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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, June 6, 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'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, June 6, at 1 p.m. ET.

No Remorse, No Mercy (washingtonpost.com, June 5)

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.

In today's column (which will be out momentarily) I lead with an exploration of how exactly President Bush could explain his decision to pardon Scooter Libby to the American people.

I'm just not sure there's a good way to do that.

Of course a pardon is not a done deal -- but it seems to be Topic A in this town today.

I'm looking forward to your questions and comments, so let's go.


New York: Among the letters in support of Scooter Libby, a three-pager by Mary Matalin is truly hair-raising. It would be sad if it wasn't so bizarre. She recounts a Halloween holiday spent at an "undisclosed location" with the Cheney grandkids who had been "required" to accompany their group. She regales the judge with all the wonderful things Scooter did to make the children enjoy the holiday they were missing -- "creating costumes, finding treats" etc. Apart from ascribing this to Scooter's "universal love of families" she does not seem to recognize that the very behavior Scooter engaged in (i.e. babysitting Cheney's interests literally) is what has led him to his sorry end. Libby et al used their positions to smear the messengers of dissenting viewpoints, and they did so to protect their right to wage war on an innocent population (however evil Saddam Hussein was). How many Iraqi children would be happy to disappear to an undisclosed location where they would be safe? I bet they wouldn't even ask for costumes or treats.

washingtonpost.com: Mary Matalin/James Carville Letter to Libby Judge (pages 5-8 of .pdf file) (washingtonpost.com, June 5)

Dan Froomkin: I haven't read all the letters yet, but that one gets my vote for weirdest as well. (You forgot to mention it was co-signed by her Clinton-affiliated husband, James Carville.)

My big question is, why were the kiddies "required" to be there? My understanding is that Cheney was sent to undisclosed locations now and again as a precaution against a decapitation strike. But was there "credible evidence" that his daughter Liz and her kids were in danger, such that they had to be evacuated? I find that a bit hard to believe.

And your comparison to Iraqi children, while in some ways a non sequitur, is also in some ways not. Thanks.


Chicago: Hi Dan -- just a comment. Something tells me that a no-nonsense man like Judge Walton would hardly have been swayed by such a pretentious and annoying letter as Joseph Bottum's. Bottum (now the editor of First Things, a Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life) reviewed Scooter's novel "The Apprentice," after which Scooter sent him a thank you note "diffidently suggesting" that they meet to talk about books. Unfortunately, the time Scooter has in mind for this meeting is 7 a.m., and Bottum snaps to Libby: "Anyone who actually has something to say about the structure of a novel like Joyce's Ulysses is incapable of saying it before noon. 11:15, in a pinch." He goes on to say that "to incarcerate such a man feels horribly wrong to me ... he still has much to offer the world ... more, I fear a deep philosophical injury from all this -- a damage not just to my friend but to the nation ... Judge Walton -- I, who make my living with words, find words failing me here..."

Whose idea was it to solicit these letters -- the Court's, or Libby's defense team?

washingtonpost.com: Joseph Bottum Letter to Libby Judge (page 29 of .pdf file) (washingtonpost.com, June 5)

Dan Froomkin: Certainly not the court's! From what I read, Walton was showing clear signs of annoyance yesterday as Libby's defense insisted of reading some of them out loud.

That suggests to me, too, that the letters backfired. But some of them are quite moving and cast Libby as a mensch. So maybe not.

My hunch is that Walton was mostly influenced by two things:

1) The evidence.

2) The fact that the defense snookered him. They promised Libby would testify, leading Walton to make all sorts of evidentiary rulings favoring the defense that he otherwise would not have allowed. Once that was accomplished, the defense suddenly announced that Libby would not testify.


Boston: Hi Dan. Looking at pictures of Libby with his high-priced lawyer, Ted Wells, I can't help thinking Libby would have been as well-off with a free lawyer provided by legal aide. I hate to sound like some conspiracy nut, but do you think the weakness of the defense reflects some behind-the-scenes deal with the White House? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: I hate to sound like some conspiracy nut, but here's my March 8 column, Did Libby Make a Deal?


Vienna, Va.: The Vice President is sitting on the sidelines, totally mute, as one of his most trusted former assistants is given a stiff sentence and fine for his obstruction of justice conviction in the Plame affair. Granted, as Fitzgerald says, a "cloud hangs over" the VP, but one would at least expect a letter of appreciation and gratitude for service to be included in the 150 letters received by Judge Walton from such Republican stalwarts as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. Even a brief, public statement -- such as the one issued by President Bush -- would seem appropriate (if the VP did issue a similar statement, I missed it). There would be nothing incriminating in either gesture. It seems cold and uncaring -- and reinforces the appearance of Cheney as a defensive, secretive individual.

