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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, May 9, 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, May 9, at 1 p.m. ET.

Low Expectations for Cheney Trip (washingtonpost.com, May 9)

Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Chat. I'm glad you're here.

Today's "big" "news" is that Vice President Cheney made a "surprise" stop in Iraq at the start of his weeklong Middle East trip. I am using all these "quote marks" because it would have been more of a surprise if Cheney hadn't stopped in Iraq. And I don't think anyone expects much to come of it anyway. As I write in today's column, the White House is appropriately setting expectations pretty low.

Meanwhile, President Bush is off touring tornado damage in Kansas, the queen is back in England, and suddenly it feels like a sleepy summer day in Washington. But never fear, tomorrow is another day. For instance, "living dead" Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will be testifying tomorrow before the House Judiciary Committee. That should be good TV.


Washington: Dan, has anyone figured out in what capacity Liz Cheney is accompanying her father on his Middle East trip? All bios that I can find indicate that she quit her State job a couple of years ago. So who is she working for, and for how long?

Dan Froomkin: That's a very fine question, and one I am trying to get answered. Liz Cheney is a former principal deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, and has been a relentless public defender of her father's policies. (See, for instance, this Washington Post op-ed from January.) But technically speaking, she has no official role at the moment -- or does she?

Is she considered an official adviser on this trip? Is she part of the delegation? Who's paying her way? Is she just there to massage her daddy's knees? She and her husband, Philip Perry, both of whom I noticed were invited to the state dinner Monday, have become quite controversial quasi-governmental figures.


Lexington, Ky.: Dan: I'm not optimistic that September will be as definite of a deadline as you suggested in yesterday's column. The cynic in me thinks that come September, the administration will have redefined the meaning of progress and claim that more time is needed. Today, one commander in Iraq said the surge needs to continue into next year to really see if it is working or not. With such strong support for the war from the Republican electorate, it would be hard for a Republican congress to abandon the surge. Is this really a deadline?

Dan Froomkin: Your skepticism is entirely appropriate. Maybe I got a little carried away yesterday.


Arlington, Va.: Wow, Dan, you certainly stirred things up over on Deborah Howell's chat this morning. First off, someone wrote in and said that The Post should publish some pro-White House column to "balance" your column, because you're so critical. My guess is that you're doing your job and expressing doubt whenever Tony or Dana say things are going gangbusters in Iraq. Keep it up!

washingtonpost.com: Discussion: Ask the Post with Ombudsman Deborah Howell (washingtonpost.com, May 9)

Dan Froomkin: You got me all excited. But in fact it was all quite tame over there. My position on this whole issue of needing to "balance me" has been very clear all along. I'm not writing my column as a partisan, but as a skeptical journalist. It's entirely appropriate for Washington journalists to subject the president of the United States -- from whatever party -- to the greatest possible scrutiny. The last thing any president needs is more help getting his or her message across, sorry. The column has, not surprisingly, developed a more critical tone over the years as the administration's credibility and competence problems have become more and more pronounced.


Crestwood, N.Y.: Dan, there are three trends here that interest me: First, it looks to me that Bush's "plan" is for Iraq to be a tad more peaceful by the time he gets out, so that the collapse can be his successor's problem -- "apres moi, le deluge" -- meanwhile, according to polls, there is a growing appetite nationally to impeach both Bush and Cheney. And finally the Dems are on a course for a constitutional crisis if they vote to defund the war, joined by Republican senators facing re-election, who might not be so enthusiastic about Bush's "plan." I think we're in for a hell of time here, comparable to Watergate, and that impeachment is a real possibility. You agree?

Dan Froomkin: I think you may very well be right -- except for that bit about impeachment being likely. Though a significant chunk of the public is apparently intrigued by the idea, I just don't see any appetite for that developing among leading Congressional Democrats -- not to mention Republicans. The other things you describe, however, are drama enough. Should keep me going.


A good sign of progress in Iraq will be...: From today's AP story on Cheney's visit: "Everyone realizes there still are serious security issues, problems, threats," Cheney said. "But the impression I got from talking with them, and this includes military, is they do believe we are making progress."

To me, you know a sign of real progress? When a White House or cabinet official can make an announced visit to Baghdad. I cannot recall ever hearing a high-ranking executive branch official announcing a trip to Iraq beforehand (do you)? That itself speaks volumes four years later.

Dan Froomkin: That would indeed be progress.


Boise, Idaho: Headlines on the rags by the supermarket check stands proclaim that George is drinking. Zat so?

