White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, April 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 answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, April 30 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. I'm still a bit hung over (spiritually, not physically) from Saturday's White House Correspondents Dinner -- see my Monday column, Party of the Damned. I'm also kind of amazed that no one seems to care that Dick "Fourth Branch" Cheney is now claiming total immunity from congressional oversight -- see yesterday's column, Cheney's Total Impunity -- and note the lack of any mention of the issue in the morning papers. Since we last met here, the White House finally got around to releasing information about an alleged nuclear reactor in Syria that the Israelis blew up almost eight months ago -- see Friday's column, What Are They Up To Now? -- and Bush promoted two of his most devoted generals into positions where they can perpetuate his Iraq and Iran policies even after he leaves office -- see my Thursday column, Putting the War on Autopilot. Today's column, Bush's Gas Pain, starts with a look at Bush's lame talk about lowering gas prices yesterday.

So there's lots to talk about.

And I need your help. I'm wondering about things Bush officials could be doing to make their policies stay in effect after they leave office -- even if a Democrat wins. (Obviously, the Petraeus-Odierno move mentioned above is Exhibit A.) But what else should we be looking for? Those of you who work in the federal government, in particular: What could Bush be doing to lock things in? Any idea what Cheney's up to these days?


Wind Point, Wis.: President Bush often says that history will be the best judge of the job he has done as president. I agree with him, though I suspect that history will be harsher on him than he imagines. If you had your way, what would be the two or three areas of academic research that would be pursued most vigorously post-Bush? My guess is that signing statements, torture policies and presidential privilege -- and their impacts on the health of our democracy -- will be the most studied aspects of his presidency.

Dan Froomkin: Signing statements might make my top ten list, but it probably wouldn't make the top five. In addition to torture and executive power, I would certainly add preemptive war (obviously Iraq in particular) and transparency (i.e. the "Bush Bubble").


Ashland, Mo.: Has the Bush administration simply demonstrated the power of the executive to do what it wants when there is no public pressure to take a different course? Although the public is negative toward the administration, there are no large-scale demonstrations, protests, etc., demanding a different approach. Why? Doesn't affect it on a personal level?

Dan Froomkin: Excellent question. I might add the relative lack of public reaction to my top-five list of things historians should focus on.

Certainly the fact that the only concrete, immediate cost of the war is being paid by volunteers (and their families) who are largely out of the public's view is a big part of why there haven't been widespread anti-war protests. But I've never quite understood the relative lack of organized opposition -- either grassroots or in Congress.

Actually, that's not entirely true. I think Sept. 11 had a profound effect on the nation's psyche, and Bush's exploitation of that also had a lot to do with it.


Seattle: Locking in policies: Not sure if this would work but reclassifying politically appointed positions as career positions might do the trick.

Dan Froomkin: Absolutely. That was already on my list of possibilities. But is it happening?


Chazy, N.Y.: Hi Dan: What's been happening with coverage of the missing White House e-mails?

Dan Froomkin: Not much.

I found it a bit ironic that one of the journalists given an award at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, Alexis Simendinger of the National Journal, won in part for authoring the first intensive look at the use of Republican National Committee e-mails by some White House officials. (See large PDF: Whose E-Mail Is It?) And yet most of her colleagues either ignored that story or only covered it when there were major announcements. Where is the continued investigative reporting on this?

In the meantime, a lawsuit continues to make its way through the courts, slowly. See the latest National Security Archive press release.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm waving my magic wand so you'll pick this question. When Bush gives a speech like yesterday's blaming the Democrats, does he really believe what he says? The entire economy taking a jump off the Sears Tower is all the fault of Democrats? Doesn't he worry about coming off as detached from reality by not accepting any blame at all?

Dan Froomkin: Presto! Bush certainly believes this: That if he and his fellow Republicans can't shift the blame for the economy at least in part to the Democrats, November will be even uglier than it's already looking.


Alexandria, Va.: Breaking news, Dan: At the daily White House briefing, Dana was just asked about the New York Times story about the Pentagon and the "experts" they provided information to. She refused to say if the White House knew about the program. It also is worth noting that this was asked by someone who appeared not to be a regular in the room (perhaps a blogger) and only got to ask his question because Lester Kinsolving asked Dana why she wouldn't call on the guy.

Dan Froomkin: Hey wow -- no kidding? I'll have to watch the replay. About time someone showed some interest in following up that very important story.