Dan Froomkin: Well, better late than never? Here is the text of a written statement issued by Cheney's office yesterday, after the sentencing. Cheney expresses his support for Libby, calls the episode a tragedy, and comes darn close to calling it all a miscarriage of justice.


Dan Froomkin: Go read my column! It's here: What About the Rule of Law?.
The comeback.


Minneapolis: What are the President's priorities these days? He's given the immigration bill some lip service, but does that look to be a continuing trend? What else is on the agenda -- G8 Summit? Fishin' in Crawford?

Dan Froomkin: After tweaking him for initially seeming lethargic about the immigration bill (see my May 22 column, I took it all back in my May 30 column -- in which I tried to call attention to Bush's undercovered assertion that he fears that the backlash against immigration being incited by opponents of his legalization proposal could result in the nation losing its soul.

So I think immigration continues to be a priority.

Beyond that, I wouldn't expect him to concentrate on much besides keeping his head above water (or sand, as the case may be.)


Defense letters: I'll have to admit that I haven't read my way through more than a third of the letters. But what I find striking is that all of the pro-Libby letters (at least so far) have all been saying what a wonderful man he is/was; no reference at all to the crime he was convicted of. Is this typical? (My vote for weird letter is the one that says if Libby hadn't had to resign, we wouldn't be in this mess in Iraq...)

Dan Froomkin: I'm amazed at how many of you are plowing through those letters!

In answer to your question: Those were the instructions from the Libby defense team.

The idea was neither to offend the judge by actively attacking the jury verdict -- nor to admit that Libby lied. Kind of a tightrope walk, huh? The result was the repeated use of the sentiment that the behavior of which he was convicted was "not consistent" with what they knew of Scooter...

See above for whether it all helped or hurt.


Newfoundland: Dan ... your posted link to the text of the Cheney response either does not work or has been deleted by nefarious forces!

Dan Froomkin: Oops. Here's the correct link. Nothing nefarious, just author error.


Rockville, Md.: What's your take on Paul Wolfowitz writing a character reference letter for Libby? On that note, should Chief of Staff Peter Pace write a character reference letter for a person who has been convicted for aggressively pursuing a prominent war critic, when there is a lot of debate that all angles of the Iraq invasion weren't taken into account? It almost reeks of an old boys' club here.

Dan Froomkin: Almost?

There were some unusual suspects in the bunch, to be sure, but it was an amazing testament to neocon firepower.

The two most potentially inappropriate letters I saw were the one from Pace -- the highest-ranking current official and, yes, someone you'd like to think is above politics -- and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who wrote his letter on official letterhead!


Williston, Vt.: Hi Dan. Awesome column! I'm sure there'll be a lot of questions regarding "Scooter-palooza" so I'll ask one about Darfur and Iraq. When Bush is confronted with questions about why we went to Iraq, he often responds with straw-man arguments about "would you want a despot like Hussein still in power?" As if it was his personal duty to stop these clear human-rights abuses against the Iraqis. What are your thoughts about how he and the administration respond to the Sudanese government and the Darfur crisis? It appears that the administration's (lack of) response in Darfur demonstrate the tremendous discrepancies with the supposed "humanitarian" reasons why we're in Iraq ... any thoughts? Thanks

Dan Froomkin: I admire you for continuing to seek consistency.

Your comment reminds me of this quote from a Post story today about Bush's speech on the "freedom agenda" yesterday in Prague:

" 'It's the most eloquent speech on the universal values of human rights that any American president has ever given. And yet it comes from a president who has given human rights a bad name around the world,' said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. 'It's tragic that this president doesn't have the moral authority anymore to promote these values. His policies have led many people to become very cynical about America's commitment to the values of freedom.' "


New York: Dan, I read someone opine that Bush's declined popularity actually makes it easier for him to pardon Libby. The whole ship is sinking, so what's another hole in the hull, is the line of thinking. Thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: That's certainly one theory. As I write in my column today, however, I think things could get much, much worse.


New York: Dan, do you know how often Scooter Libby would have met with the President? He was a special assistant to Bush, but their interactions were never discussed in the Libby trial. It's hard for me to think that W was out of the loop with the Plame leak.

Dan Froomkin: One aspect of this whole CIA leak case that has been wildly underexplored is what Bush knew and when he knew it.

Libby met with Bush quite a bit, as far as I can tell. But there's no question Libby was much closer and more slavishly devoted to Cheney than to Bush -- and so even if you think Libby was leaking Plame's identity on orders, it seems vastly more likely that those orders came from Cheney than from Bush, and may well have been a secret even from Bush.

