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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, June 7, 2006; 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 on Wednesday, June 7, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org .


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. Lots to talk about today -- as always, it seems!

My column today is about what I call The Important Stuff. By which I mean not gay marriage or immigration, but things like the atrocities in Iraq, and the stifling of a promised congressional investigation into domestic spying.

Yesterday, I wrote at some length about the Executive Power Outrage.

I'm eager to hear from you.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan-

Thanks for the signing statements focus. I was wondering, when the Pres adds a signing statement to a law, do members of congress know? Or would they just find out say, after someone who has been tortured claims a law has been violated?

Here's why I ask. I have believed that McCain made a deal with Bush over his anti-torture legislation. But McCain has never said a word, publicly, about the flat out contradiction. I've known for awhile about the signing statement and kept waiting for McCain to say something.....nothing so far. So I just wonder what these congress people know regarding the laws they think they have passed, do you know what happens with the statement?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I don't know the answer to your very excellent question. I would really like to see some reporters asking the sponsors of legislation to which Bush had appended these demurrals how they feel about it -- and, yes, if they even knew!

I guess I'll just have to wait for the Boston Globe's Charlie Savage to get around to that angle. He seems to be pretty much the only reporter dogging this story at all. Why that is, however, dumbfounds me.


Houston, Tex.: Tuesday you called ABC's The Note "increasingly bizarre," and I couldn't agree more. It's always been Bush/GOP-friendly, but it's gotten more and more over the top about it.

What gives? And is it still as respected as it once was?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not exactly a dues paying member of what the Note so annoyingly calls the "Gang of 500," but my sense is that it has gone from "must-read" status to "can't-read" has-been.

Not only is it increasingly impenetrable, uninsightful and turgid, but I personally have zero tolerance for a supposed journalistic product that tries to fool its readers into believing its poor attempts at fiction are true. Ever.


San Francisco, Calif.: Hello Dan! I read you every day. Frankly, in the vast wasteland of contemporary news, you have become irreplaceable. My question concerns the issue of whether our elections can be considered fair and reliable, and specifically whether the last two presidential elections were stolen. As you probably know by now, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. just wrote a piece that has been published in the latest Rolling Stone making that contention. He backs up his thesis with some pretty staggering information and analysis. It deeply concerns me that the mainstream media (including your paper) still treat this issue as if it was the sole domain of tin-hat conspiracy theorists. If our elections are in fact being stolen, then we have already lost our democracy. Your comments?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words. I plead guilty to having linked to that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. story the other day without much comment.

I should also note that since the piece appeared, there has been lots of criticism of it on journalistic grounds, with the charge being led by Farhad Manjoo of Salon, of all places.

My excuse for not rendering an assessment is my lack of expertise on the issue -- though it's a lack of expertise that is at least in part a function of the lack of serious investigative reporting by the traditional media into all sorts of voting irregularities in 2004. It seemed like right after the election, the traditional media refused to take seriously any concerns about voter fraud (in large part because the Democrats were not calling foul) -- even enough to look into them with much vigor. We just collectively declared it a clean victory. And now, everyone's very defensive about revisiting the issue.

Whether that was a good journalistic call or hysterical blindness in 2004, the fact remains that we now have all sorts of legitimate reasons to be suspicious of the mechanism of voting, and it's imperative that we investigate this thoroughly before the next election.

As Mark Seibel, a Knight-Ridder managing editor, put it recently on NiemanWatchdog.org: "What political coverage routinely neglects... is how people actually vote and how those votes are counted. As we learned in Florida in 2000 and saw again in Ohio in 2004, the mechanics of voting may be as critical to the result as the beliefs of the people casting those votes. Journalists need to cover the voting system, with an eye toward making sure voters are able to get to the polls, cast a legal ballot and count on that ballot being tallied accurately. If that part of the system fails, then efforts to cover candidates and their positions are wasted."

In fact, over at NiemanWatchdog.org, we've been raising all sorts of questions reporters should be asking about voting security.


Grantham, NH: Hi Dan,

Your column today and many others I've seen talk about Veep Cheney's role in a host of controversial issues, from NSA spying to changing interpretation of the Geneva Convention. Given his limited role as delineated in the Constitution, his authority on these matters would seem to have been delegated to him by the President. As such, anything he does is truly as a representative of the President, no? Why does the press (or anyone else for that matter) not hold the President himself more accountable for these policies being enacted on his behalf by VP Cheney? He's not operating in a vacuum...