Re: Cheney's Activities: He's quietly planning on two alternative attacks on Iran -- one if McCain wins and one if McCain loses. The sad part is that both plans are largely the same in strategy; it's the PR that varies.

Dan Froomkin: What's scary is that I can't say for sure that you're just making that up.


Minneapolis: Where to look for permanent changes from the Bush administration? Lower-level political appointees who make and shape policies but remain under the radar of politicians and media. New hires who replace those who left after longtime service, such as at FEMA, where large numbers of staff at all levels left. Remember, there were political overtones to lots of "nonpartisan" functions that you reported on. Look at the cases in the Supreme Court regarding election requirements and equal opportunity in the work place and public schools. Look at the agencies that were beefed up or stripped during this administration, such as NASA or Homeland Security. Political appointees will take time to be replaced. Meanwhile, not much will change during the first six months or more.

Dan Froomkin: Excellent analysis. Thanks. Even those lower-level political appointees will be replaced, but your points about the new hires, Supreme Court precedents and stripped-down agencies seem really solid to me.


Norwich, Vt.: After the 2006 elections I expected congressional investigations on some of the above issues and the secrecy involved in policy-making -- it seemed a much better way to go politically than impeachment -- but I haven't seen much. What happened?

Dan Froomkin: Stonewall after stonewall after stonewall.


Re: Bush's Wands: If he really had a magic wand, what would he use it on first? I doubt it'd be gas prices. My guess is Democrats in Congress, especially on the budget and armed services committees. Imagine how happy he'd be if they disappeared.

Dan Froomkin: Funny. Thanks.

I do wonder why it's only gas prices that brings out his "magic wand" talk.


St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Dan -- thank you for taking my question and for keeping the focus on the issues. The president calls a news conference, trots out the same old talking points (no recession, it's all Congress's fault, blah blah blah). Is anyone listening anymore? Given his abysmal approval ratings and the fact that all eyes are on the Democrats, is this truly the lamest of lame duck presidencies, or do we have a long way to go before we get to that point?

Dan Froomkin: His megaphone is way less powerful than it used to be. But he's still the president.

One thing that he has working for him, oddly enough, is the 24-hour news cycle. His minimally newsworthy morning news conference, for instance, led the washingtonpost.com Web site for most of the day -- even though the stories about it in the paper all ran inside the A section.

Finally, as long as he controls the military, it would be absolutely foolish to ignore him. Especially with Cheney whispering in his ear, it's not unthinkable that he'll do something in Iran, for instance.


Arlington, Va.: I have heard some scuttlebutt in my agency from the lower-level managers about "Bush embeds" being sprinkled throughout the SES ranks to carry on and influence policy even after the political appointees are forced out if the Democrats win. As I am not so well-versed in what those positions might be, I can't offer any specific examples -- but there are rumors out there, at least.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Peaks Island, Maine: From today's Washington Post: "A four-hour battle Tuesday between U.S. soldiers and Shiite militiamen left at least 28 Iraqis dead in the capital's Sadr City neighborhood, making it one of the bloodiest days in a month of sustained street fighting. ... U.S. troops, fighting at times Tuesday on foot and backed by air support, are now engaged in the kind of urban battle within Sadr's stronghold reminiscent of the first years of the war. More than 500 people have been killed and 2,100 injured in Sadr City since fighting erupted there again in late March, according to lawmakers loyal to Sadr. Residents of Sadr City said Tuesday's death toll was at least 50."

What do the "hearts and minds" guys think about whether in Sadr City the price of winning the battle may well be loss of the war? Or is it that there is ongoing a doubling of bets, hoping for the best because the alternatives -- which may be acceptable to most people -- are, in the eyes of the war's shakers and movers, unacceptable?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Role Deepens in Sadr City (Post, April 30)

Dan Froomkin: The official position seems to be that having Shiites on the receiving end for a change will help bolster the weak central government's support among the Sunnis and Kurds, but your point is a good one. I'm also kind of horrified at the return to body counts -- even though they have been so utterly discredited as a way of showing progress ever since Vietnam. I'll be writing about that in the coming days.


Burke, Va.: Dan, what's the word on last night's reportedly forced resignation by GSA Administrator Lurita Doan? Why now? Is there a damaging report from the Hill or something about to be released?

Dan Froomkin: That's a reasonable guess, but I don't know. Here's the latest from The Post.


