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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, March 7, 2007; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, March 7, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to a special Libby-verdict-inspired edition of White House Watch.

My column today, which should be out momentarily, starts with a call to my colleagues in the media to hold their breath and stamp their feet until President Bush and Vice President Cheney explain themselves.

Well, I exaggerate somewhat. But my point is that the media needs to stop giving any credence to the White House's bogus excuse that the "ongoing criminal investigation" precludes them from answering critically important questions about their role in this sordid saga (from beginning to cover-up) and, more generally, how things operate over there.

So much to talk about today, so let's go.


Bronx, N.Y.: Do you think we will ever know what was in Bush's and Cheney's testimonies to the grand jury?

Dan Froomkin: I'm still hopeful. There are many ways they could become public. It could get leaked (my e-mail address is froomkin@washingtonpost.com). They could be turned over as evidence in the Wilson's civil case. Someone in Congress could (I think) subpoena them.

I'm very, very eager to see what they said. And I think it's in the public's interest to know.


Arlington, Va.: Do you think a pardon is in the cards for Scooter? Don't you think the administration feels they owe him one for taking one for the team? Does the President really have anything to lose by granting him one?

Dan Froomkin: Those are all good questions.

I'll write more about the pardon issue in tomorrow's column, but I think it's imperative on the press to put that potential pardon in context.

Here's one possible context: Is Bush ready to say that it's OK to break the law -- as long as you work in the White House?


When will they ever learn?: Given what we've learned about how this administration (and presumably previous administrations) attempt to use the anonymous quote for their own purposes, why in the world did Peter Baker's front page story this morning include the following:

"A senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the president ordered aides not to comment publicly, disputed the idea that Bush has escaped scrutiny in the past."

What does the reader gain from this anonymous spin? Why does The Post countenance this? If the White House wants to spin this issue, let them do it on the record.

washingtonpost.com: For an Opaque White House, A Reflection of New Scrutiny (Post, March 7)

Dan Froomkin: OK, that's a good point. That official wasn't saying anything that merited anonymity. I can understand why Baker might have granted said official confidentiality in the hopes he would say something significant and important. But you're right, there's no need to print anonymous spin.


Madison, Wis.: Hi Dan, in light of the Bush administration's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day yesterday, can you think of anything they can do to turn things around? The only thing that I can come up with is jettisoning Cheney and then doing an about-face on a number of issues, and chalking it all up to bad advice from the former VP.

Dan Froomkin: That would certainly change the dynamics around here.
But I'm not sure Bush actually regrets any of the decisions that have led us to where he is today.


New Hampshire: Hi Dan. Do you have any thoughts on the Post's editorial today? (I am still trying to pick my jaw off the floor.)

washingtonpost.com: The Libby Verdict: The serious consequences of a pointless Washington scandal (Post, March 7)

Dan Froomkin: Funny you should ask. Here's what I write in today's column:
"Washington's media elites have been against this case from the beginning, seeing Fitzgerald and Wilson as unwelcome interlopers threatening the cozy relationship between the city's top political journalists and their sources.

"So perhaps today's Washington Post editorial shouldn't come as a surprise. And yet it does.

"The Post's editorial grudgingly acknowledges that 'Mr. Libby's conviction should send a message to this and future administrations about the dangers of attempting to block official investigations.' But, making assertions that aren't supported by facts that have been reported by its own news operation and others, the editorial concludes that the guilty verdict is of all things a vindication of the White House and an indictment of the prosecutor.

"'The trial has provided convincing evidence that there was no conspiracy to punish Mr. Wilson by leaking Ms. Plame's identity -- and no evidence that she was, in fact, covert,' it says.

"'It would have been sensible for Mr. Fitzgerald to end his investigation after learning about Mr. Armitage. Instead, like many Washington special prosecutors before him, he pressed on, pursuing every tangent in the case. In so doing he unnecessarily subjected numerous journalists to the ordeal of having to disclose confidential sources or face imprisonment.'"

That said, I also quote at some length several really eloquent and less contrarian editorials from other newspapers today. Well worth reading.

(My column will be up very shortly I promise.)


