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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, January 17, 2007; 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, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 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 Chat.

Two of the big themes from the last several years seem to be colliding in Washington right now:

Credibility and... credibility.

On the one hand, we've got President Bush making the rounds of the television networks, trying to win back the faith of the American public.

And on the other, over at that storied E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse, defense attorneys for Scooter Libby are trying to kick anyone off the jury who distrusts Bush or Cheney.

I deal with all that and more in today's column.

So what's on your mind?


Baltimore: Dan: I did not see the 60 Minutes interview with the President, but I did see most of Jim Lehrer's sit-down last night and frankly was surprised by the tough questions posed. The toughest, which took Bush aback and for which he had no real answer, went very much like, "Mr. President, you say this troop surge will work. But since you have been mistaken about every move in the past three years, why should anyone think you are right now?" Bush tried to smirk his way through, but clearly was shaken by the gentlemanly Lehrer's questioning.

Lehrer also asked why Bush hadn't asked for sacrifices from the American people, leaving a small percentage of the population (the military) to bear the burden and Bush, amazingly, said, "Well, people sacrifice their peace of mind worrying about a terrorist attack." Too bad Lehrer didn't also bring up the fact (reported in the LA Times) that the Iraqi government is moving decisively to forge stronger ties with Iran, including setting up diplomatic consulates and adding official border crossings.

Dan Froomkin: I was pleasantly surprised by the tough questions asked by Jim Lehrer, as well as by Scott Pelley on CBS (though he also threw a couple outrageous softballs.)

Finally, interviewers are realizing that they have to ask about Bush's credibility, which is really the elephant in the room. Not surprisingly, Bush doesn't have an easy answer.

I've been on a high horse on this issue for ages. See, for instance, my February 3, 2006 column: It's the Credibility, Stupid. I was impressed last month, when two British journalists asked Bush the question their American colleagues were avoiding. See my December 8 column, The Heart of the Matter.

That said, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Bush's answers often contain assertions that really demand to be rebutted, or at least questioned.

For instance, in yesterday's interview with Lehrer, Bush used revisionist history in suggesting that things were going pretty well in Iraq until 2006. As Mark Seibel wrote for McClatchy Newspapers this weekend, it's an "incomplete, oversimplified and possibly untrue version of events." But Lehrer just took it in stride.

The journalists who have a chance to talk to Bush one on one would be doing the public a service by going into these interviews not just with a list of tough questions, but with the intention of listening carefully to his responses, and grilling him on those responses.


Arlington, Va.: During his 60 Minutes interview, President Bush rejected the notion that he has lost his credibility. Do you think he honestly believes he still has credibility after all that has happened during his presidency?

Dan Froomkin: You're saying he's not being honest with himself about his lack of credibility?

I'm reminded of Carl Cannon's conclusion in this issue of the Atlantic, at the end of a long piece on lying, that Bush "seems unwilling to recognize that the reality of the situation in Iraq does not conform to his vision of it. The most dangerous lies a president can tell, it would seem, are the lies he tells himself."


Richmond, Va.: Libby's trial: Why didn't Bush pardon Libby before the trial and after the midterms? Yes, he would pay some political price but let's face it, at this point he is so unpopular what difference could it have made?

Dan Froomkin: I can't answer that. There is certainly plenty of speculation that Libby will get a pardon at some point.

The traditional downside of a pardon is public outrage stoked by a frenzied media. Ironically, however, in this case, much of the elite media would probably have welcomed it.


Asheville, N.C.: If Bush now says the Iraq policy was failing, why doesn't someone ask him to explain his pre-election comment "we're winning, absolutely we're winning"? When did it change for him and why would the supposedly straight-shooting President not want to correct the record>? Isn't it the job of the White House Press Corps to press him on something like this?

Dan Froomkin: Ah, but he was asked that very question at his December 20 news conference!

"Q Mr. President, less than two months ago at the end of one of the bloodiest months in the war, you said, 'Absolutely we're winning.' Yesterday you said, 'We're not winning, we're not losing.' Why did you drop your confident assertion about winning?

"THE PRESIDENT: My comments -- the first comment was done in this spirit: I believe that we're going to win; I believe that -- and by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you got to know. We're going to succeed.

"My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted when I said it at the time, and that conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad...."

What was missing, of course, was the follow up: Well, why should we believe you this time? And the follow up to that, etc. etc.