Washington: Dan, as I recall, a year or so ago you were complaining that the mainstream media were not reporting that Iraq was in a state of war. Now, although the situation is not great, it seems clear that Iraq is not in a state of civil war. So, do you give President Bush and the surge credit for stopping the civil war in Iraq? Interested in your thoughts on this (although it comes from a different direction from most of your questions).

Dan Froomkin: Good question. Back in November 2006, for instance, I wrote a column entitled It's a Civil War, Stupid. And there's no question that Bush's decision to send in 30,000-plus more troops (and a grassroots revolt against al-Qaeda among Sunnis) has resulted in a very significant decrease in violence.
But some people I trust (like Gen. William Odom) believe that the surge has just prolonged the instability, in the long run, and that the United States is now "astride several civil wars." Odom says that what looks like peace is actually all sides consolidating, rearming, and refilling their financial coffers at U.S. expense.


Colorado: Hey Dan -- regarding your column yesterday about Cheney saying that he is not subject to congressional oversight, is he for real? His logic is tortured at best (pun not intended). First he said that he is part of both the executive and the legislative, now he says he is immune from congressional oversight. If he is part of the legislative, as he claims, does that not make him particularly subject to congressional oversight? It seems to me that he is trying to have it all ways. What is your take on all of this, and what recourse does Congress have (aside from impeachment, which apparently they won't consider)? I think that taking impeachment off the table only emboldened Bush and Cheney. It is obvious that they view the presidency as an imperialistic office. Thanks for your excellent work.

washingtonpost.com: Cheney's Total Impunity (Post, April 29)

Dan Froomkin: Isn't it kind of amazing? Even by Cheney standards?

I don't know much about Congress's ability to investigate its own members. But I don't exactly see the Senate launching an ethics inquiry into the "president of the Senate."

I don't think there's any doubt that Congress, which pays the vice president's salary and the salaries of most of his enormous staff through its White House appropriations, has the right to conduct at least some oversight over his office.


When Bush leaves: I know of at least one reorganization at my agency that seems to be designed to continue administration priorities. It can be redone in the next administration, but that takes time and effort.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Would you please drop me an e-mail? froomkin@washingtonpost.com.


Burrowing politicos: The "burrowing" of former appointees into career positions is well established, and is raised during every change of administration. It's scarier this time because of the extreme policies of this "failed Bush administration" being carried forward into a hopefully less radical new administration.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'd certainly like to see some reporting on this!


Arlington, Va.: So if I'm analyzing the situation correctly, this is our political state right now: We have a president who has no tolerance for disagreement, so he isolates himself with only like-minded people; thus, his ideology becomes impregnable if he's surrounded himself with only those who agree with him, and only speaks to "friendly" audiences. When it comes to implementing his ideologies, his only remaining strategy is to blame and bully the Democratic Congress for all our current woes -- a strategy that has worked only too well. So until Jan. 20, 2009, all we can expect to see is more bullying and more intransigence, and either complete stalemate or congressional caving to all new policies. Does that sound about right to you?

Dan Froomkin: It's a bit extreme. But to the extent that your conclusion is that we are facing legislative gridlock for the foreseeable future, I would tend to agree.


Portland, Ore.: Hello. I've read your column for years and have enjoyed the insight and observations. I have recently begun commenting and reading the comments of others. I am struck by the intransigence of some readers who cannot admit to any errors of this administration. They attack you or a fellow commenter but never address the points made. I feel like some are shills organized to attack and muddy the waters, as they have done above-board. Or are they just Dittoheads who can't think for themselves or admit a fair criticism? Do you have a theory on these people?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know. I'd certainly like people in comments to listen to each other and respect each other. But I'm not entirely surprised that the comments area attracts people with strongly held (and dramatically different) views. We're probably going to be starting a "discussion group" for readers of the column soon -- perhaps we'll be able to answer that and other questions soon.


Re: Bush embeds: I personally wouldn't lose too much sleep about the "Bush embeds." We have a couple of "Clinton embeds" in my agency who managed to successfully dance to the current administration's tune. Never underestimate the combination of political expediency and personal ambition. I would be more concerned about where Bush has trashed the existing bureaucratic infrastructure -- the brain drain from the Department of Justice, for example, will leave a vacuum for a long time. They might not push the "Bush" policies during the next administration, but they'll be less skilled in carrying out the new administration's priorities.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Interesting.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks for all the great questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. Until next time!


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