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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, June 27, 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 27, at 1 p.m. ET.

Cheney: So 20 Minutes Ago (washingtonpost.com, June 26)

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome to another White House Watch chat. So much to talk about, let's go directly to the questions.


Denver: I wonder if Bush is even aware of all the things Cheney has done. If Bush just signs whatever Cheney puts in front of him, is it possible that Bush doesn't realize how much power he's ceded to Cheney? Maybe the infamous "Bush Bubble" is worse than we thought.

Dan Froomkin: Barton Gellman, who coauthored the massive Post series on Cheney that concluded today, told CNN on Monday: "It's clear that the president knows what Dick Cheney is doing, and it's clear the president could stop it."

But that may underestimate the power of the bubble. I thought one of the most astute reactions to the series (as in, I wish I'd had it myself) was made by a commenter at the Firedoglake blog, who wrote:

"The thing that strikes me about the WashPost series is that Cheney was constructing Bush's bubble from the very get go. He has managed to prevent anybody from one on one access to Bush without his approval. Nobody talked to Bush without his approval or his presence. His heavy handed presence managed to kill every effort to inject reality into the decision making process through intimidation. Just think about him staring at Bush from behind the bushes at that presser."


Washington: I realize that because of my work, I probably have a somewhat greater ongoing knowledge of the Bush administration than people whose jobs aren't affected on their policy decisions, but a lot of the stuff about Cheney is old news to me and most of my colleagues. While I applaud the in-depth reporting of The Post, is it really that surprising to most people, and should I be concerned if it is?

washingtonpost.com: Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency

Dan Froomkin: The great and abiding strength of this series is that so many things that were widely suspected about Cheney now have been documented authoritatively. And there are quite a few new details.

And I'm sure it's very surprising to some people.

That said, the series suffers from two timeliness problems: 1) As I wrote in Monday's column, the question of the moment is really whether Cheney's influence is waning (not how strong it once was); and 2) As I wrote in yesterday's column, for all Cheney's power within the White House, he and his supposed boss both increasingly seem disconnected from the national debate on Iraq, which is more about how to get out than how to "win."


Washington: Hey Dan -- you're a daily read, so please keep up the good work. So many shoes have dropped that the whole country's going to be in socks soon. But really, aside from making him vilified, can anything actually be done about Cheney? His status doesn't seem to have dissipated within the White House. Or is this simply adding sunlight at the end for historical purposes?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. But don't belittle sunlight -- that's what journalism is all about.

And while I don't think too many people expect anything to change, Sally Quinn wrote for washingtonpost.com yesterday: "The big question right now among Republicans is how to remove Vice President Cheney from office. Even before this week's blockbuster series in The Post, discontent in Republican ranks was rising."


Washington: So Dan -- "The CIA released hundreds of pages of internal reports Tuesday on assassination plots, secret drug testing and spying on Americans that triggered a scandal in the mid-1970s...."

Oh look! A shiny penny! Sure smells like distraction. Is this document dump coordinated by the White House -- oops I mean, the fourth branch of government?

washingtonpost.com: CIA Releases Files On Past Misdeeds (Post, June 27)

Dan Froomkin: I don't understand the timing -- but I don't think it was intended to distract. (Terror alerts are much more effective.)

Furthermore, Scott Shane has an interesting piece in the New York Times. He writes: "Comparisons between different historical eras are always tricky. With an incomplete account of C.I.A. misdeeds in its first quarter century from the so-called family jewels, released this week with many redactions, and a presumably even more incomplete knowledge of the spy agencies' actions since 2001, such a comparison is inevitably flawed.

"But it is also irresistible. And it raises a provocative question: do the actions of the intelligence agencies in the era of Al Qaeda, which include domestic eavesdropping without warrants, secret detentions and interrogations arguably bordering on torture, already match or even eclipse those of the Vietnam War period?"


Alexandria, Va.: Hi. Maureen Dowd has a humorous piece today in your competition paper about the visit of the high school Presidential Scholars to the White House. It seems that they handed Bush a thoughtful letter asking him to stop the torture, black flights etc. that have trashed the reputation of this country overseas. According to Dowd, and other reporters, Bush seldom or never meets anyone who might disagree with him on anything. Several years ago, he famously claimed not to read newspapers or polls. Do you think this is really true, or does she really mean that he just doesn't meet with opponents or hear adverse messages in from of cameras? Is Bush in an echo chamber? Is there a video somewhere of Bush's reaction to the students' letter?

washingtonpost.com: Scholars Urge Bush to Ban Use of Torture (AP, June 25)

Dan Froomkin: I quote from Dowd's column in my column today. And in my section on immigration I also note that Bush has made his public appearances in support of his immigration plan exclusively in front of audiences pre-selected for their support. (By contrast, he won't even say a word about immigration in front of regular gatherings of members of his own party!)

