White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, January 30, 2008; 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 answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Jan. 30 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 discussion.

My column today (which should be out momentarily) leads with a long section on President Bush's latest signing statement, in which he seems to challenge Congress's right even to control the government purse-strings. As the Boston Globe's redoubtable Charlie Savage writes today: "President Bush this week declared that he has the power to bypass four laws, including a prohibition against using federal funds to establish permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, that Congress passed as part of a new defense bill."

It strikes me that the three other sections Bush said he may ignore also were significant. One mandated the establishment of a commission to investigate waste and fraud in military contracts; another strengthened protections for whistleblowers working for federal contractors; a third required the president to explain in writing each time an intelligence agency refuses to respond to a document request from the House and Senate armed services committees.

But it's Bush's cavalier dismissal of the funding ban for permanent military bases that really speaks volumes not just about his view of the legislative branch, but also about his intentions regarding Iraq.

In other news, the man gave a speech on Monday; he's pushing a bipartisan stimulus package that seems to have overlooked the needy; he's talking about his struggle with alcohol. In other words, a lot to talk about. So let's go!


Rockville, Md.: Why, instead of the tax rebate, doesn't the government take that money and use it for a program like the Works Progress Administration? It would give jobs and money to those who need them, and at the same time could fix some of the country's infrastructure that sorely has been neglected for many years.

Dan Froomkin: An excellent question. As I indicated in Friday's column, the debate about the stimulus -- mostly about how big the tax rebate should be -- is a testament to how far President Bush has skewed Washington's political climate to the right.


San Diego: In Monday's SOTU speech I don't remember Bush ever saying what the state of the union is. Did he? Every version I can remember has begun or ended with some version of "the state of the union is strong" (even if it wasn't), and this time I don't recall hearing a statement about the state.

Dan Froomkin: That was about the only suspense he had going on Monday night. And perhaps you gave up before he finished.

But at the very, very end of the speech, he says: "And so long as we continue to trust the people, our nation will prosper, our liberty will be secure, and the state of our union will remain strong."

I imagine this wreaked havoc on the SOTU drinking games.


Washington: I e-mailed you about the earmark issue right after I saw the first stories; I am glad the later stories got the facts right in that President Bush's earmark threats are empty. Congress simply isn't going to send him any spending bills he might veto until he's out of office.

Dan Froomkin: Wasn't that just the most amazing flimflam? But it worked -- at least during the day Monday -- when his earmark proposal got a lot of ink (or should I say pixels).

For those who missed why this amounts to almost nothing, see the "Earmark Watch" section of yesterday's column.


Pleasanton, Calif.: Has anyone explained to Bush that running out the clock is only a good strategy if you're winning? Or is such talk not permitted in the bubble?

Dan Froomkin: Your metaphor, while amusing, is flawed. It's more like he's running out the clock -- until another coach can take over (and hopefully take a lot of the blame for all that has gone wrong).

Dan Froomkin: Also reminds me of an editorial in today's Philadelphia Inquirer: "President Bush's last State of the Union address offered no grand initiatives, which is fortunate because many of his bold plans of yesteryear await a new president to clean up.

"Bush spoke of America's 'unfinished business.' Talk about understatement. The question isn't how to finish the jobs; it's how to limit the damage."


Sacramento, Calif.: Hi Dan, one of your fans in California here. First of all, thanks so much for your daily column -- it is my daily required reading. And I so agree with you: where is the outrage? Please keep it up. I do have a question for you, one that has to do with the White House Press Secretary. I know you all thought that Snow was an improvement over McClellan, but I thought Snow was such as smart-ass that I couldn't stand him. But what is your and the rest of the press corps take on Perino? In the clips I see -- admittedly from Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" show -- she seems stuttering half the time. Does she have any credibility? And where can I see you being interviewed? I never have seen you on "Countdown," and I think you'd fit in well. Seems other Post people make it, why not you? Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much for your kind words. I find Perino particularly uninformative, but stylistically she's certainly an improvement over Snow -- who was uninformative and belligerent -- and McClellan, who was uninformative and robotic. My understanding is that the press corps has mixed views; some prefer her, some miss Snow. I've heard she's often quicker to respond to questions offline than Snow was. But keep in mind that the press corps has appropriately low expectations of whoever is Bush's press secretary.

As for going on TV, I don't do it often. I admit that I hanker to go on Olbermann, but his focus like everyone else's largely is turning to the campaign, and I am anything but expert in that field.


Dan Froomkin: Today's column, Bush Thumbs Nose at Congress is now available for your reading pleasure.


Ithaca, N.Y.: The President's most recent signing statement fiercely contradicts the will of Congress and dictates policy for his successor as well. What will the other branches do to limit the power of this unitary president?

Dan Froomkin: Unless congressional Democrats get a serious shot of adrenaline, I just don't see any of Bush's policies, approaches or assertions of power being rolled back significantly until the next president comes around -- if then.


Rockville, Md.: Love your blog -- has the subject of the unitary-president, signing statements, the unbalanced-unchecked imperial presidency come up in any of the debates? Have any of the Republican candidates said they would enforce the laws the Congress passes and roll-back the powers the president has usurped (or maybe the Congress gave up)? Just curious.