Dan Froomkin: Because he's operating in an information vacuum.

In her seminal piece on executive power in the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew writes: "It's difficult, however, to know much about what Cheney is doing because his office operates in such secrecy that a reporter friend of mine refers to it as a 'black hole.'"

So first we'd have to figure out exactly what he's doing; then we'd have to hold Bush accountable for it. I wouldn't hold your breath.


Atlanta, Ga: What has been the President's / Whitehouse / Tony Snow's response to the American Bar Association's announcement that it will conduct a blue ribbon panel study of the constitutional ramifications of President Bush's signing statements? Has anyone asked the President or his press secretary? I'm curious what their reaction is.

Dan Froomkin: I'd be curious to hear what their reaction is, too. But to the best of my knowledge, the White House press corps has never bothered to ask either Snow or Bush a single question about signing statements.

Anyone who can explain that to me gets a slightly used Washington Post Radio coffee mug.


Cody, Wyo: Dan - Thank you for your invaluable service to your readers. We appreciate it.

How much longer will Tony Snow get away with his innacurate / false statements of fact to the White House correspondents? Who is responsible for holding him accountable for his behavior?

Dan Froomkin: My understanding is that the White House press corps -- or, rather, I should say, certain factions within the press corps -- have already lost patience with Snow. (While others still find him charming.) So that there honeymoon may be ending soon.

That said, I was shocked at how little attention was paid to what I considered (and yesterday called) the biggest blunder of his so-far hapless tenure.

"Right out of the gates -- in answer to the very first question at [Monday's]briefing, Snow made the startling assertion that the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage is a civil rights issue. Then he retreated into genuine or faked ignorance -- which is worse? -- about what he himself meant by civil rights."


Milwaukee, Wis.: Dan, Your assessments of the continuing torture issues with this administration are right on the mark. Do you see this as a potential campaign strategy in the fall for the Dems? It's pretty clear that the President is willing to blame everyone else for these atrocities but his administration. If that's the case, how patriotic does he look if he continues to blame the soldiers for all that ills the war? Is this a winner for the Democrats along with the lineage of problems (i.e. insufficient armor, etc.) that have surfaced in the past?

Dan Froomkin: Ugh! I don't see this as a political issue, and frankly I can't even bring myself to try to think about it that way.

This is a hugely important story that the press should be getting to the bottom of. As I wrote this morning: "How it came about that America became identified across the globe with torture and other atrocities -- and what role the White House has played in that -- are mysteries that need to be unraveled, and that are legitimately the subject of constant, unrelenting inquiry and reporting. But so far, these infamies have largely been covered as isolated acts."

Every single major news organization should have launched a "torture beat" the day after the Abu Ghraib story broke. But it's not too late: Editors, do it today.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan,

Could Congress send something to the President with their

own pre-emptive signing statement?

Something along the lines of "regardless of what the

President says, this is the law."

Dan Froomkin: I believe the proper response is not to attempt some sort of pre-emption; it's to sue.


Great Falls, Va.: Hi Dan, Thanks as always for your work.

You said in your column that VP Cheney, promised that the Bush administration would consider legislation proposed by Specter that would place a domestic surveillance program under scrutiny of a special federal court.

Last time I looked at the Constitution, it was the role of the Legislative branch to legislate, not the Executive. Or was that in one of the President's signing statements that didn't get reported?

Dan Froomkin: I admit I got a chuckle out of the comment about all this from the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who said: "Why don't we just recess for the rest of the year, and the vice president will just tell the nation what laws we'll have?"

I can guess what Cheney's response was.


Leesburg, Va.: I'm astonished by the report in USA Today (and quoted in your column) about the "deal" Cheney offered Specter and his committee - that the domestic call-tracing program would be subject to a new FISA-type law if Specter didn't hold hearings.

What on earth would lead Specter to believe the VP? Surely he must realize that any new law will just be met with a "signing statement" saying "yeah, that's a nice law, but the unitary executive doesn't have to follow it or the other 750 laws we've given signing statements on."

