, has he?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks! We're doing great, and baby Max is a joy.

Bush has one big hope, and that's if congressional Republicans follow the script laid out for them on Friday by Karl Rove. (See

Dan Balz's story

in the Post.)

Namely, rather than start getting defensive, or navel-gazing, or -- heavens forbid! -- turning on the president, they should go on the offense on national security generally (and wiretaps specifically) and paint the Democrats as a bunch of pansies.

It's worked before. And there are signs that the media (and even some Democrats) are already following that script themselves. See, for instance,

Ronald Brownstein's

story in the LA Times today, headlined "Democrats May Argue Liberties to Their Peril."

That said, the upcoming Senate Judiciary hearings could change everything. More unattractive details could emerge. Congress could decide to assert itself. The media could start writing about ways in which civil liberties are central to the American experience, not just a political football. Democrats could get a spine. Commentators could start droning on about the "imperial presidency." The public could get mad. You never know.


Seattle, WA: It's good to have you back Dan. Hope you're getting some sleep and that everything is well in the Froomkin household. As someone who is familiar with the world of blogs, what are your thoughts about the Maryland Moment hubbub with Ms. Howell?Can you help translate the honest, albeit raw, emotions expressed in many of those posts into words that Post's management can understand?

Dan Froomkin: Loath as I am to drive my audience away, you might want to go check out the blogger's roundtable taking place (virtually) next door, in which four of the most fascinating bloggers anywhere are joining washingtonpost.com executive editor Jim Brady to chat about the role of reader comments on a Web site like this one. I can't wait to read it myself.

For what it's worth, I think washingtonpost.com's comment cutoff was a mistake. It's a big paradigm shift for people used to controlling every word that appears in their newspapers -- but online, a little loss of control pays off big time.

We should glory in the passion of our readers. We should listen to what they have to say, respond to their concerns, and if necessary correct their misimpressions. In short, we should empower the reader, not shut the reader up -- even temporarily.

The good news is that my understanding is that comments will be back soon. I think Jim Brady understands better than most that when you're lucky enough to matter so much to people that they want to engage with you, let them!

On the specific underlying issue, it's worth pointing out that the flashpoint for all this was a flatly inaccurate statement by the ombudsman -- that was then left uncorrected and unaddressed for several days. That was a big mistake. The Web offers great newspapers the opportunity to correct their mistakes quickly and effectively. When we don't, I'm actually quite happy to see people getting angry.

Furthermore, the fact is that the over-the-top abusive comments were in a tiny minority. From what I can tell, the vast majority of posts were passionate, articulate, reasoned, interesting.

In fact, the quality of the discourse in washingtonpost.com blog comments and Live Onlines (and in my e-mails) is extraordinary. It enriches our site enormously.


Green Bay, Wis.: Congrats on the new kid. VERY good to have you back. On behalf of many, many Dems - is Deborah Howell going to keep her present job for the remainder of her two year contract? She has lost the confidence of the great majority of Post readers. Sorry, but that is a fact. Ms. Howell is now seen as part of management - not an ally of us, the readers. Not good. Also: why the "he said, she said" approach by so much of big media these days? Afraid of Rove/Cheney? That is what it smells like - and that ain't good for a free and truth-seeking fourth estate. This worries me greatly. We are getting two versions of the truth, where there can be only one authentic truth. This idea that there can be two valid "truths" to everything is just plain dishonest - and harms our country big time. This is one reason why the Froomkins of the media world are so important - especially in these dark days of governmental spying on its own citizens. The truth. The facts. That, Deborah, is all we ask for.

Dan Froomkin: Howell made it very clear in her last column that she wasn't going anywhere. What you might more reasonably hope for is that she gravitates more toward the "reader advocate" part of her job in the future.


Richmond, Va.: Time Magazine article on Abramoff photos...The photos are described as official White House "photo ops". This description makes me feel that those photos belong in the public domain. Are media outlets and others making FOIA requests for those photos?

Secondly, is it me, or does it seem as though President Clinton could never have gotten away with saying, "We won't release the photos. We won't tell you about any meetings the President had with tainted lobbyist?" Wouldn't a media and conservative firestorm have squelched that dissonance immediately? Why no firestorm here?

Dan Froomkin: FOIA'ing the White House is basically a lost cause.