But at some point, there's no question that Bush was told something about this whole issue, probably by Libby and by Rove, and by golly I'd sure like to know what and when.


Anonymous: The letter written by John Rogers was my favorite, a very strong argument for a stiff sentence due to betraying "his high position and his country."

washingtonpost.com: John Rogers Letter to Libby Judge (page 17 in .pdf file) (washingtonpost.com, June 5)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Prescott, Ariz.: Dan, my vote for weirdest "Free Scooter" letter goes to former Sen. Alan Simpson. As far as I could understand, he says that the one word to describe Libby is the "loyal soldier," so he shouldn't be "thrown under the bus" for "following orders." I think he's saying if a "boss" orders an employee to "break the law," the employee shouldn't be "held liable" if he does "break the law." (Note: I wrote this in the "Alan Simpson" style, full of extraneous quotation marks.)

By the way, did any of the Republican candidates last night manage to pull off the fabled "triple Guantanamo"? I heard they had all been trying it during practice...

washingtonpost.com: Alan Simpson Letter to Libby Judge (page 49 of .pdf file) (washingtonpost.com, June 5)

Dan Froomkin: Yep. As I noted in my column, Simpson may have been more revealing than he realized. He wrote: "During my years of friendship with Scooter, I found a single attribute which will always remain undiminished in my mind. That is the attribute of Loyalty -- unswerving, unselfish, unwavering loyalty. One could also almost superimpose upon his brow the accolade 'The Good Soldier.'"


Chicago: Hi Dan. I enjoyed this comment from John Bolton's letter in support of Libby: "With classified information, it was frequently hard to know who was cleared to see what or what could be discussed with whom. If there is anyone who fully understands our 'system' for protecting classified information, I have yet to meet him." Wow! Maybe there should be some kind of continuing education and training provided for our government officials who deal with classified information.

washingtonpost.com: Letters Cast Light on Cheney's Inner Circle (Post, June 6)

Dan Froomkin: Wow indeed. Did he really write that? By golly, he did. Here's a direct link.

That's not something I'd think he would want to brag about.


Sarasota, Fla.: Dan: Any chance we're not giving the Bush administration enough credit for its diplomatic maneuvering? Maybe, just maybe, it's not that Cheney is undercutting Rice's efforts -- maybe they're secretly playing good cop/bad cop. Maybe Iran, Syria et al will be more likely to make some concessions if they think the alternative is dealing with the crazy uncle stomping his feet and shaking his fist on the deck of the aircraft carrier. And maybe Bush is doing the same with Putin -- just ineptly. Your thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: Bush Tones Down Rhetoric on Russia Ahead of Meeting (Post, June 6)

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's one possibility, I suppose. My gut tells me that it's more chaotic than that, and that you are seeing signs of a power struggle. See my Monday column, Cheney, By Proxy, and particularly see the post from well-connected Washington Note blogger Steven C. Clemons about Cheney and Iran. That's scary stuff.

As for the Russian side of the story, if Bush's goal is to get Putin to restore some democracy to that country (and it should be) I don't see how rubbing his nose in (possibly militarily ineffective, but certainly symbolically effective) missile defense programs helps at all.


New York: Hi Dan, thanks for your on the money analysis of Bush's latest feint with regard to the Global Warming issue. My impression is that time and time again, this administration spends great effort in creating the appearance they're governing while mainly doing little or nothing -- and this includes on issues as diverse as homeland security or AIDs in Africa.

My half-sarcastic question is, with all the tremendous effort they put into making believe they're governing, why don't they spend the same energy actually coming up with policies? In your opinion, is the false front they spend so much time erecting an excuse for inaction, or merely another indicator of the general incompetence that seems to pervade this administration? Thanks, and keep up the excellent work.

washingtonpost.com: Bush's Climate-Change Feint (washingtonpost.com, June 1)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'd hate to see one of your full-on sarcastic questions.


San Francisco: Hi Dan. Any news on Susan Ralston? Do you think she will throw Karl Rove under the bus? What alternative does she have if they offer her immunity?

Dan Froomkin: I'm keeping my eye on Ralston.

But there's not much new that I know of. There was a brief mention of her in this AP story yesterday, which reported: "House Democrats are expanding their investigation into ties between jailed GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the White House and have contacted several Abramoff associates recently about testifying to Congress."

But all it says about Ralston is stuff we knew already: "Susan Ralston, a key aide to presidential political strategist Karl Rove who had worked for Abramoff, resigned last October after the Government Reform report showed she had extensive contacts with Abramoff.