Were any guarantees on actually following this proposed law given by the VP?

Is there any way for Congress to contest these signing statements?

Dan Froomkin: Most excellent questions. I am hereby passing them along to the Washington press corps.

Yo! Ask these questions, will ya?


Silver Spring, Md.: Here's a neat idea. At the WH Press Briefing, all of the reporters could ask about the VP instead of about Bush. "What does Cheney plan to do about Iran?" "Where will Cheney be speaking on gay marriage, immigration, etc?". Just start pretending the president doesn't exist. It isn't as if any of the ideas are his, anyway.

Dan Froomkin: Funny.


Galveston, Tex: Dan,

When do you think Arlen Specter is going to get a spine (or at least some courage) to finally take the Administration to task for their power-grabs? Seems to me whenever something controversial comes up he is all bravado. However, he seems to crawl back into his Senate office when it is time to act (i.e. today with regard to NSA surveillance).

Dan Froomkin: I find Arlen Specter one of the most intriguing members of the Senate right now. Seriously: What makes him tick? What makes him back off? What would make him not back off? These questions are material to our country right now.


San Carlos, Calif: Hi Dan,

Your column is fantastic. My day feels so empty when you have a day off. Keep up the good work.

Although it is the reader's responsibility to educate himself/herself on who is writing an op-ed, but shouldn't the WaPo have had some disclaimer above Peter Wehner's piece on Monday? I am being sarcastic, but something seems amiss in my mind when the WaPo freely publishes something from a White House official who is paid to propagandize for them. Do you agree?

Dan Froomkin: Wow. Thanks.

For your average discerning reader, I think the tag line under the piece, clearly identifying Wehner as a White House aide, was sufficient. And it certainly was emblematic of what the White House is trying to communicate these days.

But I should note that over at Huffingtonpost.com, Alex Koppelman (I'm not sure who he is!) writes: "That the Post allowed what is essentially a press release to run on their pages is bad enough; then they allowed the writer to lie. Wehner's column is filled with distortions, omissions and outright lies."


Laramie, Wyo.: Dan, the President railed on the other day about how it was wrong that "activist judges" are defying the will of the people when it comes to defining marriage. From what I understand, activist judges were the ones that overturned laws forbidding interracial marriage back in the 1920's. This act went against popular opinion at the time (the case was from Mississippi I think). The judges even received death threats from the upset electorate. Would someone be a hypocrite if they said these activist judges were right but nowadays they are not?

Dan Froomkin: Good point.

Indeed, "activism" is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

To the extent that there is an objective way of describing it, it would appear to belie Bush's use of the term. For instance, Paul Gewirtz and Chad Golderwrote a New York Times Op-ed last summer, identifying "one reasonably objective and quantifiable measure of a judge's activism, and we've used it to assess the records of the justices on the current Supreme Court.

"Here is the question we asked: How often has each justice voted to strike down a law passed by Congress?"

By that measure, Republican appointees were way more activist than Democratic ones.

(In a similar vein, the minority office of the House Government Reform Committee is out with a new report showing that Bush has signed 27 laws that override state laws and regulations.)

To your point: When and if journalists quote Bush's diatribes against "activist judges" they should also make it clear to their readers that it is a subjective term. Otherwise, they're tacitly buying into his argumentative definition. (Which of course the White House is counting on.)

Furthermore, as a participant in Eugene Robinson's Live Online put it yesterday: "What more proper role of the judiciary is there than to protect the rights of a minority from the tyranny of the majority?"


Overland Park, Kan.: Dan,

The other day Tony Snow said the Federal Marriage Amendment is about civil rights. However, it seems to be the opposite because it deprives people of rights. Why hasn't anyone taken him to task over this remark? It is blatantly false.

Dan Froomkin: I've noted his comment several times now. The marriage amendment to the Constitution would be, as far as I know, the first one to remove rights, rather than guarantee them. So it strikes me that the analogy is deeply cynical at best. I would have expected, you know, civil rights leaders to weigh in here.


East Peoria, Ill: Hi Dan:

I am a little baffled by the small rise in Bush's current approval ratings. Do you believe that the bump is due to his speech on immigration and his newly rediscovered opposition to gay marriage?

