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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, October 25, 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. 25, 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.

What a day! There was already so much to talk about and then -- at 8:33 a.m. -- the White House press office sent out word that President Bush would hold a press conference at 10:30! Reporters had 27 minutes to sign up, and less than an hour to show up on the White House driveway, to be escorted to the East Room. As for me, I had to scramble to get the rest of my column done.

The column today leads with my initial response to the press conference. My sense was that other than saying he owed the American people an explanation for this whole Iraq mess, he didn't really have much new to say. In other words: There's a lot that remains unexplained.

Did you watch? What did you think? And what else (White-House-related) is on your mind? Let me know.


Des Moines, Iowa: In your column today you start out with: "At a surprise press conference this morning...." Have not all of Bush's press conferences been a last minute surprise? So the surprise is really now the expected in a way? And did past administrations commonly give last minute heads-up?

Dan Froomkin: Good point. Lately, all of Bush's press conferences have been announced essentially at the last minute, which I have to believe is in part a way of keeping the corps from thinking too hard about what questions to ask -- and, not that this would ever happen, planning a coordinated attack on the question of the day.

The exception to this rule is the prime-time press conferences, which have to be announced way ahead of time. That's why Bush only holds about one of those a year.

I'm not sure about past administrations. Fine question. My gut is this is something new, but I could be wrong.

I'm also interested in the timing: Holding them in the morning, rather than the afternoon. On the one hand, it gives the daily newspaper folks time to mull and fact check before filing for the morning paper -- but on the other hand, it means a full day of mostly stenographic, rather than analytical or truth-squadding coverage, both on TV and in the online-news world.


Pacifica, Calif.: This morning the President refused to answer a question about what the U.S. would do if efforts to quell a "civil war" failed. He claimed the question was a "hypothetical" and therefore would not answer.

I always thought that people in government, as well as people in business, had a responsibility to consider "hypothetical" situations in order to be prepared for all options.

Since I'm sure the President has thought about options other than complete victory, should his response be seen as an attempt to avoid even more negativism than already swirls around the Iraq War?


Dan Froomkin: That's a very good point. Bush and his spokespeople have swatted away innumerable good questions by labeling them hypothetical.

And, in this particular case, there are a lot of people who don't think there's anything remotely hypothetical about a civil war in Iraq. That includes 82 percent of the American public, according to a CBS News poll in June, and experts like Harvard's Monica Toft.


Arlington, Va.: It seems likely to me that the next president will inherit a mess in Iraq. Has anyone in the press asked Snow if this administration will 'get the job done' before he leaves office? It would be very un-Texan of him to have started something he couldn't finish.

Dan Froomkin: Mike Allen of Time asked that very question of Bush himself this morning -- and guess what? He ducked it.


White Plains, N.Y.: I believe Mr. Bush was quoted earlier this weeks as having said "I never said 'stay the course'" Why is the press not addressing this aggressively as a glaring example of the President's knowing and willful distortion of reality?

Dan Froomkin: Oh but they are! With truly surprising vigor! See my columns today, and yesterday , and Monday .

In fact, a keen observer called me just yesterday to see if I could explain the vigor, given the many other similar opportunities that the corps has passed up. I don't have a firm answer, but in my October 11 column, I wrote about how Bob Woodward's book, "State of Denial," had finally convinced establishment Washington that Bush has a serious credibility problem.


Superior, Wis.: Good afternoon...Do you think President Bush's impromptu press conference had anything to do with another story that is reported in The Post this morning: an appeal from active-duty soldiers urging Congress for a phased withdrawal? The President could not very well criticize soldiers who have put their life on the line so was this a way of addressing them? What do you think? Thank you.

Dan Froomkin: You're talking about this story by Ann Scott Tyson .

My first reaction to your question was no, this story hasn't risen to anywhere near the level that Bush would feel compelled to respond in any significant way.

But the White House and the RNC do lots and lots of very sensitive polling and who knows? Maybe they saw this as touching a nerve. Bush certainly did spend a lot of time saying things like this today: "And the parents of our troops must understand that if I didn't believe we could succeed and didn't believe it was necessary for the security of this country to succeed, I wouldn't have your loved ones there. That's what I want these parents to hear."


Dan Froomkin: The transcript of the press conference is available here .


Potomac, Md.: Dan,

Thanks for restoring truthfulness to journalism.

My question is as follows: Didn't General Casey say six months ago that Iraq could assume primary responsibility for its security? I'm pretty sure if he did. If I am right, why should the American public find him more credible now if his previous prognostication totally lacks credibility?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'm just a truthy kind of guy.

Michael R. Gordon touched on some of these past announcements that came to naught in today's New York Times. There were indeed many of them.


Alexandria, Va.: Again I am dismayed at the softball questions and lack of follow-up. When is someone going to ask the President to name the Democrats who "don't want his listening to terrorists' conversations"? Why don't they point out the distinction between voting for a law that has many bad points and supporting legitimate surveillance? Why do the press continue to give him a platform to repeat his false allegations against those who vote against him?

