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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, March 14, 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 14, 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 Watch Live Online!

I totally busted my deadline today, so my column is not up yet. Needless to say, it's entirely about the growing furor of the potentially political purge of the eight U.S. attorneys.

This is an amazing story. My premise today is actually that all the fire Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is taking may actually be successfully diverting media attention from a more central issue. As my column will soon assert:

"Gonzales's inattentive management of the Justice Department and the repeated deception of Congress by senior Justice officials are certainly important issues.

"But the central question before us is whether the unprecedented mid-term purge of eight U.S. attorneys was the result of their having failed to use their offices to pillory Democrats as much as the White House wanted them to."

I'm eager to hear your questions and comments, so let's go!


Rochester, N.Y.: Did you see the President's news conference today? Is he really too "bubbled" to grasp the concept "abuse of power," or does he believe he can get away with sweeping this one under the rug, too?

Dan Froomkin: I was somewhat surprised that Bush didn't mount a more compelling defense. Instead, he basically repeated previously-used administration talking points -- and hid behind the disingenuous and unsupportable argument that this is standard practice.

For the record: It is standard practice for a president to start their presidency with a clean slate of U.S. attorneys selected by them.

But a large-scale purge of U.S. attorneys, in the middle of a presidential term, potentially because they were perceived to be insufficiently partisan? It's never happened before.


Santa Fe, N.M.: If Gonzales refuses to resign and the President does not ask for his resignation, what do you think the odds are of the Congress impeaching Gonzales and removing him forcefully?

Dan Froomkin: There's no chance. Long before Congress turned against Gonzales with anywhere near the kind of numbers that would result in impeachment, White House political operatives would make sure Bush throws Gonzales overboard. In fact, there are early signs that this may happen already -- see Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jeff Zeleny in today's New York Times.

They write that "two Republicans, who spoke anonymously so they could share private conversations with senior White House officials, said top aides to Mr. Bush, including Fred F. Fielding, the new White House counsel, were concerned that the controversy had so damaged Mr. Gonzales's credibility that he would be unable to advance the White House agenda on national security matters, including terrorism prosecutions....

"'They're taking it seriously,' said [one of] the two Republicans.. 'I think Rove and Bolten believe there is the potential for erosion of the president's credibility on this issue.'"

I would suggest that concerns about credibility are a bit late at this point, but you get the picture.


Washington: Dan, can you comment on past cases where U.S. Attorneys have been fired/removed? Is this current situation fundamentally different from those, or is it ideologically similar to earlier cases just writ large? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Different, different, different!

You know, people on either side of the political spectrum are fully entitled to their own views of things -- but not their own facts.

Comparing the firings of U.S. attorneys based on such things as their "loyalty" or complaints from partisans to the traditional housecleaning done at the beginning of the presidency is either an act of stupidity or deceit.

See also: This McClatchy Newspapers story and liberal blogger Steve Benen and this e-mail highlighted by Think Progress.


Bethesda, Md.: No question, just a comment -- it's pretty unbelievable that Rove still is still in a position to pass judgment on which White House officials have "lost credibility" and become a liability to the president. Physician, heal thyself!

Dan Froomkin: There is something a bit ironic about that, isn't there.


Dan Froomkin: My column is now published! Go read it and come right back.


Bridgewater, Mass.: Hi Dan. In the Politics chat today, John Solomon referred to a report issued by the Election Assistance Commission on voter fraud. I've only had a chance to skim through it, but it appears that the type of fraud the Republicans most worry about -- impersonation -- probably is the least likely to occur (with absentee voting being the most likely). Has anybody looked into the overall pattern of fraud prosecutions -- were those not prosecuting Republican suspects as likely to be fired?

Dan Froomkin: I hope to write more about voter fraud tomorrow. As I write in today's column: The mainstream press is doing a miserable job of addressing the issue of "voter fraud" and whether criminal investigations into such alleged fraud are acts of responsible law-enforcement or rank partisanship, and what role all this played in the firings.

Here's the report Solomon was referring to.

My sense, from what I've read, as I wrote yesterday, is that charges of alleged Democratic voter fraud have long been a notorious GOP stalking horse. And some Republicans, back in October 2006 when Bush apparently raised the issue with Gonzales, were desperately casting about for some sort of Democratic controversy to distract voters from the GOP corruption scandals that had engulfed Washington -- and that quite possibly ended up costing them both houses of Congress.

While Republicans accuse Democrats of voter fraud, Democrats accuse Republicans of voter intimidation.


