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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, March 28, 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 28, at 1 p.m. ET.

A Consequential Game of Chicken (washingtonpost.com, March 28)

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Watch Live Online. Today's column leads with some thoughts about the bind that President Bush is in, now that Democrats have attached a timetable for troop withdrawal to the funding bill he needs so desperately.

I was initially going to write that Bush was now forced to choose between negotiating with Democrats and playing a hugely consequential game of chicken. But as I approached deadline, Bush addressed the apparently deeply pro-war National Cattlemen's Beef Association at the Holiday Inn -- and made it pretty clear that he's going with the latter option.

There's so much else to talk about as well, including the growing suspicions about the White House role in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.


Ithaca, N.Y.: Hi Dan. Do you think the strategy of Monica Goodling's attorney could be to get her some type of immunity deal prior to giving testimony?

Dan Froomkin: I wrote at length about Monica Goodling in yesterday's column, Bush's Monica Problem. And there's more in today's column, too.

To answer your question, yes, that's certainly one possibility. But you have to ask: Why does she need immunity? In fact, that's just one of the many questions you have to ask.

When a fairly minor player in what had heretofore not been considered a criminal investigation suddenly admits that she faces legal jeopardy if she tells the truth to a Congressional panel, the mind sort of reels.

But if granting her immunity would get her to talk, I have a hard time imagining too many people would be opposed to that.


New York: Dan, I've decided to go out and buy a big chalkboard -- it's really the only way to keep track of all the Bush scandals and players. Any suggestions on the size I should get?

Dan Froomkin: You might want to consider a whole pad of those easel-sized Post-it notes the Scooter Libby jury used.


Richmond, Va.: Bob Woodward calls the Nixon tapes "the gift that keeps on giving." Will the same be said about the RNC e-mails (example: kr@georgewbush.com) one day?

Dan Froomkin: Possibly. But you're assuming we'll ever see them. I'm not so sure they haven't all been wiped by now.


Bethesda, Md. Once again, Bush is saying the tired old lines ("If we pull out now, the terrorists will follow us here..."). Do you know of any polling that's been done on this rhetoric? I'd love to see a poll that asked "Do you agree that the people we're fighting in Iraq would launch attacks in the U.S. if we pulled out?"

Dan Froomkin: That would indeed be interesting. But all you really need to know is the big picture, which is that a sizeable, consensus-sized majority of Americans want us to get out. So obviously the rhetoric is not working.


New York: Dan -- there are no good and bad reasons for taking the Fifth. You take it or you don't -- it is your protection under the law! When Sen. Durbin says that if he were to question Rove under oath he would ask him not just about the eight perfectly legal firings, but about every instance in which he had any dealings with any department of the U.S. government, surely even you -- a Leftist who hates our President of the United States of America -- can see the vicious partisan attack mode that is clearly a fishing expedition. Now, I ask you, would you not evoke the Fifth in such a hostile environment, where you were open to be grilled in prime time about everything you ever have done in your current job?

Dan Froomkin: Your question is so full of inaccuracies, I hesitate to even post it. But I don't like to duck the mean ones.

Among your mistakes:

1) There are indeed restrictions on taking the Fifth, as I discussed in yesterday's column. Just for instance, you can only invoke it to avoid self-incrimination -- not incriminating someone else. You can't just say: I don't feel like answering your questions! (Or, as liberal blogger Josh Marshall put it: "Certainly there's no 5th amendment privilege against testifying before meanies."

2) Durbin never said any such thing. "Every instance in which he had any dealings with any department of the U.S. government"?

3) So far, there are no signs that this is a fishing expedition -- at least not by the standards of the Clinton years.


Boynton Beach, Fla.: With one aide taking the Fifth and another ready to testify about the attorney general firings, is there an upside for the White House to get rid of Gonzales on a Monday morning so he dominates the week's news cycles (instead of the typical Friday night dispatch)? I can't see how throwing the Democrats some raw meat at this point will help slow the investigation, but you're a whole lot closer to the scene than we are.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting question. If you assume that Gonzales is toast, which is a pretty widespread assumption hereabouts, then how could the White House time his departure to do the most good?

