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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, October 11, 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, Oct. 11, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org .


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

Was President Bush able to reassert his relevance today?

My pre-press conference column today touches on Bush's problems getting people to listen to him lately, his farcical summit on school violence, his desperate attempt to get the press corps to report on his campaign speeches, etc.

The goal of today's surprise press conference was clearly to seize back the microphone, and control the message.

But having now seen the press conference, I'm not so sure it worked. By and large, this wasn't very different from previous press conferences that have earned him big headlines and stenographic coverage. But there's been a sea change in Washington just in the past month, partly caused by Bob Woodward's book, on the issue of Bush's state of denial.

So today, when Bush gamely restated that the Iraqi government is getting stronger, that our presence in Iraq is making things better, that our tactics in Iraq are being adjusted appropriately -- assertions that are all, according to reports from Iraq, not remotely accurate -- I suspect more people in the audience were asking themselves: Can he really believe that?

We'll see how that's reflected in the coverage tomorrow.

To me, the most significant aspect of the press conference was Bush's inability to draw a "red line" for North Korea, beyond which its behavior would presumably draw a military response. Just yesterday, signs were that Bush was making it clear that the "red line" would be crossed if North Korea gave a nuke to someone else -- like a terrorist group, for instance. But Bush totally ducked the issue when asked a direct question.

This is particularly troubling in the context that The Washington Post's Mike Abramowitz so eloquently described in his question, of Bush having made a slew of what now sound an awful lot like empty threats against North Korea in the past (while, of course, attacking and occupying a country that didn't actually have WMDs at all.) Has Bush lost his ability to be taken seriously on the world stage?

The White House was evidently counting on Bush coming off as strong and decisive. Did he? What do you think?

(Also noteworthy: Bush's defense of his straw-man arguments, mischaracterizing the views of his critics!)

So much to talk about...


San Francisco, Calif.: I am still amazed that more journalists are not out there taking apart Bush's increasingly brazen straw-man arguments. Sometimes I think that the White House really just thinks that the public is totally stupid and the press is all too willing to give them a pass to keep on insulting us. I think a loud buzzer needs to go off every time the phrase "some say" is uttered and the speaker must then be required to name who the "some" is.

Dan Froomkin: All hail Don Gonyea of NPR, who brought up that very topic at the press conference this morning.

I don't have the transcript yet, but Gonyea noted that Democrats feel that Bush doesn't accurately portray their positions, and that he makes it sound like there are two choices in public policy: "either they support exactly what you want to do or they want to do nothing."

(This came after Bush attacked Democrats for being against interrogating terror suspects, and said: "I don't believe we can wait to respond until an attack has occurred.")

Bush did not give up any ground, however, basically repeating his strawmen and saying they were based on fact.

I sure hope this results in some good stories tomorrow....


Cocoa Beach, Fla.: Dan:

Does anyone..either domestically or internationally take what Bush and this administration says seriously anymore?? My experience is that people just tune him out and they all believe he hasn't a clue.

Dan Froomkin: Let me ask your question another way: Is anything Bush saying changing anyone's mind about anything anymore (either domestically or internationally)? My answer to that question is I'm not sure.


Vienna, Va.: Dan: I am no fan of this President, but want to raise a basic question: in the end, is there any tactic, short of war, that would keep another country from developing a nuclear weapon, if they have the means? Clearly the President should have considered this when he made his foolish "red line" statements in the past, but I believe his critics should also keep it in mind when faulting him for failing to stop this from happening. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Absolutely. Lots of countries have the means and don't do it. For the countries that have the means AND the volition, then you have to ask: What are they trying to accomplish? What are they afraid of? Is there some morally acceptable way for them to accomplish their goals and ease their fears other than going nuclear? That's what diplomacy is all about.


Washington, D.C.: Hey Dan -

I didn't happen to see the press conference today. Were any questions asked regarding the report today that well over 600,000 Iraqis have been killed since the invasion. This is a staggering number that doesn't square with what Bush has said publicly.

Dan Froomkin: Yes, indeed. Suzanne Malveaux of CNN noted that the new figure was 20 times what Bush had acknowledged in the past, and offered him a chance to amend or update his position. He declined, saying that the new figure was not credible.

He also declined to name his own figure. "I stand by the figure 'a lot of innocent people have lost their life.' Six hundred thousand, or whatever they guessed at, is just -- it's not credible."


Glastonbury, Conn.: Why is John Bolton still at the U.N.? I thought his appointment ran out when Congress adjourned. What happened?