Washington: Clinton also replaced about 20 mid-term ... nice omission. You are a good solider for the Dem hit media!

Dan Froomkin: I am sure that Clinton as well as other presidents replaced U.S. attorneys during the course of their term for a variety of reasons. But I don't recall anyone in the Clinton White House even being accused of writing up a hit list, or firing a whole bunch at once. I guess this is worth revisiting, though.


Tulsa, Okla.: Dan, it looks like Gonzales is going to have to go soon, but who else? Is anyone on the White House Staff as exposed as Alberto on this one? What changes to your seating chart will this make?

Dan Froomkin: Deputy White House Counsel William K. Kelley and deputy political director J. Scott Jennings are both part of the e-mail trail disclosed yesterday. Kelley's new boss, Fred Fielding, I imagine might find this a good time to be rid of his predecessor's deputy. I have a hard time seeing Karl Rove firing his deputy for anything -- although he did let his former assistant Susan Ralston go after she was linked to the Abramoff lobbying scandal.


Washington: Dan, you never post comments that dare to disagree with you. Please be honest to your readers. Clinton fired the Whitewater investigator and replaced the person with one of his law students, who dropped the case. Then Reno said, "this was all done in consultation with the White House." So you are distorting facts and being a good Dem soldier while spreading lies.

Dan Froomkin: I have no idea what you are talking about. I will willingly stand corrected, but at one point a long time ago I was something of an expert on Whitewater, and this just doesn't ring true.


Dan Froomkin: Here's an Associated Press story by Merrill Hartson on Bush's news conference this morning in Mexico:

"'Mistakes were made. And I'm frankly not happy about them,' Bush told reporters at a news conference in Mexico, where he is wrapping up a weeklong trip to Latin America.

"'Any time anybody goes up to Capitol Hill, they've got to make sure they fully understand the facts and how they characterize the issue to members of Congress,' Bush said. 'And the fact that both Republicans and Democrats feel like that there was not straightforward communication troubles me and it troubles the attorney general. So he took action, and he needs to continue to take action.'

"The president called the actual firings 'entirely appropriate' and noted that U.S. attorneys serve at his pleasure. 'Past administrations have removed U.S. attorneys. It's their right to do so,' Bush said."


Washington: As far as Clinton firing 20-plus, I'm not sure he really fired them. U.S. Attorneys often leave office because they run for political office and win, thus needing to be replaced. Also, Clinton served eight years -- he may have replaced some at the start of his second term. You'll be hard-pressed to find him replacing people because they wouldn't prosecute a case to help Dems control Congress.

I think the Domenici angle is being played-down more than it should be -- this is a Senator who wanted a specific prosecution to go forward and sent in the name of the new U.S. Attorney, presumably to do his bidding. Isn't this a huge part of the story?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I agree that the Domenici angle is being played down. What exactly was he up to?


Rolla, Mo.: Multiple "gates" over the past few months seemed to have increased the depth of the negative feelings among those who disapprove of President Bush, but I bet even this latest scandal will not result in his approval rating going below 30 percent or so. About one-third of the public will not/cannot end their faith in the President, no matter what.

Dan Froomkin: I would tend to agree. I don't see the biggest risk to him as being his approval rating dropping even further. The big risk, which could well occur with an approval rating hovering in the low 30s, is that Congress will hit a major tipping point, and that even Republicans will start opposing his policies in large numbers.


Fayetteville, Ark.: Is the ultimate goal of the Republican Party to eliminate the Democratic Party? To only have a "one-party State" for the U.S.? From all that I have read, that seems to be the goal of Karl Rove and the Republican machine. Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: Eliminate, no. Folks like Rove need someone to run against.
But marginalize? Absolutely. Then again, that idea seems a bit quaint now, doesn't it?


Minneapolis: NPR reported that Clinton fired one U.S. Attorney, not the 20 that another poster claimed. He may have had to make 20 new appointments if those jobs became vacant for other reasons. In the same story, the firings by Presidents going back to Nixon were limited to one or two attorneys by each President.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you so much! Here is that NPR story:

"David Burnham co-directs the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, an organization that collects and analyzes information from the federal government. He is also the author of Above the Law: Secret Deals, Political Fixes, and Other Misadventures of the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Burnham discussed the prosecutors' dismissals with Renee Montagne. Their conversation is excerpted below:

"How unusual is it for a U.S. attorney to be fired?