Dan Froomkin: I hear you, but please don't underestimate how hard it is to ask a question that the guy at the podium can't spin to his favor -- when he controls the microphone.

That's why I reserve my greatest ire not for reporters at press conferences (called with 27 minutes notice), but for those bigshots who get one-on-one interviews with Bush and squander the opportunity to do rigorous follow-ups to his nonanswers. Now mind you I realize you could take up most of an hour-long interview just trying to pin him down on one or two things, but I think that would be worth it.


New York, N.Y.: Dan - If the Democrats win at least the House, how in general will GW Bush and his team respond?

They said they have no plans for a loss in the elections!

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's really the question of the moment: What will the White House do (if it happens)?

I'm sure they do have some (secret) plans, but I have no clue what they are. Would they try to reach across the aisle and find common ground? Or would they continue their politics of division -- guaranteeing gridlock? I just don't know.


Palo Alto, Calif.: News journalists have written and discussed in detail congressional and Senate races, but they never mention the vulnerability of the electoral process -- hackable machines and purged voter roles. How much of an impact do you think this factor will have if exit polls suggest a Democratic tsunami but results keep Republicans in power?

Dan Froomkin: This isn't a White House question, per se, and my expertise in this issue is not great. But I feel obliged to address it on account of the literally hundreds of e-mails I have gotten from readers who wonder if Bush and Rove's confidence in a Republican victory has something to do with a GOP plan to hack the vote.

I simply can't believe that's the case. But some aggressive reporting on this issue sure wouldn't hurt.

I certainly expect quite a bit of chaos at the polling places. See for instance,Amy Goldstein's piece in today's Post about a new report fromElectionline.org. And chaos, combined with the widespread lack of a paper trail, certainly could appear inviting to miscreants.

As for exit polls, my understanding is that the traditional media consortium exit pollsters are no longer releasing any data until they can "correct" their numbers to conform to the official count. As campaign consultant and data expertStephanie Singer writes: "In other words, what they report is no longer exit poll data at all, but rather a meaningless affirmation of official numbers." Singer also describes an independent attempt to do exit polling.


San Jose, Calif.: Dan,

There is a clear majority of voters that are anti-Bush, that want to send the administration a clear message and vote against the President. 2 thoughts: First, where were all of these people 2 short years ago? How did things crumble so quickly for the president and how did so many American citizens get duped? and Second, Does it really matter? After all, the president (and most of his cabinet) aren't going anywhere. The real message should have been sent in 2004, not today?

Dan Froomkin: I thought Bush's comment about accountability today was absolutely fascinating.

In essence, he said: You missed me. You had your chance in 2004, and you missed me. And to some extent, he's right.

What happened in 2004, in my opinion, is that Karl Rove used a complicit press to to turn the election into a referendum on John Kerry, rather than on Bush.

Since then, of course, things in Iraq have gotten a heck of a lot worse, and the evidence of credibility problems has continued to mount, etc.

Now, ironically, Bush is not on the ballot. But he's having a heck of a time demonizing his opponent. So the focus is more on him than it was last time.

Just for kicks, here's my January 18, 2005 column about Bush's assertion, in a Washington Post interview, that the 2004 election was "an accountability moment".


Pittsburgh, Pa.: I notice Tony Snow making lots of campaign appearances - unusual for a White House press secretary, I believe. And he's using the big TV screens as a means of becoming a superstar to the Bush base. Do they have some plan to run him for office in the near future? I know he has no public office experience, but It certainly hasn't been a hindrance for their candidates to date.

Dan Froomkin: Now there's a thought. I don't think any White House press secretary has ever run for office. (Can anyone prove me wrong?)

But then again, Snow's certainly the first to make campaign appearances.

And why is no one shocked at his behavior? I think Washington has come to realize that there is simply no difference between politics and policy in this White House. So what's one more example?


Delmar, N.Y.: In your "White House Briefing" column today you note a conversation between Vice President Cheney and a radio host in which the VP admitted that we used the technique of waterboarding against some detainees. He also said that this technique does not constitute torture. It is interesting that Mr. Cheney's alleged boss, President Bush, has refused to answer the question as to whether we have ever used waterboarding on the grounds that if we revealed our interrogation techniques "the enemy" could adapt. (How? By practicing holding their heads under water?) I wonder why this item has not gotten more attention?

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, I probably buried that. But maybe it will get some pickup now.

First, Cheney tacitly agreed to describing waterboarding a suspect as "dunking a terrorist in water," -- and then he called it a "no-brainer."

That was in this radio interview yesterday.

And yes, given Bush's refusal to acknowledge that waterboarding continues, this should be taken as an official administration position until or unless it's clarified or denied.


Vienna, Va.: Dan -

Wasn't there an exchange this morning at the press conference to which the President sarcastically responded "I truly enjoy this process," or something to that effect (I may have read it in your column, in fact). Why didn't someone ask the follow-up: If he hates the process, and has nothing new to say, why is he up there?

Love your columns and chats. Keep up the good work.


Dan Froomkin: Ha.

"I can't tell you how joyful it is" is the exact quote.