Ellisville, Mo.: Given that Bush is telling a number of falsehoods about the reasoning behind the "New Way Forward" and that this has led to speculation about what is "really" going on, what do you think of this theory:

The Bush team has faced up to their own rampant incompetence and unseriousness about Iraq and thus have decided that this is why their strategy isn't working. Now that they see themselves as more fully engaged they want to make the current strategy work. There actually re some signs that Iraq is being approached more seriously. Obviously they can't say that the new strategy is to stop being incompetent and unserious, so the troop surge is their red herring.

Dan Froomkin: That's a new one, but no nuttier than some of the others.

As I wrote last week, speculating about what he might really be up to: "Could his secret goal be to run out the clock, and leave Iraq to his successor? Might he be setting the stage for an exit on his terms -- giving the Iraqis one last chance, and if they blow it, then he withdraws? Is it even possible that he is beginning the process of shifting the attention of the military -- and the American public -- from Iraq to Iran?"

Maybe I should add your theory to the list. I'm certainly hearing a lot of good things about the new general, David Petraeus, and the new ambassador, Ryan Crocker. Also see Rajiv Chandrasekaran's story in The Post on Sunday.


Silver Spring, Md.: Dan you just said that journalists interviewing Bush must go in with "the intention of listening carefully to his responses, and grilling him on those responses." Great -- now we have to teach professional journalists something they learned in Journalism 101.

Dan Froomkin: I'm quite sure that interviewing the president is much harder than it looks.

And when you're a public figure on national TV, you probably don't want to look stupid. So you come into the interview with a bunch of smart questions.

Veering off those question puts you in riskier territory, especially if you start getting confrontational.

No excuse, just a possible explanation.


Washington: Regarding Bush's demeanor in interviews: I wonder if anyone in the White House ever tried to convince the president to get some real media training. He attempts to answer -- or more likely attempts to dodge -- a serious question, then at the end he gets a wry grin or even a smirk on his face and chuckles. It is odd -- he can't even fake looking properly concerned.

Dan Froomkin: His demeanor is puzzling sometimes. I got an e-mail recently from a reader who expressed similar amazement at his casual body language, even when dealing with the most serious of subjects. Anyone have any other thoughts about that?


Denver: What do you make of the fact that a number of potential jurors in the Scooter Libby trial are unable to serve because they don't believe in the credibility of Cheney and Libby?

Dan Froomkin: I guess I think it's sort of telling. But keep in mind that the jury pool in D.C. is not exactly typical of the country as a whole.

And for the record, they're not being asked about Libby's credibility specifically. CNN has the questionnaire.


New Hampshire: Hi Dan. What's your take on bloggers being "allowed" access to the Scooter Libby trial? Do you think that the MSM feels threatened (as evidenced by Howard Fineman's "concerns" yesterday)?

Dan Froomkin: I'm delighted bloggers are there. If nothing else, they're keeping the MSM journalists there on their toes.


Raleigh, N.C.: "Failure is not an option." Actually, failure is always an option. Has the press corps asked Tony Snow or anyone else in a relevant post what Bush plans to do if the surge doesn't work and Baghdad still is a free-fire zone in November?

As someone opposed to the war, I've been willing to try to make it work, since we're there. But it's frustrating that war supporters always favor the newest plan, whatever it is, but never really get to the end of their rope. To my knowledge, no war supporter has said, "I said the next six months would be crucial, six months have come and gone, the situation is grave and deteriorating, so let's let the Iraqis fight the civil war they're so determined to have." Have the media tried to nail down Bush on what the final straw would be?

Dan Froomkin: Good question, and good point.

My hunch is that a lot of what this whole White House PR push is about is posturing -- so that they stand for success and the critics stand for failure.
That means they will avoid discussing the possibility of failure, no matter what contortions that leads them into. Consider, for instance, how Bush says Maliki needs to stand up, or else -- but he won't say what the consequences would be!

Tom Toles captures those contortions well today.


Toronto: Hi Dan -- regarding the Libby trial, is it possible the VP will be subpoenaed to appear in person as a witness (versus giving testimony via videotape)? And if in person, will Fitzgerald be required to kind of walk on egg shells in the cross-examination process, in deference to the VP's position? How do you think all this will go down?

Dan Froomkin: Good questions. There is much speculation as to whether Cheney will appear in person, or by videotape. If the latter, presumably Fitzgerald would still be able to cross-examine him.