The fact is Bush never meets with the general public, and what few encounters he has with people who disagree with him happen exclusively in private. The only exception was the debates with John Kerry -- and you may recall he appeared quite peevish and bored at times.

Political scientist Jeffrey K. Tulis explained just how unprecedented Bush's behavior was on the NiemanWatchdog.org Web site over two years ago: "Certainly, in the past, presidential advance teams have on occasion taken steps to assure friendly audiences. It has not been uncommon for presidents to seek invitations to speak at friendly venues. But systematically screening audiences for an array of speaking tours in the pursuit of a national domestic policy campaign may be a new phenomenon, and one that the president should be asked to defend and justify in terms of his constitutional obligations."

Sadly, no one has asked him to defend it or justify it. They barely even report it.
(And no, I know of no video of that rare moment -- although I expect some parents in the audience had their video cameras rolling. YouTube anyone?)


New York: Dear Dan, The furor over the fired attorneys seems to have died down. Is the White House hoping that the air will go out of this balloon and that Gonzales can just ride out the storm (mixed metaphor, sorry)? If this is their hope, how realistic is it in your opinion?

Dan Froomkin: I absolutely am convinced that is their hope and plan. And so far, it has been wildly more successful than most of us possibly could have imagined.

But I don't see the congressional investigations ramping down -- and the more they dig, the more they find.


Denver: What would be the best way for Congress, or anybody for that matter, to challenge Cheney's assertions that he is both part of the executive branch (when claiming Executive privilege) and not part of the executive branch (when refusing to cooperate with the National Archives)? His position seems illogical and clearly seems to defy the Constitution. Is there some sort of legal action that could be taken with the Supreme Court? Or, short of impeachment, do we just have to live with Cheney being the fourth branch of our government?

Dan Froomkin: Rahm Emanuel and other Democrats have threatened to withhold Cheney's budget unless he abandons that argument -- and he now apparently has. He's instead making another argument for why he doesn't think he's subject to an executive order laying out rules for the handling of secrets. See
Michael Abramowitz
's Post story.


Dayton, Ohio: Cheney's quest for power in his role as Vice President is not surprising considering his past and the job's famous lack of authority. What is hard to understand is why Bush has let this man usurp so many of his own presidential prerogatives and powers. Far from strengthening the presidency itself, Cheney has weakened it. Where is Bush in all of this? Why did he allow this to happen and continue to permit it?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I'm not sure I agree with Gellman that Bush knows the full extent of how much Cheney has usurped him, but I do agree with the series's assessment that: "In Bush, Cheney found the perfect partner. The president's willingness to delegate left plenty of room for his more detail-oriented vice president."

And as Ron Suskind put it on MSNBC the other night: "The devil's in the details. Bush has broad pronouncements, sweeping ideas -- but Cheney gets the execution. And often the execution is all that matters."

The question now seems to be: With so much of what Cheney did having gone so terribly wrong, is this partnership eroding?

There are some signs that Bush is heeding others in his administration more than he used to. Will that trend continue? Will Bush's quest for a nondisastrous legacy and Karl Rove's desire for a Republican majority put some daylight between them and Cheney?


Harrisburg, Pa.: I don't know Dana Perino, but because I work in public relations I can sympathize with the position she's in commenting (or not opining -- what a wonderful term) on Dick Cheney. But doesn't there come a time when even the most loyal of loyalists has to say "this is nuts!" I watched her press conference yesterday and couldn't believe what I was hearing. Is she that loyal?

Dan Froomkin: I can't speak for Dana, but I don't get the sense that she's anywhere near her limit yet. And forgive me, but I don't see a White House revolt starting inside the press office.

Your question of loyalists saying "nuts," however, raises a bigger question that I hope gets more attention. In today's installment of the Cheney series, for instance, former EPA director Christine Todd Whitman finally admits that she resigned not to spend more time with her family but because she couldn't defend the policies she was being ordered to enforce. That was four years ago!
Especially as we discover more of the things that remain hidden, more attention should be paid to the question of why more people didn't resign and why more weren't up-front about why they resigned.