"It's very unusual. Richard Nixon fired one when he was in office. [Jimmy] Carter fired a U.S. attorney who was making an investigation of a Democratic House member that he wanted to keep in office. Bill Clinton fired one. But it's really very rare for this to happen."


Andrews, Md.: You make it seem like Gonzales has been merely a passive bystander ("Gonzales's inattentive management of the Justice Department") rather than a good soldier executing his master's wishes. Oh yes, it must have been Kyle Sampson providing "incomplete information" that caused Gonzales to less than forthcoming -- not like Gonzales didn't have his hands in the mix up to his shoulders.

Dan Froomkin: Well, there are two possibilities: One that Gonzales was involved, and one that he wasn't. Neither makes him look good.

A few things to keep in mind: The e-mail trail released yesterday certainly would tend to support the notion that Gonzales had no idea what was going on. He wasn't CCed on anything, and was barely mentioned.

And let's be blunt: When Gonzales was at the White House, he was widely perceived not only to be in thrall to Bush, but utterly dependent on directions from Vice President Cheney's then-counsel David Addington (who now has Scooter Libby's job as chief of staff.)

Assuming that Gonzales didn't suddenly start calling his own shots once he went to Justice -- and that's a reasonable assumption, based on analyses by such people as Andrew Cohen -- then the question is: Who is his controller now? Was it/is it his chief of staff Kyle Sampson? Was it still someone in the White House?


Bethesda, Md.: I have read and heard it argued that there is no evidence that the 8 US Attorneys were fired for "being insufficiently partisan." I also have heard it suggested there is evidence supporting the contention they were removed for under-performance. Do you agree?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, that is absolutely the central question. Why were they fired?

I don't begin to suggest that it has been proven that they were removed for being insufficiently partisan. But there are signs that might be the case, and it would be a very serious charge. Were they fired because they weren't willing to use their office to indict some Democrats before the November 2006 election? Was Carol Lam fired because she did indict former Republican Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham? Or were they simply fired because they ticked someone off for some other reason?

I did find it intriguing that according to the e-mails, two of the fired prosecutors had apparently refused to file obscenity cases that main Justice wanted them to pursue. Obscenity has always been something of a pet issue for Gonzales. So maybe it was something like that.

Let's find out.


Bala-Cynwyd, Pa.: Is it a crime -- or a state bar ethics code violation -- for someone who is a lawyer and is motivated by political considerations to attempt to convince a U.S. Attorney to initiate a criminal investigation or prosecution?

Dan Froomkin: It is a potential violating of congressional ethics rules.


Austin, Texas: Just a comment -- there's an interesting parallel between Gonzales saying that he can't be expected to know all the personnel details of a huge agency, and what happened at Walter Reed. One of the generals who lived next to the infamous building basically said he couldn't be expected to actually inspect things himself (it was next door -- seems to me most managers would take a stroll now and then just out of curiosity). I hate corporate-speak, but when I worked for a tech company long ago one of the mantras was "MBWA" --Management By Walking Around. Seems to me that Bush and his people ought to give it a try.

Dan Froomkin: Good comment. I personally believe in MBWA. I used to do it all the time. But don't dismiss the significance of what is often called "corporate culture." Even if a leader doesn't sanction a specific act, it's often reasonable to conclude that underlings wouldn't have taken said action unless they had good reason to believe that it was acceptable in the environment created by the leader.

Then there is the whole concept of "groupthink." But I don't want to turn this into a management seminar...


Los Angeles: I enjoy reading your daily blog. When President Ford passed away, the "consensus" view was that he had done the right thing by pardoning Nixon. While it certainly may have been difficult for the country (or at least the Republican Party) to have Nixon tried for his crimes, I think that view is short-sighted. Would the same law-breaking that occurred during Iran-Contra, for example, have happened if Nixon had been held accountable? This is not to mention what has been occurring in the White House the past six years. I am not so sure anymore. Comment?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not sure.

But this reminds me of a fascinating e-mail I got from a reader a few days ago, noting that for Bush to pardon his own former staffer would be unprecedented -- because in the past, at least, it's been the next president who did the pardoning.


Arlington, Va.: Hi, Dan -- hope I am not too late. It sure does seem like we need to know more about Brett Tolman, the guy who beat out Kyle Sampson for the job of U.S. Attorney in Utah. What a bizarre coincidence that before he got the job, he was the staffer for Arlen Spector who is responsible for inserting the now infamous U.S. Attorney rule in the Patriot Act...