On your second point, the

Washington Post editorial board

today writes: "Republicans wouldn't stand for this kind of stonewalling if the situation were reversed. We can say that with confidence because history proves it. During the 1996 scandal over foreign fundraising in the Clinton White House, Republicans demanded -- and obtained, though not without a fight -- extensive information about White House coffees and other meetings, including photos and videotapes."


Berwick, Nova Scotia: Late last year I thought I heard Bob Barr say on CNN that there was much Washington rumor to the effect that VP Cheney would step down in 2006 for health reasons; but I was unable to track down such a transcript on CNN or Google News. Can you add any more rumor or enlightenment here?

Dan Froomkin: I'm sure that someone is passing along that rumor even as I type. It's the rumor that won't die.

I've been writing about it on and off ever since I launched the column.

Heck, last month I wrote a


in which I raised the following hypothetical question: "Who would be a better vice president for Bush right now, Cheney or McCain?" (It wasn't close.)

And during my leave, I was still making a point to follow the stories about Cheney's brief hospitalization, and even the possibility that he has


But no. I don't think it's anything but a rumor. That won't die.


Plum Point, Va.: When Karl Rove tries to lecture Democrats or anyone for that matter about National Security, what is not immediately pointed out in the press that he outed a clandestine CIA agent? Whether inadverdant or not, he compromised national security, hence, should have little credence on the subject.-Alex

Dan Froomkin: Well, many papers, including The Post quoted Howard Dean making just that point.


Stamford, Conn.: When will the "mainstream" media start presenting the truth to the American people, instead of the continual political banter and talking points?

What will it take to get the mainstream media to do its job? When will the journalists of this country start working for me again, instead of working for the powerful and those in control?

Dan Froomkin: We started yesterday. You didn't notice?


Raleigh, N.C.: How's your child? Are you getting enough sleep? And the question we all want answered, in all honesty, what percentage of the diaper changing do you perform?

About the NSA story...initially, it seemed like it was a datamining operation, but with Gen. Hayden's recent remarks, we now know that Bush wanted a lower standard than "probable cause," namely, "reasonable suspicion."

But Congress proposed just such a change in 2002.


And the administration opposed it.


Has McClellan gotten this question yet, about why they opposed a bill that would have given them what they now say they were doing? What was his answer?

Dan Froomkin: Paige's rule is that she's in charge of input, I'm in charge of output. So I'm doing most (but not all) of the diapers. Buy stock in Huggies, is all I have to say about that.

As for that bill, I hadn't heard about it. (I've been a bit distracted.)

It sounds like a good question for McClellan. Just don't expect an answer.


Missouri City, Tex.: What is happening on the Plame investigation regarding Karl Rove? It's been quiet even though I thought a new grand jury had been empanelled. Also, Rove seems to be showing his face more lately. Does that mean he has dodged the bullet?

Dan Froomkin: Oh, if I only knew the answers to those questions!

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald didn't actually empanel a new grand jury -- he just started using another one that had already been empanelled. But close enough.

Obviously, he is still working on something. And I don't know what to read into Rove's reappearance, except maybe that he's just irrepressible.


Chicago, Ill.: Welcome back and congratulations! I have a question about Katrina: Will there be any political fallout for the president or the administration as a whole because of these latest revelations about what they knew and when they knew it? Why can't the Democrats make any head way with this issue or have they simply written the Gulf Coast off too?

Dan Froomkin: In some ways, this NSA story has been a blessing for Bush. Because so far, with Rove at his side, he can spin it in such a way that his base is backing him. In that way, for the White House, it's a much better story for the press to be doting on than the "culture of corruption" story or the Katrina debacle, neither of which I suspect even Rove can come up with a way to make defensible, even to the base.

The stories about the White House's advance notice of Katrina yesterday I thought were quite astonishing. But I don't know if the outrage will ignite.


Olney, Md.: Dan, welcome back. Glad to hear that your family is well, and actually getting some sleep!

Re the Abramoff pictures - is there any reason to be live this would change anything? Ms. Matalin is right - this is only a story for the inside baseball crowd. The average voter is going to know that the President get his photo taken with hundreds of people, including lobbyists.

Dan Froomkin: Ooh, I don't know about that. Consider how much the White House press strategy these past five years has depended on visuals. Visuals matter a lot to the average American -- probably more to the average American than to the inside baseball crowd.