Dan Froomkin: My understanding is that he only drinks the blood of Bigfoot's alien love child. (i.e. Consider the source.)


Seattle: Dan, on Monday Linda Sanchez stated very clearly at the beginning of the House hearing: "If even a single U.S. Attorney lost his or her job either for prosecuting Republicans or for refusing to prosecute Democrats, this would represent a serious threat to the very notions of fairness on which our justice system rests." Out in Seattle, many are concerned that John McCay, an able Republican attorney, has had his reputation soiled for political reason. Does the president show any concern for or understanding of this issue?

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good question. Every time you ask the White House about the issue, they say two things: 1) That the U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president; and 2) That the only problem would be if the administration fired someone specifically to obstruct an investigation.

But there are a lot of things short of overt obstruction that could make the dismissal of a U.S. attorney a very serious attack on the impartiality of the judicial system, and I see no evidence that anyone in the White House -- including the president -- is willing to acknowledge that, at least not publicly.


Rockville, Md.: Dan, your column has become my daily fix. Any comments on the Wolfowitz affair at the World Bank? It's apparent that the bank staff intensely hates him (reason enough for him to go) the European governments don't want him, and neither does the U.S. treasury. However, according to news sources, Bush, Cheney and more importantly Rove (surprise, surprise) are the ones intent on dragging out this unpleasant situation by retaining Wolfowitz at any costs. Is there any strategic benefit for the current administration to carry out this "poke in the eye" tactic? Does it think the European governments will relent to pressure from the White House for an administration with 18 months left and the lowest public approval rating in recent history? Why create the bad blood when not necessary?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I actually stayed out of the Wolfowitz story until the past couple of days, when it was disclosed that Cheney, and now Rove, are deeply engaged in trying to save his job. I get why Cheney cares. Wolfowitz's departure would be another hit to the whole neocon war establishment.

But why does Rove care so much? I think that's a fascinating question that should be further explored. My uninformed guess: That he's terribly afraid of the stench of death descending on the White House in general -- and specifically, that he worried that once Gonzales and Wolfowitz are gone, he might be the next target.

I don't think any of them are sitting around worrying about what the European governments think.


Leesburg, Va.: Has anyone in the press asked Tony Snow yet about the guest list for the Queen's dinner at the White House? As I recall, the Republicans always were quick to complain about the Clinton administration issuing invitations to White House receptions to large Democratic party donors. Yet the guest list for the Queen's dinner had several major Republican donors on it. How has Tony Snow explained away that contradiction?

Dan Froomkin: That issue was raised by Avni Patel in a blog post on the ABC News Web site that I linked to in my column today. (My column by the way, is now live.)

Tony Snow has not, to my knowledge, been asked about this yet. But I think it would make a fine question for him.

(And if you can find evidence of Republican complaints about Clinton doing this, send them to me.)


Carlisle, Pa.: Dan is it my imagination or has there been a sudden "surge" in resignations of upper level administration appointments across the government? Is this just the normal exodus for an administration entering it's lame-duck status? Are people trying to bail out to avoid a congressional investigation of one sort or another (politicizing the Justice Department, the student loan fiasco at Education, using non-science to squash endangered species designations at Interior, giving away natural resources ... oh you get my drift)?

Dan Froomkin: You are not imagining things. Here's Edward Luce in today's Financial Times: "The Bush administration is suffering from a rapid depletion of high-level officials and growing difficulties in trying to fill prominent vacancies, say insiders.

"In the past 10 days alone Mr Bush has lost four senior officials and more resignations are expected to follow. 'I wouldn't describe this as disintegration,' said one senior official. 'But there are worrying large gaps opening up and it is very hard to recruit high-quality people from outside.'"

The big hits have come in the national security area. (See this Peter Baker story from Saturday's Post.)

The very latest: Amit R. Paley writes in today's Post: "The head of the U.S. Education Department's student loan office announced her resignation yesterday amid mounting criticism of the agency's oversight of the loan industry."


Austin, Texas: Hi Dan. Conventional wisdom says that Bush, for all his faults, truly believes in the war, that we must win or they'll follow us home, etc. I can't square this with how politically motivated everything this administration has done and said has been for six years. It seems much more likely to me that he wants his legacy to be a "resolute" president who bucked public opinion, and that's what drives everything he says and does in Iraq -- not that he actually believes it. What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: What I think is that the lack of transparency at this White House, combined with its historical willingness to turn any issue to its political advantage and its ever-growing credibility problems makes it hard to say anything for sure. Which is actually quite tragic.