There is a school of thought that Fitzgerald could have been much more destructive to this administration had he chosen to be. That would suggest great deference. But Cheney is also likely to be the star witness, and I don't see Fitzgerald risking his case just to be polite.


Pittsburgh: "He attempts to answer -- or more likely attempts to dodge -- a serious question, then at the end he gets a wry grin or even a smirk on his face and chuckles. It is odd -- he can't even fake looking properly concerned."

I think he does this when he is uncomfortable. It's like when someone starts to laugh when they hear bad news, or if they say or do something they know is embarrassing. It's their own personal defense mechanism. Most of the time, the person isn't even aware they are doing it, and it's hard for them to stop, even when you tell them about it. That, my BA in Psychology, and $3 will get you a cup of coffee from Starbucks.

Dan Froomkin: Let the pop-psychologizing begin!


Mesa, Ariz.: Dan: regarding Bush's inappropriate smile, I believe he's reacting to his own satisfaction at producing an answer that outsmarts the question, not anything to do with the significance of the question itself.

Dan Froomkin: Another view.


New York: I would say Bush's body language and casual attitude towards Iraq are a big factor in driving down his approval ratings. All through December he kept saying he was going to take his time coming up with a new strategy -- as a record number of American soldiers died. I think if he stopped being Mr. Cool and showed some real remorse, some Americans might actually cut him some slack.

Dan Froomkin: It's possible. But would anyone believe it?


Bush's face: Bush's smirk at inappropriate moments seems to reflect a kind of emotional subterfuge. I notice the hyperactive blinking (said to be a sign of dishonesty) and the weird way he has of cocking his head and trying to look introspective. That head-cock is often followed by ponderous ramblings (apparently meant to represent thoughtfulness). It's interesting to watch these because the press always goes very silent during these moments and never follows up (sort of like when someone who has had a stroke or other memory incident is left alone while reciting illogical thoughts).

Dan Froomkin: Some more.


Minneapolis: Dan asks "Anyone have any other thoughts about the president's occasionally puzzling demeanor?"

At the risk of appearing too deep into the cult of Froomkin, I think you've hit on the answer in the past. To paraphrase, I think the president likes the idea of being president more than he likes the job of being president. Given his druthers I think he'd choose fishing at the ranch or campaigning than delving into the unpleasant minutiae of presidenting.

Dan Froomkin: Ah, yes, thanks for reminding me... of me.
See, for instance, my May 8 column, Would Bush Rather Be Fishing?


Long Island, N.Y.: You said "...(though he also threw a couple outrageous softballs.)" For those of us who missed 60 Minutes (I still was grieving over the Seahawks' loss in Chicago), are there any favorites that you'd like to share with us?

Dan Froomkin: Sure. This almost made it into my column yesterday.
Pelley also offered up some incredible softballs on the White House's talking point of choice: That Democrats haven't proposed a solution for Iraq themselves. Pelley, in fact, went so far as to adopt the White House's derogatory locution, leaving out the "ic" in "Democratic."

From the transcript of the Camp David portion of the interview:

"PELLEY: There's no Democrat plan.
"BUSH: It doesn't look like it to me."


Vienna, Va.: Hi there, love the column. I just recently noticed a video on YouTube regarding David Wu's speech on the White House. I was wondering if you have seen this video before or mentioned it in any of your previous posts.

Dan Froomkin: I hadn't seen this before. Funny line there: "There are Klingons in the White House."


Atlanta: Hi Dan. I'm a bit confused, President Bush says that if Maliki doesn't cooperate with the U.S. during the surge we will pull out and leave them on their own. But isn't this exactly what Maliki wants so Sadr and his militia can run the remaining Sunnis out and seize power in Baghdad? As always, thanks for all you do.

Dan Froomkin: The impression I'm getting is that if Maliki doesn't cooperate, the result is more likely to be a US-sanctioned coup than a pullout..... but that's really speculative.

Your confusion is understandable.


Ashton, Md.: I was astounded by one statement that Pres. Bush made on 60 Minutes: "I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq." I really would like to see President Bush make that complaint to the average Iraqi. He might see just how grateful Iraqis are for what's happened to their country. He's really making me concerned that he's not just engaging in wishful thinking, he's actually delusional. What's your thought? Rose-colored glasses or out-of-touch with reality?