Dan Froomkin: No kidding, really? I didn't know that! But by golly, you're right. Here's a story about Sampson and Tolman by Robert Gehrke of the Salt Lake Tribune. Thanks.


Springfield, Va.: Dan: your opinion please on this piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much for that. A quick glance suggest it's a particularly clever attempt to muddle the issue. But I did say clever.


Bethesda, Md.: You seem to be onboard with the incompetent-not-dishonest defense for Gonzales. Fine -- at the very least he gave Congress very confident and definitive answers to questions that he had to know he didn't really know the answer to, seeing as how it took about five seconds to prove his answers incorrect.

Dan Froomkin: I'm not on board, I'm just saying it's not out of the question. But your comment very effectively points out the ultimate failings of that as an excuse.


India: Am addicted to your blog! Unrelated to the subject, but how were you able to so quickly get the NPR and Salt Lake City Tribune stories referred in people's questions? Google, or do you use something better? Thanks for your work and for taking my question.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'm a one man band of Googling monkeys. (Google News in particular.)


Boynton Beach, Fla.: Now that we have the Attorney General's office under scrutiny, what in your view are the Bush White House's top 10 scandals?

Dan Froomkin: You know, in a funny way, this particular scandal may be a relief for the White House -- in that unlike the others that would probably fill my Top 10 list, it is not at its heart about the decision to go to war in Iraq.


Dayton, Ohio: How long will Gonzales last in his office before being forced to resign? I am betting next week will be his last.

Dan Froomkin: I try to avoid prognosticating. But I would be tempted to take that bet. All in all, I think it's more likely that he will be gone this week -- or not for a long time -- than that he will be gone next week.


Raleigh, N.C.: Andrew Sullivan has a great line in which he asserts that the US attorneys scandal is about how the administration has been caught trying to rig the 2006 elections to perpetuate Republican control of Congress. This ain't the first time that partisanship has been used by Bush in ways at odds with the traditions of the United States. How could a reporter frame a question asking Tony Snow why the American people shouldn't fear the administration and its hostility to checks and balances, or why the American people shouldn't worry about Bush's commitment to democracy? It's a pretty overtly antagonistic line of inquiry, and I wonder if there's a way to put lipstick on that pig and elicit some kind of interesting response.

Dan Froomkin: Here's that Sullivan post.

I do think -- and have thought for a long time -- that the fundamental lack of credibility of this White House is the elephant in the room every time a senior official, including the president, faces the press.

I could point you toward any number of my columns, but here's one from February 3, 2006: "It's the Credibility, Stupid".

Back in December (See The Heart of the Matter) I celebrated the fact that two British journalists asked Bush what their American colleagues wouldn't: "Why, the two Brits asked Bush in slightly different ways, given your track record on Iraq, should we believe you now?"

If I were a White House correspondent, I would be tempted to ask a variation on the credibility question every chance I got. Over and over again.

Public opinion polls show a majority of American don't think Bush is honest (and that a majority think he deliberately misled the country in the run-up to war.) Isn't getting him to address that issue about as important as things could get?


College Park, Md.: Considering that Bush ran on a platform of "restoring honor and integrity" to the White House after the Clinton administration, isn't there some cognitive dissonance going on in justifying the administration's firing the U.S. Attorneys by comparing it to Clinton's actions?

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point.


San Francisco: Great column today. More of the same, it seems. It reminds me of one of the most striking examples from Rajiv Chancres' recent book. "Imperial Life: Inside the Emerald City," of how partisanship trumps skill with this administration: that the guy employed by the coalition provisional authority in Iraq to set up the Iraqi stock market was a person whose prior work experience consisted entirely of driving an ice cream truck, but who was a Bush campaign volunteer and responded "appropriately" to questions regarding his beliefs about gay marriage, abortion, etc.

How long does a presidency remain "embattled" before it can be evaluated? When I think of the thin excuse given for the Clinton impeachment, I wonder why our Democratic Congress isn't similarly "overreaching."

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. There's no doubt that every administration puts its own stamp on the bureaucracy with its own political appointees, as they should.
But I would welcome an examination of whether Bush's approach has been in line with previous administrations.

My suspicion is that the press has done an abysmal job of the toll Bush's political appointees have taken on the government's ability to function properly. (See, for instance, David E. Lewis in NiemanWatchdog.org, who suggests Michael Brown -- and Katrina -- were not an aberration.) Rajiv's book certainly indicates a scale of incompetence never, or at least rarely, seen before -- apparently driven by partisan litmus tests.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks everyone for another exciting chat. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page (somewhere).


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