Chicago: Dan, someone above mentioned that there seems to be "constitutional crisis" looming ahead. I am inclined to agree, and it seems to me that this will largely center on Congress's power of the purse, which Bush's "support the troops" rhetoric attempts to neutralize. This is speculative, but as someone monitoring the White House, do you have any sense of what kind of confrontation the Bush administration is anticipating and how they'll attempt to play it?Aside from lying like hell, of course.

Dan Froomkin: Oh, aside from that?

I don't know. The big question will be: If the Democratic Congress finally pushes back on Bush's expansion of executive power in any of its various expressions, will the Cheney/Addington view continue to prevail in the White House? Or will more moderate views emerge? It's no surprise the Cheney/Addington axis has prevailed thus far -- there's been no challenge to it even from outside the White House. If something really comes to a head, who knows what will happen?


Dan Froomkin: The transcript of Cheney's brief press availability has just been sent out by the White House. A typically unrevelatory exchange (through no fault of the reporter):

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. You said you were impressed by the responses that you heard from Prime Minister Maliki and his colleagues. Did they offer any specific commitments, particularly time commitments, in moving forward on some of the specific measures that you and other American officials have talked about; namely, hydrocarbon law, de-Baathification, provincial elections and constitutional reform?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I believe that Prime Minister Maliki plans an address to the parliament this week on many of these issues -- [cough] excuse me -- and, of course, it's a political process that depends upon action by their legislative body. And but as I say, I do believe that there is a greater sense of urgency now than I'd seen previously.

QUESTION: But no specific time commitments?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's difficult to do with our own Congress, let alone somebody else's.


Atlanta: Have you followed the reporting coming from Daily Kos on the DOJ emails? Basically a group of people got together to analyze thousands of pages of documents turned over to the Senate and they've been able to identify potential obstruction of justice based on how many emails were not turned in. My question is, if they unveil something really important, would the story be discounted based on the source and the amateur nature of its reporters?

Dan Froomkin: I have not. E-mail me a link. (Or do you mean Talking Points Memo?) In either case, I am absolutely ready to believe that there are lots of e-mails that have not been turned over, and that those will tell an amazing story.


Kansas City, Mo.: Hi Dan! It is not as though I have not had a multitude of reasons to be horrified and appalled in the past few years, and perhaps it is trivial in contrast to other examples of arrogance, but do you have any explanation as to why Bush accepting a Purple Heart has basically gone under the MSM's radar? I am shocked that people -- particularly veterans -- are not absolutely outraged by this?! What's up with that? Thanks in advance for your thoughts...

washingtonpost.com: Bush Gets a Purple Heart (second-to-last item) (washingtonpost.com, April 26)

Dan Froomkin: Hey, no kidding. I thought that story would get picked up hugely. It's so rich with irony. I'm not sure why it didn't get more play.


Arlington, Va.: In the storm of the belief that the White House was making decisions for the Justice Department, some former political appointees in Education are claiming that the decisions regarding the enmeshed-in-scandal Reading First program were made by Margaret Spellings when she was a presidential advisor in the White House, long before she became Education Secretary. It makes me wonder how many departments are micromanaged from the White House.

Dan Froomkin: That's a really important observation. One of the things that I think will emerge from the DOJ scandal (and possible from the Reading First one as well) is how thoroughly micromanaged key cabinet agencies are.

Judging from what we've seen at DOJ, and I don't think it's entirely atypical, the real lines of power in this administration extend from the White House's political staff to young, willing political operatives in the cabinet agencies. The cabinet secretaries themselves? Purely figureheads.


San Francisco: Hi Dan, what's your take on White House reporters attending the State Dinner as guests? Do working journalists -- Gregory and Wolffe, as well as Robin Roberts -- understand that this looks entirely too chummy from outside the Beltway? The correspondents' dinners are bad enough, but breaking bread in the President's House while wearing white tie seems -- well, unseemly.

Dan Froomkin: I'm skeptical.

I have a hard time seeing how getting an invite to something like that can't make you feel a bit beholden to whoever invited you. And I somewhat share Will Bunch's view that it's grotesquely inappropriate for reporters to attend, because we "ought to be the voice of the kind of people who don't get invited to white-tie affairs, the handymen and school teachers, not the politicians and billionaires."

But on the other hand, would I really expect a reporter who is offered such an invitation to turn it down? I guess what I would demand of those who attend is full transparency-- about why they were invited, why they accepted, and what they made of the whole thing. (You know, acting like reporters.)