"[House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry] Waxman wants Ralston to testify, but she is refusing to do so without a grant of immunity, according to a memo Waxman released last month after lawyers for his panel questioned her in private. Meanwhile Waxman wants to talk to others." As I wrote in my May 23 column, that memo is worth a read.


Austin, Texas: One thought may be that a pardon, should it happen before September, may give the Democrats the political courage they need to actually stand up to Bush with regard to Iraq war funding. If there's enough rage in the country about it, do you think they can leverage against that to pressure Bush on Iraq?

Dan Froomkin: I admire you for continuing to seek courage among the Democrats.

I do think a pardon might enrage the public, but according to the opinion polls the public's been enraged about the war for quite some time now.


Washington: Notice you never take critical opinions. Why?

Dan Froomkin: I get very few.

And some of the ones I get, to be honest, are so laced with inaccuracies and irrelevancies that I wouldn't know where to begin unpacking them. I'll give you an example. Hold on...


Washington: You hate to sound like a conspiracy nut? You are one. On everything to Karl Rove, Bush, etc. ... you always take a bunch of dots and connect them where none exists ... hence you a conspiracy nut. Onto a question. Bill Clinton started a way against a country we had never fought against, killed 30,000 civilians, and he was hero for freeing this people. Bush starts a war against a country we had fought against, freed people, and according to iraqbodycount.org, killed about 65,000 civilians. Why no mention of this?

Dan Froomkin: See? I'm all for publishing someone who calls me a nut. But then he goes off on this crazy tangent. But there's one. I'll go look for more.


Newark, N.J.: What is the fabled "triple Guantanamo" referenced by an earlier question?

Dan Froomkin: I'm guessing that it was a joke based on Mitt Romney's proposal at the first Republican debate to double the size of Guantanamo (rather than close it). Presumably a "triple Guantanamo" would be something like a "double lutz" with chest thumping.


Milwaukee: If a pardon deal already has been struck, I don't know how you'd explain the truly ashen, dismayed look on Libby's face as he left court. That was not the look of a man who feels secure about his future. (For what it's worth, I noticed David Safavian's sentence has been stayed pending appeal. I looked him up on the Federal Bureau of Prisons Web site and there's a record of him, but he's not in BOP custody.)

washingtonpost.com: Ex-Aide To Bush Found Guilty (Post, June 21, 2006)

Dan Froomkin: I've found Libby hard to read. But even if a pardon deal had been struck, don't you think getting a sentence like that would be a bit of a blow?

As for Safavian, as I noted in my Monday column he was was indeed allowed to remain free pending appeal after his conviction, because District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman agreed "that a number of the issues raised in the pre-trial motions, the motion for judgment of acquittal, and motion for a new trial are substantial and some are without precedent in this Circuit. If some of these issues were decided in Mr. Safavian's favor on appeal, a new trial likely would be required."

The law on letting convicted felons free on appeal is darn clear. It not enough that they not be a flight risk -- the judge must positively find that some of his legal decisions during the trial are likely to be reversed on appeal. Walton doesn't strike me as the type.


Pocatello, Idaho: It seems that the Bush administration is winning the publicity war that Iraq is a war against terror instead of a civil war. Why are we not hearing more from the media and the Democratic Party that this is really a civil war and that keeping our soldiers in the middle this civil war is a great disservice to them and the country.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. I'm not sure that Bush is winning that war in the sense that he's winning over the public. I think polls show that most Americans no longer see Iraq as part of the war on terror.

We do hear him say it is a lot, however -- and yes, I would like to know why the press (and the opposition) don't more often counter his assertions with, you know, facts.

Bush is certainly trying to persuade the public that most if not all of the attacks in Iraq -- on Iraqis and Americans both -- are being staged by al-Qaeda. Every time he blames al-Qaeda for the violence there, I would like to see reporters explaining what the true sources of violence are, and in what proportions.


Chicago: Hi Dan. I have a question about impeachment. A number of recent polls have shown that almost 40 percent of Americans favor the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. That number increases when you mention specifics like "if it turns out Bush lied about intelligence...". Can you explain The Post's lack of polling and reporting on impeachment? Is the MSM, like the Democrats, afraid of the Republican backlash from even the slightest mention of impeachment?

Dan Froomkin: As soon as there is a significant possibility of this Congress impeaching the president, I'm quite sure the MSM will start polling about it in earnest.

And yet, as I've said before, I think it would be valuable to do so even now, as a way of taking the temperature of the electorate. Seems to me it has a fever.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks everyone for another great chat. Because of  scheduling conflicts, I'll be back here in one week instead of two. See you then, and every afternoon (somewhere) on the home page.


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