(Especially if you believe, as I suggested on March 14 that Gonzales is really a diversion anyway.)

I would guess that ideally you would do it right before a disclosure that is really damaging to the White House (Karl Rove in particular.)

But I'm not sure Sampson will be the smoking gun. From what I can piece together, I suspect he will be very damaging to Gonzales's various cover stories -- but will insist that he doesn't know what was going on inside the White House. And that, I have long suspected, is the central issue.


Naples, Fla.: Dan, why haven't I seen you on Hardball, CNN or Countdown? Your take on things is perfect for these shows.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I have often thought about doing TV. But I feel overextended as is. I may reconsider, however.


Washington: When I fired my assistant recently it was because she was not a good fit - would do the required work per se, but never was proactive and had a less-than-pleasing personality. I told HR it was her job performance, which has a myriad of meanings even though she did the required work. I see no difference in the U.S. Attorneys case. When are we going to see anything resembling anything close to illegality?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for sharing that analogy. And there's not a whole lot of evidence that anything about the firings was illegal, per se.

But consider a slightly different analogy. Let's say your assistant did a great job -- except that she refused your direct order to spy on your office arch-rival. All of a sudden what you did isn't exactly defensible.

There are two major questions at hand: Were these attorneys fired not for legitimate performance reasons, but because they didn't use their offices to target Democrats and protect Republicans as much as White House political aides would have liked?

And did people lie about it afterwards?

Surely, you can see that if either of those things happened, there is cause for concern?


Arlington, Va.: Do you think Kyle Sampson will play the fall guy -- a la Libby -- tomorrow, or go down swinging and freely contradict Gonzales and others? Doesn't the fact that he hasn't taken the Fifth suggest that he's going the latter route? Why would he sacrifice a role in a future Republican-appointed position?

Dan Froomkin: I think it's telling that Sampson is represented by Bradford Berenson, himself a former deputy to Gonzales when he was White House counsel.

That suggests to me that Sampson won't stray too far from the party line.

For instance, it's quite possible he will dutifully explain all the times that he told Gonzales what the plans were (thereby letting Gonzales twist in the wind, but due to his own ineptitude) -- while at the same time defending the White House and its ideology from attack.


Brewster, N.Y.: Is the fact that the Republican Senators declined to filibuster or otherwise stall the vote on the Iraq funding bill a clear sign to the administration that "you guys are on your own," and is there any indication that the White House has understood the message?

Dan Froomkin: That was telling, wasn't it?

I noticed that The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman said in a Live Online today: "At this point, if you talk to Republicans off the record, they are very angry at the administration, very angry. They just feel they have been sold down river by the sheer incompetence of the administration. But they are holding together in public."


Lansing, Mich.: "First of all, there is no question that e-mails to and from White House accounts get archived, regardless of who they come from or are sent to. The issue is what has happened to e-mails to and from White House officials that were kept entirely out of the White House system.

"Secondly, while the Hatch Act would appear to prohibit the use of government resources such as e-mail accounts for political purposes, the issue here is the precise opposite: The use of political e-mail accounts for official business. And that raises all sorts of questions about preservation, security, appropriateness, and subterfuge that Perino did not address."

The Washington Post needs to get you in that room asking the right questions!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I tend to be right on deadline at briefing time. But I do sometimes fantasize about sending an intern to do stuff like that...


Washington: Hi Dan. If Rove is using an RNC address for 95 percent of his e-mails, shouldn't one infer that 95 percent of his work is RNC work? Also, can Bush hide Rove behind Executive Privilege if he is operating within the RNC's e-mail system?

Dan Froomkin: Good questions. The National Journal story by Alexis Simendinger (subscription required) last week suggested that he simply uses his RNC BlackBerry for convenience -- for pretty much everything.
Me, I see it as the ultimate metaphor for how the distinction between party and government business seems to have been obliterated in this White House.