Dan Froomkin: The subject has not -- surprise -- been raised by any of the debate moderators. But -- also surprise -- Charlie Savage of the Globe did an exemplary job of raising it himself last month. He got most of the major presidential candidates to address questions about the limits of executive power. It's a fascinating read.


Washington: Re: Signing statements -- isn't the president's first vow to uphold the constitution, as opposed to keep the people safe or rule unilaterally? Aren't the signing statements just an expression Bush's fantasy world without the force of law? Signing statements do not rewrite legislation. What am I missing here?

Dan Froomkin: What you're missing here, I'm afraid, is journalistic follow-up.

You're right that it's not entirely clear what these signing statements really signify. As I wrote way back in June 2006 on NiemanWatchdog.org: "Is this the Constitutional crisis the critics say it is? Or is it just a bunch of ideological bluster from overenthusiastic White House lawyers? (Or something in between?)"

A year later, in June 2007, I wrote about how a Government Accountability Office report found that federal officials had not complied with at least six new laws that Bush had asserted in signing statements he had no obligation to follow. So evidently it's not entirely theoretical.

But what we need now (still) is reporting on what effect these statements really have on the bureaucracy charged with carrying out the laws in question.


Houston: What is to become of the power that has developed/evolved around the Office of the Vice President? Is it going to evaporate? Have "sleepers" been put into career positions in all/many of federal agencies who will continue to govern according to this administration's policies?

Dan Froomkin: The power of the vice president is almost exclusively a function of who holds that office and how much power the president gives them, so there's no reason to believe we'll have a repeat anytime soon.

Your second question suggests a keen understanding of how Cheney operates. He has placed loyalists in all sorts of key positions throughout the government. Most of them are political appointees, and likely will be replaced by the next administration. But among the many intriguing questions worth pursuing are: Have they in turn hired "career" people who will act as Cheney "sleepers" inside the bureaucracy? Have they set certain processes in motion in a way that they will be very hard to turn back? It's really hard to go over the line into conspiracy theorizing when it's Cheney you're talking about.


Denver: Dan, I missed the state of the union address because ... ugh ... I had to trim my nails. Your column yesterday mentions Bush's brimming confidence. How can he be so self-assured? Is he in denial? I would love for him to visit an out-of-work auto worker -- say in Michigan -- who is about to default on his mortgage and see if he can exude that same confidence. What do you think? I'm a long-time reader and love your column.

Dan Froomkin: His self-assurance is truly one of the great mysteries of my beat.


Arlington, Va.: I'm just curious -- do you know of any other presidents that used signing statements and in what context?

Dan Froomkin: Plenty of presidents have used signing statements before, but never as many. And more to the point, typically they were used to add clarity about how the administration intended to enforce the laws in question -- not to unilaterally reject them.


Arlington, Va.: Given that Bush is lamest of ducks -- doesn't that kind of make you a lame duck too? I mean, White House Watch? Quack, quack.

Dan Froomkin: I would like to think of myself as happily waddling away into the sunset, thanks.

But seriously: The man won't be truly irrelevant until the day he leaves the Oval Office. And I'm willing to bet that some combination of his hubris and congressional oversight will provide us with many exciting and newsworthy moments in the year to come.


Roseland, N.J.: Are we getting any inkling what it is the president wants to do when his term is up? Does he have a cause he wants to work for, other than that monstrosity of a library?

Dan Froomkin: All indications are that he will move to Dallas, start raking in the bucks, and to the extent that he involves himself in public policy it will be through his library and institute.

The institute's mission, according to its founders, "will be to further the domestic and international goals of the Bush administration, including needed program reforms, compassionate conservatism, the spread of freedom and democracy around the world, and defeating terrorism."


Washington: Dan, you and Bush are a lot alike -- you both live only in your fantasy world, surrounded by yes men who agree with everything you say ... regardless of the facts.

Dan Froomkin: We can't both be living in fantasy worlds! You have to take your pick.


Hammond, Ore.: How is it that Paul Wolfowitz, who has a great track record at failing and being an avoider of truth, gets nominated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to head the high-level advisory panel on arms control and disarmament? After blundering so awfully and getting just about everything wrong with Iraq, how is he even qualified to lead this panel? At what point will anyone within this administration be held accountable?!

washingtonpost.com: Wolfowitz Picked for Arms Control Panel (AP, Jan. 24)

Dan Froomkin: Answer to question one: He has friends in the vice president's office.

Answer to question two: It depends on two things -- whether Democratic congressional leaders decide to pursue oversight aggressively in the coming months, and whether the next president decides to go public with many of the things Bush has kept secret.


Omaha, Neb.: Last week I was on a tour in Cairo, Egypt, and our guide, an Egyptian, was excited about the prospect of a "new American president." He commented that the world will be a different place without George W. Bush. I was one of the few Americans on the tour, and I agreed wholeheartedly to his unexpected comments. The other members of the tour from other English-speaking countries also were nodding their agreement.

Dan Froomkin: Yes. I think people outside the United States are even more excited about it than we are. And as I indicated in my Jan. 15 column, Nation Wants a New Direction, we're plenty excited ourselves.