Dan Froomkin: Today's column is now on the site! Bush: Blair's No Poodle.
Go read it and come right back.


Arlington, Va.: Dan, wasn't the new war czar confirmed weeks ago? Think we'll ever hear anything interesting come out of that doomed office?

washingtonpost.com: To 'War Czar,' Solution to Iraq Conflict Won't Be Purely Military (Post, May 17)

Dan Froomkin: I think a full Senate vote is still pending...


Dan Froomkin: And this just in: Laurie Kellman reports for the Associated Press that the Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney's office Wednesday for documents relating to President Bush's warrant-free eavesdropping program.

"Also named in subpoenas signed by committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., were the Justice Department and the National Security Council.

"The committee wants documents that might shed light on internal squabbles within the administration over the legality of the program, said a congressional official speaking on condition of anonymity because the subpoenas had not been made public."


Arlington, Mass.: Dan, you mentioned on Monday that one of the traditional vice president jobs was to go to state funerals, and that Cheney had a different idea of what he would do as vice president. So who does go to state funerals, or have there not been that many in the last six and a half years?

washingtonpost.com: 'A Different Understanding With the President' (Post, June 24)

Dan Froomkin: Interesting question. A quick Googling suggests it has been a combination of Cabinet secretaries, former presidents -- and, in the case of Pope John Paul II, Bush himself.

Besides, would you send Cheney to a state funeral after he work a ski parka to that gathering of world leaders to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January 2005?

Now I kind of wonder if he did it on purpose...


Westminster, Md.: Dan, did you happen to catch Ann Coulter on "Hardball"? What did you make of it?

washingtonpost.com: Coulter Rips Bush (Post, June 26)

Dan Froomkin: I did not. Similarly, I try not to look when I drive by a car accident.

But that said, having read Howard Kurtz's report, I'm not entirely surprised that she called Bush a nincompoop.

A) She's not very nice; and B) Anyone worried about a Democratic sweep in 2008 has to have realized by now that if Democrats are allowed to run a primarily anti-Bush campaign, they will be nearly unstoppable. So it's time for some outflanking.


More Cheney: I think the money quote of the series was that Bush was the decider but it was Cheney deciding on the menu. Second, I don't think Cheney would ever resign for two reason: First, he thinks as does Bush that what they are doing is for a higher good that may not be fully realized for years and years; second, and I think when there was some discussion about dropping him from the ticket he told Russert some thing like that he was elected by the American people along with the president and he should serve out his term.

Dan Froomkin: Those strike me as wise observations. Thanks.

I sometimes wonder if Cheney is in fact fully aware of how badly things are going in Iraq and how unlikely it is that the continued presence of American troops will make things better -- but that he truly believes that showing "weakness" is so dangerous in the long run that he's willing to keep losing troops indefinitely.


New York: My frustration with all this is that the press and others always blame someone under Bush, and never Bush himself. We blame Rumsfeld, Brown (FEMA), Gonzales, Cheney, Colin Powell, Tenet, etc., etc., etc., and we keep leaving Bush alone!

Dan Froomkin: I see a 28 to 32 percent approval rating as a sign that most people are making the connection. This is a deeply, deeply unpopular president.


New York: Who decides the issue of the right of Congress to subpoena the White House? Does it end up being the Supreme Court? And how long might the process take?

Dan Froomkin: Susan Crabtree describes some of the process for The Hill. If a given committee and the White House can't come to agreement, the next step would be a Contempt of Congress motion. Were that ignored, the Department of Justice would be called on to ask a judge to enforce the subpoena. I guess it could get all the way up to the Supreme Court. I'm not at all sure how high the White House will push any of this -- although I'm quite sure that they want to drag this all out as long as possible.


St. Catharines, Ontario: Hi Dan. The Cheney piece in The Post starts off with "Cheney is not, by nearly every inside account, the shadow president of popular lore," then extensively details how nothing the president sees has gone unfiltered by the vice president. Is the possibility of "Dubya" being merely a figurehead so frightful that the mainstream media -- and perhaps the American public -- can't bring themselves to say it?

Dan Froomkin: I can't quite explain that. It was one of the few assertions in the series that was not supported by ample evidence.

And while I'm not saying that it's abundantly clear from reading the series that Bush is just a figurehead, it's certainly a reasonable interpretation, and deserves to be addressed head-on.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks everyone for a great chat. See you again in two weeks here, and every weekday afternoon on the home page.


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