Bush actually did explain, in response to an earlier question, why he was going before the microphones: "I think I owe an explanation to the American people," he said.

Someone toward the end of the press conference should have followed up on that: Is THAT your explanation? There's nothing new in it, and the American people remain unconvinced!

Or they could have asked some of the questions I mentioned in my column.


Arlington, Va.: Pierre Salinger, JFK's Press Secretary, was appointed as Senator from California but lost the election to continue in that office.

Dan Froomkin: I love my readers. Thanks.


Houston, Tex.: The presidential press secretary is supposed to speak for the president. Bush has found the perfect press secretary in Tony Snow, who seems to be as big a liar as his boss.

Apart from Snow's "entertainment" edge over his predecessor, do you ever wish Scott McClellan were back?

Dan Froomkin: I can't think of anything that would make me wish Scott McClellan were back.


Burke, Va.: I read that Bush was planning to try and change Social Security once again. Has anyone asked what he wants to try this time?

Dan Froomkin: Yes he does -- and the exact same thing as last time.

Amazing, huh? Lori Montgomery had a story about this in The Washington Post this morning.


Arlington, Va.: The transcript of today's press conference again shows the President kidding around with reporters and trying to be funny. While I am all for not taking things too seriously, there are Americans and Iraqis dying daily in a war that the President started. Aren't jokes just inappropriate right now?

Dan Froomkin: Considering that he once again lashed out at the mythological "some people" who "say we're not at war," I think that's a reasonable point to bring up.


Forest, Va.: Looking forward, I believe that when the Democrats take control of one or both houses of Congress, that they will need to come out of the blocks at speed.

And that's my concern, that the Democrats, (of whom I'm a staunch supporter), won't project a strong image of power, focus, competence, and accomplishment.

I'm concerned that they will, in public, spend an inordinate amount of time discussing goals, strategies, appointments, etc., etc.

Your comments?

Dan Froomkin: The only thing I can say about the White House strategy for dealing with a Democratic Congress is that they will very likely look to exploit any weakness on the Democrats' part -- and judging from past experience, that will keep them plenty busy.


Salem, Va.: Sorry to tell you Dan, you are less truthy than you are spinny. You focus on the news items that most interests you (everything negative about this administration) then you harp on it to the delight of the moveon.org groupies that read your blog.

Dan Froomkin: Well, I don't entirely agree. But you're entitled to your opinion. Thanks for posting.


Washington, D.C.: This may sound petty - but if you're going after the security/soccer mom vote - these last minute press conferences keep pre-empting shows like Martha and The View. That could really turn some people off!

Dan Froomkin: Funny. Thanks.


Burke, Va.: I read Broder to see what establishment Washington is thinking. He thinks Clinton lying about sex is worse than Bush lying about Iraq because he doesn't really believe Bush was really lying. Do you know how common that opinion is. Also - do you know why the effects of the military commissions and torture bill seems to be so poorly covered? The Post has done a decent to good job, but most news media have not.

Dan Froomkin: David Broder is often a very good reflection of the conventional wisdom in establishment Washington.

What you are seeing in him, and in it, is a lack of outrage over things that are arguably outrageous. I can't explain it. But there you go.

And.. just my guess... but it may change as Bush weakens.


Costa Mesa, Calif.: Thanks for taking my question Dan.

Since most of the reporters at the press conferences know that Bush will either give a fuzzy or meaningless answer, or not answer at all, why don't they ask basic questions that are less easy to fudge. Such as: "Mr. President, since you have repeatedly indicated that many events, such as the Katrina response, or the increase in violence in Iraq, are "unacceptable", how many people have been held accountable for such poor job performance and let go?

Dan Froomkin: Oh, he'd take that one and run with it, as well.

I do like the idea of very short, very specific questions. Like, for instance: "How precisely do you define torture?"


Anonymous: Given that today's press conference refocuses the media attention, and consequently the public attention, on the war in Iraq, why would the President hold this press conference? Doesn't it seem like a bad political move, especially since nothing substantially new was offered, nothing that would change people's minds?

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, I'm not really clear on that either.


Edmond, Okla.: Mr. Froomkin, thank you for being a voice of reason on these matters. My son is in the Army, stationed in Ramadi, Iraq. I talked to him last week and he is very tired. He said that they had heard that 60% of the American people did not support the war. I said that that was true. He asked me, "Then why are we here?" As someone who never supported the war, I had no answer. How can we answer that question, asked by a soldier in the field?

Dan Froomkin: Tell him you're proud of him. Tell him we're all proud of him. Then tell him you'll try to do something about it.


Rockville, Md.: "Mike Allen of Time asked that very question of Bush himself this morning -- and guess what? He ducked it. "

Possibly because he has already stated that the next administration would have Iraq to work with.

Is it too crude to ask some to "pay attention?"

I guess so.

Dan Froomkin: He has indeed said that he does not expect every single American soldier to be entirely out of Iraq before he leaves office -- but he has not addressed how likely it is that most will be out by then.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much for all your wonderful questions and comments, as always. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. See you again here in two weeks, and every aftrernoon at washingtonpost.com/whbriefing .


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