Baltimore: Let us presume that the various cases involving Bush documents and e-mails drag on past his tenure. Right now those cases are being defended by White House or Justice Department lawyers. I know a lot of the documents will go with Bush into his giant vault ... I mean, Presidential Library ... but will all of them go? What happens to the cases afterwards? Will they be "defended" by the new president's lawyers, or will Bush have to raise money to defend the cases himself? Sorry for my confusion, but there are so many cases regarding the non-transfer/release of documents that I can't keep track. Does anybody have a comprehensive list of the cases like this that Bush is defending currently?

Dan Froomkin: What happens to all the evidence is a really great question, and I'm actually in the midst of trying to get some clarity on it. From what I can tell so far, however, even though White House documents (at least the ones they can find) will go into the vault, much of what we're most curious about should be documented in agency files. And there's no reason (other than squeamishness) for the next president not to make those public.

As for legal defense, I'm guessing everyone's on their own after Jan. 20. (Or there'll be a massive private legal defense fund.)


Reading, Pa.: Dan, great column -- can you elaborate a bit on the "dry drunk" possibility and why no one has mentioned this before in relation to Mr. Bush's actions? It send chills down my spine, actually.

Dan Froomkin: It repeatedly has been mentioned on the fringes of our discourse. See also my July 2 column, Peering Inside Bush's Head. But it's not like anyone's going to uncover any proof one way or the other, and the mainstream press -- particularly the White House press corps -- is loath to speculate about such things.


Helena, Mont.: "I would like to think of myself as happily waddling away into the sunset, thanks." Hey -- not so fast! It's not like there won't be a president next year. Democrat or Republican, we still need White House Watch -- it's our government and we need to keep tabs on whoever is in charge. As to changing political appointments to career -- I think I heard that Chertoff really is going fast on this. Maybe the first thing a new president has to do is make all jobs that changed from political to career back to political and then take their time deciding which should truly be career and which should be political. Only way to root them out.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for your comments. And yes, White House Watch will continue -- it'll just never be the same.


Moraga, Calif.: What are people like Arlen Specter saying about signing statements? Is there much muttering among Republicans in Congress about how their institutional rights are being negated? I worry that not just Republicans are unable to see the implications of Bush's monarchic view of governance, but that most Americans have absolutely no interest in how their government, "the best government in the world," operates. Looking ahead to the November elections, I worry whether Americans can think beyond sound bites. If they could, Swift-Boating would not work.

Dan Froomkin: There has been some muttering from Republicans, including from Specter. (See, for instance, my Aug. 2, 2006 column.) But not much beyond muttering.

And as you can also see in that same column, the issue has the capacity to strike nerves outside the Geltway.


Anonymous: Hey Dan, love the chats. I am just finishing the excellent book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by your colleague whose name I am too embarrassed and too bad a speller to attempt [ed. Rajiv Chandrasekaran]. Do you think anyone in the administration who matters read the book? Is there any recognition -- even in secret -- that they really messed it up, that the politicizing of the occupation, the lack of planning, the cost and the lack of experience on the ground all contributed to the intensity and destructiveness of the insurgency? In short, has this administration shown any ability to learn from history? Or, are they still in the "we create our own reality" mode over there?

Dan Froomkin: Well, Bush now admits that disbanding the army and de-Baathification were mistakes (although he distances himself from the decisions). I have yet to see Bush admit that he himself has personally made any mistakes whatsoever (other than using overly strong language -- see my Jan. 14, 2005, column, Second Thoughts About 'Bring 'em On'.) So no, either he's done nothing wrong or he has no capacity to recognize and learn from his mistakes. I have to go with the latter option.

As for the book ... maybe they'll see the movie?


Boston: Do you think Vice President Cheney ever will seek elected office again?

Dan Froomkin: No.


Fairfax, Va.: Why can't Democrats provide a coherent explanation of their antiwar position in a way that wards off the onslaught of Republican "defeatocrat"-type slogans that are sure to come their way day and night by the thousands? Why aren't they even trying to persuade voters to reject the Republican attacks on their patriotism? If they don't and McCain gets the nomination the Democrats are going down again despite how things look now, I fear.

Dan Froomkin: Fine questions.


Geltway?: Typo, or sly commentary (in German, no less!) on the influence of money on our government?

Dan Froomkin: Typo. But now that you mention it...


Savannah, Ga.: All right, call me naive and ignorant, but how does it work when Congress passes a law and the President signs that law but then issues a signing statement that says (essentially) "not gonna follow the law I just signed"? What's the next step? Does Congress get to call in the fuzz and arrest the president for breaking the law? Does the Supreme Court have to referee? Can I perform a Citizen's Arrest? (I know the real answer with this particular Congress is that they'll roll over and take it. Assuming we had a real Congress with a backbone, though, what then?)

Dan Froomkin: Not naive or ignorant. The question is who has standing to sue, and that has not been at all clear. The above-mentioned Arlen Specter once promised a bill that would give Congress the ability to challenge those statements in federal court, but nothing came of it. It seems to me the next step would be some grueling oversight hearings.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks for all your questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch. (Bookmark it!)


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