Dan Froomkin: As I wrote in my August 17, 2006 column, the president has reportedly expressed frustration several times before that the Iraqis were not being sufficiently grateful.

This was particularly ironic coming in the wake of yesterday's news that 34,452 Iraqi civilians died violently last year -- an average of 94 per day.
Even more astonishing is Bush's suggestion that "That's the problem here in America."

That may indeed be one of Bush's top grievances, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't rank very high in the public's mind.


Syracuse, N.Y.: Re: Bush's body language. Personally I think that has been one of his most glaring shortcomings. Bush isn't dumb but frequently he comes across that way. Have you heard Mike Huckabee, Bill Clinton, heck even Dick Cheney? They're measured, articulate, thoughtful, reasoned speakers. They appear and project competence and intelligence no matter what you might think of their politics. And for the most part, they're consistent.

Bush on the other hand, you never know from one to the next what he's going to be like. Some days petulant, some days playful, some days a bully, some days engaging but he almost never comes of as any of the things I describe above. He almost says "People have to understand..." or "I fully understand that..." or "The job of the president is to..." He talks like we don't what the heck he's doing and he's enlightening us. It's very condescending.

Dan Froomkin: It is an odd mix. And don't forget: When he reads his speeches, he's generally quite wooden. You really feel like he's reading someone else's words -- which of course he is. Other than his verbal flubs, he's incredibly true to his scripts. No departures or tangents.


Minneapolis: On Bush's odd body language: He's trying to charm us. It really has been his M.O. for a long time; the back rubs, the nicknames, the joshing ... all seem to me efforts to undercut criticism and get people to "lighten up." He's played that card very well for a long time -- maybe in these interviews it's his last line of defense. If you can't answer the question seriously, smile and try to disarm the questioner.

Dan Froomkin: He's definitely a charmer. And that has worked very well for him in the past.


Minneapolis: I loved this exchange, it made me laugh out loud:

MR. LEHRER: Is there a little bit of a broken egg problem here, Mr. President, that there is instability and there is violence in Iraq - sectarian violence, Iraqis killing other Iraqis, and now the United States helped create the broken egg and now says, okay, Iraqis, it's your problem. You put the egg back together, and if you don't do it quickly and you don't do it well, then we'll get the hell out.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, you know, that's an interesting question. I don't quite view it as the broken egg; I view it as the cracked egg --

MR. LEHRER: Cracked egg?

PRESIDENT BUSH: -- that - where we still have a chance to move beyond the broken egg.

"All the king's horses and all the king's men..." Clearly, President Bush has never heard of Humpty Dumpty.

Dan Froomkin: That was an extraordinary exchange. I should have included it in my column. Two really hideous metaphors -- but Bush's is worse.


Washington: Bush's demeanor and body language always have been a bit odd. Why notice it now?

Dan Froomkin: Good point. But I think it may be more appropriate now that Bush is going on a PR blitz intended to win back the trust of the American people.


New York: Dear Dan: In the Lehrer interview, didn't Bush answer the "why aren't you asking Americans to sacrifice" question by producing the straw man of who wants "compulsory" service and tax increases? How can he get away with that twaddle?

Dan Froomkin: Bush's insistence that the sacrifice is being widely shared was bizarre: "I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night".

A) they don't. and B) what terrible images of violence every night? We see very few images, very infrequently.

But I think the question itself is problematic. What did Lehrer have in mind? If not taxes or compulsory service, then what? Hairshirts?

The question should be why is Bush asking the volunteer military to undergo such hardships -- not why isn't he making everyone else suffer, too?

Or, if Lehrer was actually wondering about the money: Why is he borrowing for this war, and leaving the bill to future generations?


Richmond, Va.: Just finished your column. On signing statements, you point out that editorial pages across the country are coming out against the one on opening mail. Why though isn't there any reporting on the subject other than by Charlie Savage? Does it have legal implications or is it merely political cover? What are congressional leaders' reactions to it?

Dan Froomkin: I don't understand the dearth of reporting on this story. Not at all. Especially as it has hit such a nerve among the editorial writers. There are lots of legitimate lines of inquiry the press could pursue.
Instead, it looks like we'll have to wait and see if this Democratic Congress decides to make it an issue.


Dan Froomkin: OK thanks everyone for another great chat. Sorry I couldn't get to more of the questions and comments. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whbriefing.


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