Fairfax, Va.: Tackling health care in an election year when their rating is below 40 percent? These guys have certainly lost their political compass. Let them try. They will only waste another year of their term. Soon it will be 2007 and they will be well on their way to lame duck status. Harmless activity is the best we can hope for from this bunch.

Dan Froomkin: Look, these guys aren't stupid. The fact is that health care is an enormous concern to a lot of Americans. There are more than 45 million uninsured Americans. That's a big problem.

Do the Democrats have a plan? No. So it's potentially an arena for Bush to build political capital, rather than spend it.

That said, he's not exactly taking a middle-of-the-road approach here. Pretty much all his proposals, as far as I can tell, are the fruit of the think-tank types who really want to reverse the New Deal.


Baltimore, Md.: Dan: Welcome back. As a new dad, I know you don't want anyone to threaten your livelihood, but the episode with the blogs and the ombudsman only strengthens my opinion that newspapers were foolish to ever enter the online world. It seems to me that they rushed in with an "everyone's doing it" mentality without thinking, hey do we need this and hey, can we make money at it. At 35 cents, the paper version of The Post is one of the world's great bargains. When people had to look for paper, type a letter, address an envelope, find a stamp and go to the post office if they wanted to complain to a newspapers, the world was a more civilized place and fewer loudmouths had a way to spout off intemperately.

Dan Froomkin: I couldn't disagree more. I actually think newspapers are the rightful inheritors of the Internet. If you're really interested in my views, here's a piece I wrote for the Online Journalism Review last May, a few months after stepping down as the number-two editor of washingtonpost.com and starting this column.


Oakton, Va.: I guess since Bush's plan to privatize social security was so popular last year he's decided to apply the same concept to health care. How about trying to fix the Medicare drug plan fiasco first?

Dan Froomkin: I've been meaning to research whether Bush has said a single word about the problems with the Medicare drug benefit. He certainly talked a lot about how great it would be beforehand. (If anyone knows, e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com . I don't have quite as much free time as I used to.)


Centreville, VA: Hi Dan. So glad to hear that everything is going great at the Froomkins. And nothing is better than being a dad. Enjoy all the moments.

I'm writing about the wiretapping story. Nothing is going to happen to anyone in the administration unless the public finds out that the NSA tapped Joe USA Citizen, and Mr. Citizen was not connected to any terrorist organizations. The Republican Congress is too chicken unless there is more outcry, and conservative media too loud to let it happen. Has there been any progress made regarding instances that this administration spied on citizens that did not fall into the category of being in bed with terrorists?Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And you make some interesting points.



column yesterday, I noted Bush's attempt to re-christen "domestic spying" as "terrorist surveillance" and asked: "But was Bush willing to say definitively that only terrorists were surveilled? Or was he prepared to at least discuss what standard of evidence was required? No. Not a word."

I doubt the NSA will say much, except possibly under subpoena. But Bush could certainly be asked those questions in public.


Racine, Wis.: "Look, these guys aren't stupid. The fact is that health care is an enormous concern to a lot of Americans. There are more than 45 million uninsured Americans. That's a big problem."

I disagree, and I think Fairfax, Va., has a point. It's only a problem to those who are uninsured, and most of them don't vote.

Dan Froomkin: I just don't agree. For one, I think we're a compassionate country. For another, it's very easy for most of us to imagine suddenly losing our jobs and not having any ourselves.


Seattle, Wash.: There is a lot of buzz that Democratic strategists fervently believe that the domestic spying program authorized by Bush is "a losing issue" for Democrats in Congress, and that they should all just drop it. On the other hand, Al Gore gave an impassioned speech last week arguing that this is precisely where Democrats need to make their stand (and David Broder, at least, seems convinced that the evidence is enough to warrant a sort of "indictment.") How much of an impact do you think this debate will have, and what do you see as the possible implications of each side's position?

Thanks as always for your work.

Dan Froomkin: I do not pretend to understand the Democrats. I have a hard enough job fathoming the White House. I think you ask a fine question, though.


Albany, N.Y.: Why doesn't the White House ever seem to verify anything before making claims? This stuff about killing al Qaeda's number two is making White House claims about as credible as the pre-election terror alerts. Since Arabic names can be hard to spell, I think they should just call al Qaeda's number two "Kenny," since he seems to get killed every episode.

Dan Froomkin: That works for me.