Washington: Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!

Dan Froomkin: You left out one "Guilty!"


President's Improved Eyesight: Dan, I'm curious: How is it that the President, after nearly four years, can't tell if there is a "civil war" in Iraq, yet he can spot the progress of his surge after only a few days?

Dan Froomkin: He definitely has selective vision.

Don't forget that just a few days after he said "It's hard for me, living in this beautiful White House, to give you an assessment, firsthand assessment" of whether there's a civil war in Iraq, he flew down to the Gulf Coast and told folks at a cafe in New Orleans: "Sometimes it's hard to see progress when you're living close to the scene."


Rolla, Mo.: I love Dana Perino's statement that the White House refusal to comment on the case is a "principled stand." If only they had been so principled with information on a certain covert agent years ago.

Dan Froomkin: As I write in today's column -- which is NOW AVAILABLE HERE! -- "responding to a question about Bush's avowed adherence to "the highest ethical standards," Perino offered this as an example: 'I think the President has had a very principled and responsible stand to not comment on the ongoing criminal matter in any way, shape, or form, and that has been his position. It's been the -- it's a responsible one, it's a principled one, and that's what he's done.'

"So that's the new ethical gold standard for the White House: A principled refusal to comment on the conviction of a top aide?"


Annapolis, Md.: Dan, I love your column, and thanks for taking the question today. What, after the firings of the U.S. Attorneys, is the next big scandal for this White House? On a different note -- if Cheney resigns for health reasons, who on Earth possibly would want to replace him? I think that if there were a viable option he would be gone already.

washingtonpost.com: Prosecutors Say They Felt Pressured, Threatened (Post, March 7)

Dan Froomkin: One question at a time!

On any other day, I would have written at length about the firings of the U.S. attorneys. Yes, I think this has legs. And I can't imagine the White House wasn't intensely involved.

As for replacing Cheney, it is kind of unthinkable. But unless Bush installed some grizzled caretaker, you'd have to assume that Bush would put in whomever he consider the Republican heir apparent for 2008.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Dan. Reading Peter Baker's chat earlier today, he explained his anonymous quote was included to illustrate, in general, the White House's view. And it makes perfect sense that they think they've been held plenty accountable in the past six years.

That said, I think everyone can agree the "on background" and unattributed quoting has gotten out of hand. Collusion among reporters probably is not in the offing, but isn't it possible to essentially stop using unattributable quotes, and see if it doesn't at least discourage that sort of thing?

washingtonpost.com: Post Politics Hour (washingtonpost.com, March 7)

Dan Froomkin: I hadn't had a chance to read Peter's chat yet. I think it's great that Peter took that question. Go read his answer. Fascinating stuff.


Washington: So, Dan, have you entered Al Kamen's latest T-shirt contest yet? Let's see, it's gotta be a Friday night, after the filing deadlines, on a busy news day ... buried by a story like "Troops Come Home" ... hmmmm...

washingtonpost.com: Guess Libby's Pardon Date, Win a T-Shirt (Post, March 7)

Dan Froomkin: I was both amused and horrified by Kamen's column today.

That's actually high praise; it's the reaction I'm constantly going for.)

On the one hand, it's funny as heck -- and I would put my money on Christmas Eve 2008.

But I really don't want the press to act like a pardon is a foregone conclusion. It shouldn't be. Historically, the prospect of widespread public opprobrium has at least been considered a mitigating factor in the awarding of pardons to presidential cronies.


Minneapolis: Help me with something here, Dan, because I'm worried I'm being a bit dense. I hear in multiple media sources that the fact that Novak's source was Armitage, not Libby, means that the whole Libby trial was a worthless exercise that doomed this noble government servant. But we know that several officials (Libby included) were leaking information. Why does the fact that no one Libby talked to printed the information mean that the leak shouldn't be investigated? To draw a parallel, if I give privileged information to a Chinese spy but he doesn't send the information back to Beijing, I'm still guilty of espionage, right?

Dan Froomkin: Yes. And I thought Fitzgerald was quite persuasive in his response to his critics yesterday. Here's a partial transcript from CNN.