Dan Froomkin: His recess appointment expires when the new Congress convenes, in January.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Does Rove still have an October surprise? Is it likely we will see some kind of national security crisis in about three weeks?

Dan Froomkin: Who knows?

I think one "surprise" people may have not anticipated is all the "Swift boat" type ad campaigns Rove has lined up. They can be very effective, especially if they create the right (wrong) kind of press coverage.


St. Petersburg, Fla.: I hope that Helen Thomas is right when she asserts that the press is now "coming out of its coma," but I have my doubts. The evidence that exposes the incompetence and sheer malevolence of this administration has been available for ages. And who's listening? The real question is if the the American public will awaken from its slumber. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: I think the public was way ahead of the press corps in determining that Bush was not credible. Look at the poll numbers. For instance, a majority of Americans has been saying for more than two years that they think Bush deliberately misled us into war.


Wichita, Kan.: This is from a recent Joe Klein, Time Magazine column: "The hilarious part is everyone in Washington now believes that the only way Bush will change course on Iraq is if Jimmy Baker's -bipartisan commission shows him the way out," a prominent Republican told me. Former Secretary of State Baker was Bush the Elder's longtime consigliere. This is a family psychodrama for the ages."

It has seemed to me that James Baker has been the Bush family "fix-it man" for some time. He helped with Florida in 2000, He influenced how oil will be sold in Iraq, etc. We don't know if George W. Bush is going to be open to the Baker commission recommendations, but one has to wonder if the commission's establishment is a sign from the Bush family (daddy and/or son) that they privately think that things are not going so "swimmingly" in Iraq. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Somehow I missed that Joe Klein piece. But here is it.

Like a lot of us here in Washington, I am VERY CURIOUS about what Baker is working on, and about whether this will be a lifeline for Bush. I'm intrigued that Baker's not going to say anything definitive until after the election -- but I'm not sure what that means. I'm also not at all sure that Bush will listen to him. He does have a record of waving off signs from daddy.


Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Dear Dan,

In his press conference today, President Bush asked:

"I will ask myself a follow-up: If that's the case, why did you use military action in Iraq?

"And the reason why is because we tried the diplomacy. Remember it? We tried resolution after resolution after resolution."

Did Pres. Bush exhaust every last option of diplomacy with Iraq? Doesn't the absence of WMD indicate that the resolutions and weapons inspections actually worked? Doesn't the President have a credibility problem here? Why won't reporters call him on it to his face?

Dan Froomkin: In part, because Bush is more generous about taking follow-up questions from himself than from others.


Greenwich, Conn.: Hi Dan - Any chances of seeing more coverage and investigative reporting on the Susan B. Ralston resignation? It's yet another stunning indictment of this administration.

Keep up the great work!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks, and I don't know. I'm mystified that the press has let the Ralston story drop so easily. I just hope they're still working on it, in secret.


Fremont, Calif.: Regarding the delay in signing the military commissions bill, I think this was, and continues to be part of Karl Rove's October Surprise he's been promising the Republican faithful. Bush signs the bill and at the same time announces the start of the trials, say on October 16th for maximum press coverage. (None of that Friday, lost in the weekend stuff.) The remaining weeks before the election will be filled with news coverage and reminders of how the terrorists hate America.

Too far out?

Dan Froomkin: Probably. But now your suspicion is "on the record," as it were.


Arlington, Va.: A few days ago, James Baker suggested that there was perhaps a middle course between the "stay the course" argument and the "cut and run" argument. Of course, no one has presented a "cut and run" argument; that is just the administration's mischaracterization of anything that counters the official Bush approach. I didn't see anything in the press to call him on that, though. Was there anything?

Dan Froomkin: Actually, as shorthand, both are accurate enough, it seems to me. You'll notice the White House objects to "stay the course" as well.


Arlington, Va.: Unless Congress has adjourned, doesn't a bill becomes a law without the President's signature after ten days of it being passed? In that case, the detainee bill has already become law.

Dan Froomkin: According to C-SPAN :

"A Pocket Veto is when the President fails to sign a bill within the 10 days allowed by the Constitution.

"Congress must be in adjournment in order for a pocket veto to take effect.

"If Congress is in session and the president fails to sign the bill, it becomes law without his signature."

The Senate passed the bill in question on September 28. But according to Thomas it wasn't actually formally presented to the president until yesterday.


Alexandria, Va.: I've heard that Senator Clinton could pick her husband as the VP candidate if she gets Dem nomination. Is there even a remote possibility that it would happen?

Dan Froomkin: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.



Dallas, Tex.: Hi Dan, at today conference, did anyone ask Bush for comment on Susan Ralston, who resigned last Friday? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Nope.