Dan Froomkin: If there is a bump (and the Pew survey I link to today actually shows a continued drop in his job approval over the past three weeks) I think it's because the White House public-relations effort has been going great guns. Bush is out there, making headlines with stories in which he is the lead actor (immigration, gay marriage). Even if the coverage is not entirely positive, it sure beats stories about the war or domestic spying. He's looking presidential, at least on the surface.


Has the MSM always been so clueless, or: are we, thanks to you, just noticing it more?

I'm talking about the signing statements. I mean these statements are in black and white, on the record, and not "that hard" to find.

Is everyone in the press just working more selfishly on their careers and not serving readers or the craft as well as in the past?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know. I think part of it is is that White House correspondents are generally measured by the quantity (and quality) of their daily output. And their main job is to report what happened yesterday. And that is heavily controllable by the White House itself.

It's probably no coincidence that Charlie Savage is the guy writing about signing statements. He's actually not a White House correspondent! The Boston Globe a while back actually stopped sending a reporter to the White House regularly. Savage sits back and -- guess what? -- covers what's really important, instead.

I have long argued that every major news organization should have at least one full-time investigative reporter dedicated to the White House -- to supplement the correspondents.

But it's not too late: Editors, do it today.


Frederick, Md.: It seems in this town that big political news is only as big as the next deal the WH gets involved in...which allows the President to shift news from the tragic to him a hero...that's politics, but these huge issues need not be 'dropped' by the media just to get a scoop on an unimportant event.

Dan Froomkin: But they are, pretty often, aren't they.


Charlottesville, Va.: Hi Dan, I have a question about the new Treasury Secretary to-be:

I've read several articles recently pointing out that Hank Paulson supports initiatives to combat global warming, even going so far as to say that not ratifying the Kyoto Treaty has hurt America economically (the exact opposite argument Bush has made in favor of not ratifying the agreement).

This seems like a really big issue to me, yet has the press corps asked Snow about this seemingly Grand Canyon-esque gulf between the President and Paulson? And is this evidence of a layer coming off of the bubble? It seems Paulson has been guaranteed a "spot at the table" (whatever that means) to affect policy change. And if Paulson is a huge supporter of fighting global warming, doesn't this seem to have big economic ramifications?

Dan Froomkin: Even a tiny amount of potential dissension in the ranks is news, so we'll definitely be keeping an eye on this.

But it would be a much bigger deal if Paulson were being named head of the EPA or something more relevant to the environment.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan,

Do you recall the "shadow government" that the

administration created shortly after 9-11?

What ever happened to it?


Dan Froomkin: Funny you should ask. William Arkin had a fascinating article about the new shadow government in The Post's Outlook section just this Sunday.

One question he didn't answer: Are all these shadow types political appointees? Or are there career folks, too. The former would be really scary (in any administration.)


Baltimore, Md.: Hi Dan,

Do you feel that the main stream press's lack of holding President Bush accountable is due to fear or is it a function of being overwhelmed/numb by the sheer volume of bizarre and possible criminal behavior on the part of this administration?

Dan Froomkin: I think the truth is more banal, and has something to do with overwork, the path of least resistance, an overappreciation of balance, and laziness. But those certainly are two possibilities as well.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Isn't ironic that the President rails against "activist judges" who overturn laws passed by the legislature, while he reserves the right to accomplish the same end via his signing statements?

Dan Froomkin: You could very well say that.


Washington, D.C.: Hi "Reporter": I'll bet you're dreading a Democratic president in the White House. You'll miss all the sycophantic fawning you receive from people who like you merely because you share a hatred for Bush and all things Republican.

If you really are a reporter rather than a commentator, as you keep claiming, then you'll be just as tough on a Democratic president and you'll find out how quickly your ardent fans of today turn on you.

Dan Froomkin: I'm a columnist, not a reporter. And I appreciate the sycophantic fawning, but I don't live for it.

I live for (among other things) the principle that whoever occupies the White House, from whatever party, should be subject to the utmost scrutiny by the press, and should be able to withstand it.


Dan Froomkin: OK, folks, I've got to run. Thanks for all the wonderful questions, as always. And I'm sorry I couldn't get to more of them.

I'll be back here in two weeks, and every weekday on the home page or athttp://washingtonpost.com/whbriefing.


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