So while I was pleased that Richard Wolffe, one of the four journalists who attended, has now written about his evening for Newsweek, I was disappointed that he didn't address why he was invited and why he accepted. He did, however, find space to criticize the food.


Houston: Mr. Froomkin, your column is the best. I've got a gripe with washingtonpost.com (which is the only way I read The Post). (I know it's an editorial decision and you can't do anything about it.) It seems hypocritical for CNN.com and washingtonpost.com, to name two major news sites, to run photos and bios of the Virginia Tech victims 24/7 on the front Web pages and not give the same treatment to the soldiers, also very young, dying daily in Iraq. I realize washingtonpost.com has a page to the "fallen," but one has to search for it, and does not contain bios on these soldiers.

Is it possible that the MSM, by bestowing such huge coverage to these uncommon mass murders while only supplying daily numbers (and names when available) of casualties in Iraq, minimizes the carnage there in comparison to what happened at Virginia Tech? What subconscious message does this unbalanced coverage send Americans? How about presenting photos/bios of Iraqi civilians killed by suicide bombers or American soldiers (the Haditha massacre, for example)? Or the daily victims of gun violence in America? Show the dead beginning with the first in Afghanistan and Iraq. Write about their accomplishments and dreams. Run these on the front of the newspaper too, for a more "fair and balanced" presentation. By not giving the same prominence to the daily carnage in Iraq, or in our city streets, the MSM appears sensationalistic and distorts reality -- there are not potential mass murderers enrolled on every campus in America. Sometimes the MSM has a shorter attention span than the average American.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I can't speak for the site at all on this issue, but let me just say this: I am a huge admirer of washingtonpost.com's Faces of the Fallen database, and I agree with you that every death of a service member deserves even more attention than that.


Arlington, Va.: Re: The Bush Purple Heart, I think the reason it hasn't gotten a huge play is that the award wasn't made through an official military process. It came from someone who is presumably a strong Bush supporter and felt strongly enough about the issue to give up a medal that he received in the usual way -- by being wounded in combat. Those who think Bush is wonderful probably are feeling all warm and fuzzy over the gesture. Those (like me) who abhor Bush and all he stands for, and who believe impeachment should be the word that's on everyone's lips, regard the situation as pretty pathetic, but not necessarily worthy of huge media attention.

Dan Froomkin: It's flatly unimaginable that any official military process would have resulted in such an action. And I do think it's worth asking Bush if he didn't have any qualms about accepting it, given that he's never put himself in harm's way. But I suppose you're by-and-large correct.


Washington, DC: Ignatius's Saudi source in this morning's column seemed to confirm your suspicion that Bush is just waiting out his term: "The ferment in the region is driven partly by the perception that U.S. troops are on the way out, no matter what the Bush administration says. To dampen such speculation, Bush is said to have told the Saudis that America will not withdraw from Iraq during his presidency. 'That gives us 18 months to plan,' said one Saudi source."

washingtonpost.com: Cheney And the Saudis (Post, May 8)

Dan Froomkin: I found Ignatius's column fascinating but a little inscrutable today. Wasn't really sure quite what to make of it.


Arlington, Va.: What are the odds that Gen. Petraeus comes back in September and says that the surge is not working? How often does a general say "we can't do it"? Isn't it completely phony for the Republicans to take themselves off the hook by saying they'll reevaluate in September only if Gen. Petraeus says were doomed? They know there's no way that's going to happen.

Dan Froomkin: I don't think they're saying it will depend on Petraeus's opinions as much as on the facts he will have to work with. But that said, as long as there are no really agreed-upon and concrete metrics/benchmarks, it will all be very subjective and you may very well be right. It may be yet another kicking of the can down the road to Jan. 20, 2009.


Orange County, Calif.: Hi Dan. Your column is easily one of the best available and is a daily must-read. I believe you take the viewpoint, as you said today, of a skeptical reporter, not as a partisan. That said, why does washingtonpost.com insist on labeling your column "opinion"? It's like a caveat to those before reading the important news you give us in the column. I find it unnecessary and a bit sheepish on The Post's part. Keep up the great work!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'm not a big fan of the label. But it's a long story.


Boston: Wasn't there an executive order that required the White House to review/approve all regulatory rule changes previously left to various government agencies? Who is going to write the book tying together all the executive power plays pulled by the Bush (Cheney) administration?

Dan Froomkin: Good of you to remember. Here's the Jan. 30 New York Times story by Robert Pear about that order, which established a White House "gatekeeper in each agency to analyze the costs and the benefits of new rules and to make sure the agencies carry out the president's priorities."


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks everyone for all the great questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page!


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