Bush Bad, Bush Bad, Bush Bad!: Having established my right to be here, can I ask a question?

Watching the Dems, and the people who post to this chat, do you and yours ever feel like a little kid, just swinging wildly and hoping to land a fist, while Rove and Bush hold you back with their hand on your head?

'Cuz that's what it looks like from here outside the BosNYWashChiSF Zones of Frustration.

Dan Froomkin: A little, yeah.


Ione, Wash.: Is there some protocol or respect issue that prevents the press from embarrassing the President so that their questions are never really that tough? Every question they asked the president deflected but no one seemed to want to follow up or contradict.

Dan Froomkin: Yes, there is such a thing as protocol. It is, for instance, hard to be inside the White House and not feel a certain amount of respect for the office.

Any reporter who mouthed off to the president would probably get a lot of flack, from the public, their bosses and their peers.

That said, I can't help but wish someone would address the elephant in the room (or garden) one of these days and ask (on any number of issues): Do you really believe this stuff? Because what you're saying just doesn't comport with reality!


Farmington Hills, Mich.: Dan, I love your column and your chats.

I think one important question that reporters have failed to President Bush concerns what happens when he leaves office with all the power he has accumulated for the presidency. Can he be so sure that someone in the future won't abuse the power. I understand that he trusts himself to use it to "protect the American people" but how does he know for certain that a president in the future won't abuse the power. I wish someone would ask him.

Dan Froomkin: I think that's a very interesting question. Presumably, he would say there are checks and balances -- but I see little evidence of them these days. Maybe he thinks Republicans (even in a minority) would never let a Democrat get away with those sorts of shenanigans.


Abramoff and co.: Hi Dan, thanks for taking questions. Last weekend, I saw a Bill Moyers special on PBS that laid out the Abramoff "K" Street scandal in compelling, chilling detail. It was infuriating to watch. At the end of the special, he spoke with Norm Orenstein and another guest who assert that this scandal is just the tip of the D.C. corruption iceberg. It seems to me the WH Press Corps needs to be more aggressive in asking questions about any WH connection to the scandal--isn't it their responsibility to wake up the citizenry or are Americans just apathetic if a scandal doesn't involve sex?

Dan Froomkin: I didn't see the Moyers show , but I heard it was very good.

I agree with your basic position -- and your conclusion that if sex were involved, it would be very different.


Washington, D.C.: Dan - when Bush does his formal attention grabbing signing of the torture bill....the Democrats should do a formal ceremony on the grounds of the Capitol reading all the signing statements that Bush has attached to the bill. Do you think that could happen? Do you think the press would cover it?

Dan Froomkin: I like the idea of theatrics. But there are a couple of problems with your idea. For one, the signing statement isn't released until well after the signing ceremony -- and it's possible that this bill was so carefully designed by the White House that they won't have any objections. Furthermore, quite a few Democrats ended up voting for it.


San Jose, Calif.: I think the mid-term elections are still up for grabs in terms of the Democrats gaining control of one or both houses of Congress. Any thoughts, however, on what the next two years would look like if the Democrats do control one or both houses? I fear two years of vicious fighting and little progress in the people's business.

Dan Froomkin: I wrote the other day that it's hard to imagine what it would be like if Bush had to work with a non-pliant Congress. And I meant it. I can't imagine it. This White House hasn't exactly exercised its compromise muscle.

I'd like to see some informed speculation on this before the election. I think it would be interesting.


Portland, Ore.: In an article (NY Times or WA Post, I don't recall) the other day regarding the bipartisan committee on Iraq (Baker, et al.), one of the unofficial missions of the committee was described as a way for Bush to "save face." What an awful, awful justification and mission. What about all the soldiers who have died and been severely injured because of Bush's mistake(s) in Iraq? He should be held accountable, not be giving a "face saving" exit.

Dan Froomkin: If "face saving" for Bush were the only way to prevent yet more American casualties, would you accept it? At least temporarily? I bet you would.


La Canada, Calif.: Dan, it seems that Bush is trying to shift the message away from Iraq and foreign policy (losers for Republicans) to taxes, etc. Did you get that impression from the press conference?

Dan Froomkin: Yes. And it won't work. But he may shift it somewhat to North Korea, which at least isn't as much as a loser issue for the GOP as Iraq -- or Foley. Don't forget Foley.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks for all the wonderful questions and comments. I'm sorry I couldn't get to more of them. Here by the way is an early transcript of the press conference.

See you again here in two weeks, and every afternoon atwashingtonpost.com/whbriefing.


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