What he said was that by the time he took the case, there was a big whopping lie just sitting out there. So what else could he have done?

"If people would step back and look at what happened here, when the investigation began in the fall of 2003, and then when it got appointed to the special counsel at the end of December 2003, what is now clear is what we knew at that time.

"By that point in time, we knew Mr. Libby had told a story that what he had told reporters had come not from other government officials but from reporter Tim Russert.

"It's also now public that by that point in time the FBI had learned that, in fact, Tim Russert did not tell Mr. Libby that information. In fact, Tim Russert didn't know it. Tim Russert could not have told him.

"And for us, as investigators and prosecutors, to take a case where a high-level official is telling a story that the basis of his information wasn't from government officials but came from a reporter, the reporter had told us that was not true, other officials had told us the information came from them, we could not walk away from that.

"And to me, it's inconceivable that any responsible prosecutor would walk away from the facts that we saw in December 2003 and say, 'There's nothing here; move along, folks.'"


Winnipeg, Canada: Here's the latest conspiracy theory: you used to be second on the scroll-down menu for commentary, and now you are second-to-last. Is this a subtle attempt to diminish your audience?

Dan Froomkin: No. If you're talking about the scroll-down menu on the home page, they made it alphabetical.


Washington: Uh, Dan ... "Historically, the prospect of widespread public opprobrium has at least been considered a mitigating factor in the awarding of pardons to presidential cronies." Who pardoned Caspar Weinberger and the rest of the Iran-Contra gang? Did you forget? Public opprobrium has a short shelf-life.

Dan Froomkin: That would be Bush 41. I didn't say opprobrium was a deciding factor....


McLean, Va.: I agree with your recent observations about Tony "I don't know" Snow. Given that the daily briefing has become such a farce, why is it that the networks keep sending people?

Dan Froomkin: The networks can be somewhat forgiven, as they have an insatiable desire for video. The better question: why do the print people go? And a partial answer is that there does seem to be a gradual trend toward fewer of them showing up.


Prescott, Ariz.: Following up on the "President's improved eyesight," I think it is important to keep in mind that every single year we have been engaged in Iraq, there has been a drop in violence coming in January that lasted through most of the spring. Brookings Institute has a good chart of violence broken down by month (.pdf) where you can see this very well -- it is on page 21 of the document. I don't know why this occurs but I bet it is weather-related. Now, I always have thought they would start the surge in January, throw up some stats that show a drop in attacks from December and say how great their plan was working. I wrote a lot of journalists to warn them of this (some even acknowledged me), but it looks like more work is to be done.

Dan Froomkin: What an interesting observation. Thanks.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Dan, you are the best thing about The Washington Post in my opinion. Can you comment on the role of bloggers in this trial? Were you very impressed with firedoglake and their coverage? (Yes, shameless plug.)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I think what firedoglake.com did with this trial was not just impressive, it was transformative. By offering the public live-blogging of this very important trial, you not only put the MSM to shame, but actually became a must-read for journalists who couldn't attend the trial, but wanted to get a better and faster sense of what was going on than they could from their own colleagues.

I'm not saying that the MSM should emulate everything bloggers do -- far from it -- but the blogosphere's enthusiasm for this story was something to behold, and admire.


Blacksburg, Va.: How can the question of Valerie Plame Wilson's status at the CIA (covert or not) finally be cleared up?

Dan Froomkin: Wouldn't that be nice? Fitzgerald tried to clear it up yesterday, stating quite definitively that her status was classified. Which means that while she technically may not have been covert by the standards of the IIPA, her identity as an operative was secret, and should not have been disclosed.
Given the continued debate over what is a fact, it would be nice if it were revisited journalistically and definitively.


Austin, Texas: Judging from their initial responses to the conviction, it looks like Libby's defenders are going to lean heavily on Armitage's leak -- and Fitzgerald's refusal to indict Armitage -- in making the case for a pardon. Do you think they can get away with that?

Dan Froomkin: If the press lets them get away with it, yes.
If we remind people that Armitage didn't lie to investigators, but Libby did, then maybe not.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks everyone for all the great questions. See you next week!


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