And, as I noted in Friday's column, Simendinger's lead was precisely about the question of executive privilege: "White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove may have forfeited potential claims of executive privilege over the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys-- if he communicated about the latter outside the White House e-mail system, using his Republican National Committee e-mail account or RNC equipment. Or at least that's a legal possibility posed by rapidly advancing electronic technology and the evolving work habits of busy White House officials."


Austin, Texas: Hi Dan. Do you know what Cheney's opinion of Gonzales is? Is he a fan of Gonzales's pro-torture shenanigans, think he's a nonthreatening non-entity, or something else?

Dan Froomkin: For his years as White House counsel, Gonzales was a devoted servant of Cheney's, through Cheney's then-legal counsel now-chief of staff David S. Addington. In fact, to suggest that the "pro-torture shenanigans" were of Gonzales's own devising would be terribly inaccurate. They were a Cheney/Addington creation. So there's no doubt that for a long time, Cheney saw Gonzales as an obliging lickspittle.

It's quite possible that now, however, Cheney sees him as a weak link.


Fremont, Calif.: Not sure if this question got posted. If this is a duplicate, my apologies. Isn't Monica Goodling pleading the Fifth Amendment because of the Federal False Statements Statute, 18 USC 1001, wherein it is a felony to cause another person to make a false statement to Congress? McNulty told Sen. Schumer that he made a false statement to Congress based on information provided to him by Monica Goodling. If so, Goodling very well could be prosecuted for a violation of this statute. Why haven't any journalists picked up on this?

Dan Froomkin: That is indeed a possibility.


Newport News, Va: Dan, love your briefings. Please do not go the way of other reporters and go on those pundit shows. Most of those "reporters" seem to like the celebrity and have lost their credibility -- such as Norah O'Donnell. I enjoy your writings because they are sourced and have links. Don't go on TV and lose a good thing.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Interesting argument.

I do think the column benefits a lot from the fact that I don't have to schmooze to do my job. But what if I was able to maintain my perspective, and give those celebrity pundits a little dose of reality?


Harrisburg, Pa.: Dan, I just finished reading your column today, which I enjoyed, but I was disappointed that in your discussion of the "Scooter Syndrome" you didn't mention that fear of perjury charges from the testimony you are about to give is not a proper basis for invoking the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Why is the mainstream press not analyzing the reasons Ms. Goodling provides more critically?

Dan Froomkin: I dealt with this a bit yesterday. I agree with you that Goodling's move merits a great deal of (hopefully informed) speculation. The mainstream press is sometimes averse to that, however.


Madison, Wis.: Just curious about the Goodling immunity hypothesis: In cases where such immunity is granted, how far does protection typically extend? Is, for instance, the entire testimony off-limits for the prosecution of the witness, no matter the charge? Is it just protection against specific charges -- perhaps granting safety from perjury charges but not, say, corruption or conspiracy? Or is the extent of immunity something that always is up for negotiation? Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: Lots of great questions today about how far the immunity would extend, how it can be challenged, whether it can be overcome, etc. etc. I do not have answers to a lot of those questions. I wish I did. Perhaps some of my colleagues could look into this...

That said, it's also likely that these things are generally resolved not through litigation and precedent and so on, but through negotiation -- and that's what will happen here as well.


Cleveland, Ohio: Dan, I do not doubt that the administration would throw Gonzo over the side before Rove. Rove's fingerprints are all over this, as with the Plame affair, etc. How does this guy keep pulling Houdinis and surviving? Will Rove ever step down?

Dan Froomkin: Rove is indeed astonishingly able -- or lucky -- or both. And he is utterly essential to this White House. If he does leave, it will be because there is literally no other choice.


Charlottesville, Va.: Hi Dan -- It's quite evident that you have been able to maintain access to your sources while reporting about them unclouded by fealty to them. That's a delicate balancing act that, it seems, many in the MSM have utterly failed to do -- witness the revelations in the Libby trial. Is the marriage between reporter and source so incestuous today that it is beyond repair? Can we believe anyone anymore? Thanks for your great work.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks, but you flatter me too much. The reason I can report about these guys "unclouded by fealty" to my sources is that -- well, to be blunt -- I have no sources. I am not a White House correspondent. I am a meta-correspondent. I leach off the work of all those hard-working correspondents who do have to keep their sources talking to them.