Salt Lake City, Utah: It's clear Scott McClellan has got his talking points down on why he won't answer questions about staff meetings involving Abramoff. But, beyond the inane rhetoric ("fishing expeditions," etc.), is he saying anything other than "No, I'm not going to answer your question."

Dan Froomkin: Well, sometimes he also accuses members of the press of "insinuating something."


Arlington, Va.: Glad you're back, Dan! And congratulations to you and your wife on the birth of your son.

Here's a quotation from the Boston Globe article you cited yesterday: "'This power -to undertake domestic eavesdropping without a court order] will lie around like a loaded weapon for any future incumbent to use when he wants to override a law,' said Bruce Fein, a former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration. 'There will be terrorism forever, so it will become a permanent fixture on our legal landscape.'"

My question: what is the alternative? Congress will hold hearings: but what action can it take to stop the president? And if it takes action, who's going to make the president obey it? Hasn't he already indicated his intention to ignore Congressional law in some of his "signing statements"?

Can anything really be done to stop this dangerous enhancement of presidential power?

Dan Froomkin: Not likely with a Republican majority.

But your question calls attention to the potential cascade failure. Say the Judiciary Committee hearings are ugly, and enough Congressional Republicans join the Democrats to demand that Bush stop doing this one thing. And he doesn't. That's the only scenario in which I can imagine a Republican Congress even considering impeachment charges -- and that's the answer to your question. Congress still has the power to impeach, convict and remove the president of the United States.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: As a journalist, is it frustrating to have such a feckless opposition party? Doesn't it make providing a "balanced" view of the news virtually impossible short of having an agenda? How can reporters offset the White House spin if the opposition doesn't offer an opposing point of view?

Dan Froomkin: That's a really interesting question.

And having a more vigorous opposition certainly would make he-said-she-said journalism easier.

But in some ways, it shouldn't have an effect on how we cover things at all.


Wake Forest, N.C.: Racine said "It's only a problem to those who are uninsured, and most of them don't vote."

It is unbelievable how misinformed some people are. I am a divorced mother of 3 and work at a small firm that does not offer health insurance. The kids are covered under their father's insurance but I can not afford the $200+ a month it would take for me to be covered. Oh, and guess what,I vote.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Unfair Criticism: Come on, this is the first time they claimed to have killed the number two guy. It's the number three guy they keep killing.

Dan Froomkin: Good point.


Washington, D.C.: I have a suggestion for Deborah Howell that I sent to her but has not received a response. Since she is supposed to be an advocate for the Post's readers and listen to their questions/concerns: why doesn't she start having a weekly forum on washingtonpost.com? She says she welcomes debate, loves to talk with her readers, etc -- it seems like this might be a good solution to some of her credibility problems. Getting out among the people...

That being said I've written her two well-reasoned, non-abusive emails since she started and I have never heard back from either one (sigh).

Love ya, Dan!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I think that would be a great idea.


Chicago, Ill.: Mr. Froomkin,

A comment. From your column of Jan. 24: -President Bush] "On his job: 'If I had to give you a job description, it would be a decision-maker. I make a lot of decisions.'"

Doesn't he have the oldest written job description in the U.S.: "To Preserve, Protect, and Defend the Constitution of the United States"?

Dan Froomkin: Good point.


Chicago, Ill.: It seems to me that the press is finally pressing the White House for answers to questions as opposed to letting them slide. Nonetheless, the White House keeps stonewalling and it seems that eventually the questions stop coming. Some examples include whether Bush met with Abramoff, the refusal to disclose communications about Katrina. Is there anything that can be done that does not involve lawyers?

Dan Froomkin: Yes. We can write more about how we're getting stonewalled, instead of eking out some little piece of news and leading with that as if it were a big deal. Right now, for many of these stories, the biggest deal is that we're being stonewalled.


Portland, Ore.: Dan, welcome back - we love you!A serious question - why is Bush still wearing that thing on his back? What is it? So much for the "unscripted" performance.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Did I miss a "bulge" sighting! Oh no!


Dan Froomkin: Thank you so much for all your wonderful questions, as well as your warm welcome back -- and your parenting tips. They are all very much appreciated.

I'll be back here next Wednesday, for a special post-State of the Union White House Briefing Live Online -- then I'll be going back to my once-every-two-weeks schedule.

But the column is on the washingtonpost.com home page (somewhere) every weekday afternoon.

Talk to you again soon.


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