In a partial answer your question, though, I think that the mainstream news outlets have inertially maintained the traditional reporter-source relationship without realizing that in this era, the sources are not giving reporters the same sort of value that they used to. It's one thing to pull your punches a bit so a source will tell you something really important; it's another to pull your punches a lot so a source will spin you silly.


Fort Belvoir, Va.: I think you missed Perino's point in the press conference -- she wasn't saying it was against the Hatch Act to use political e-mail addresses for official use. My take was this: because there are people in the White House whose tasks straddle both political and official, and because it's illegal to use official e-mail for political purposes, those aides who do both were erring on the side of caution and using RNC e-mail addresses whenever sending something that might be considered political, even if some official stuff was contained therein.

Dan Froomkin: That's a very charitable explanation. But some of the e-mails that set this whole thing off were quite obviously official (unless the White House wants to cop to the fact that the replacement of US attorneys was RNC business.)


New York: Dear Dan -- are reporters looking at all the other departments of the federal government into which Bush loyalists were infiltrated? Interior clearly was a hotbed of Republican activism disguised as regulation ... what was going on at Education, GSA, Commerce, etc.? How many thirtysomething born-again Christians were calling the shots in Washington in the past seven years?

Dan Froomkin: As I have often said, the overt politicization of the bureaucracy by Bush's political appointees is one of the most under-covered stories in Washington.

Just for instance: In how many of those departments have political appointees taken a greater role in vetting career hires than in previous administrations?
This is a huge story, still waiting to be told. As usual, I will point people toward this piece on NiemanWatchdog.org by David E. Lewis.


Suburban Philadelphia: FYI ... not really a question, just a note that one of your "cartoon" links today is not working. Two for Oliphant, none for Luckovich.

Dan Froomkin: Here's the Luckovich cartoon. I'll try to get that fixed. Thanks.


Rockville, Md.: The Bush administration keeps saying that the surge is working, and even McCain was harping that line yesterday. The only significant change in dynamics appears to be that Sadr's Mahdi militia is laying low, bidding for time, which may be the result of a deal struck between him and Al Maliki. Sunni attacks have continued unabated and yesterday we saw sectarian violence rear its ugly head again when Shiite policeman (that's right, the very people whose duty is to protect and serve the public) went on a shooting spree killing Sunni residents (including teenage boys) in response to an earlier truck bombing incident. Seems to me that sectarian violence is here to stay in Iraq. Do McCain and the Bush administration really take notice of these events? Seems to me that the sectarian wounds are festering beneath the surface and it's only a matter of time before it blows up in our faces again.

Dan Froomkin: Good point. It is kind of fascinating how, not too long after it finally became accepted throughout the mainstream media that Bush was being utterly delusional in describing the situation in Iraq in optimistic terms .... we are starting to let him get away with it again. I notice CNN is being particularly aggressive at countering some of that. Perhaps it won't take as long this time.


Washington: Bush appointees "infiltrating the government"? They are political appointees. How many Clinton holdovers are leaking government secrets and should be prosecuted as traitors?

Dan Froomkin: You're right to complain about the "infiltrating the government" language, and I didn't mean to endorse it. Bush has every right to appoint political appointees throughout the top levels of the government. In fact, that's his job.

The question is whether or not they have gone beyond what political appointees normally do; whether they are considerably less competent than political appointees normally have been; whether they are intentionally driving out competent career people and replacing them with people who are inexperienced but amenable. That sort of thing.

And you do seem a big angrier than might be justified.


Madison, Wis.: Hi Dan. You might enjoy this article from The Onion today: "Heroic Secret Service Agent Takes Question Intended For Bush"

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Very funny! And it would be Walter Pincus pulling the trigger, wouldn't it.

OK I've got to run. Thanks everyone. See you here again in two weeks, and weekday afternoons on the home page.


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