White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, June 4, 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, June 4 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. Lots to talk about today. Scott McClellan's new book. New evidence in the Plame case. And Bush getting another nudge toward war in Iran. Just for starters.

And yes, before anyone says it: I know, last week was a lousy time to go on vacation.


San Diego: Does McClellan's book say anything about those missing e-mails? Has anyone asked him about them?

Dan Froomkin: No, and no at least nothing I've seen), which raises an interesting point: What should reporters be asking the new McClellan about? All those missing e-mails would indeed be one good topic.

I'm shocked at how little (i.e. nothing) he writes about torture. And as far as I know, he's not been asked about it in interviews. So Scott, let's start with this: How do you define torture?

I know it's not a big deal, but I'd like to ask him about his al-Jazeera dodge.

I've already heard from several readers who want to ask him about Jeff Gannon.

What would you like him to be asked about?


Oostburg, Wis.: Other than the legitimate question about not raising doubts when serving in the White House, I have seen nothing from Bush loyalists denying the charges and observations McClellan makes in his book. Am I missing something in their "puzzling responses"?

Dan Froomkin: No. And McClellan's failure to raise doubts in real time, while undeniably pathetic and tragic, is actually a testament to one of his key points: That inside the White House bubble, dissent is so unwelcome that it's virtually inconceivable.


Madison, Wis.: Hi Dan -- thanks for your faithful reporting! Regarding Iran, what actions can Bush take? Can he authorize strikes without Congress? Would the military go along with an attack? In practical terms, how worried should we be?

Dan Froomkin: Excellent questions. You certainly should be worried if you're counting on Congress or the military to stop him. Various members of Congress have threatened to respond angrily if Bush attacked Iran, but I don't think that alone will give him pause. There was one guy in the military rumored to be ready to countermand Bush's orders -- Admiral William J. "Fox" Fallon -- but Bush had him removed from his position as top commander in the Middle East in March. (And see today's column for Fallon's first, ambiguous public comments on CNN yesterday.)

That said, I think the most likely scenario is no longer a preemptive U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, but that some sort of provocation (provoked or otherwise) will give Bush "no choice" but to respond to militarily.

So imagine a face-off in Gulf waters suddenly escalating, or Israel launching its own attack, or U.S. planes attacking suspected training camps for Iraqi insurgents inside Iran. Any of those presumably would result in a protracted U.S. military campaign, without having to go to the trouble of asking Congress for anything.


Milwaukee, Wis.: In Monday's Post, Robert Novak wrote one of the only pieces on McClellan's book that attacks the substance of what McClellan is saying. Most conservative criticisms of McClellan have been personal, as opposed to substantive. So I want to understand Novak's point better: He seems to be claiming that Richard Armitage leaked Plame's undercover status, and Libby and Rove were innocent of any wrongdoing. Can you clarify what role Armitage played in the Plame affair, and why Novak thinks his role relieves Libby and Rove of any responsibility? It seems to fly in the face of other things I've read, including items in your column. Thanks as always for your hard work.

washingtonpost.com: Did Cheney Tell Libby to Do It? (washingtonpost.com, June 3)

Dan Froomkin: Here is the Novak column in question: Parroting the Democrats.

Novak and a few others (including Rove) are trying to make it seem like the only question of significance here is: Who was the very first administration official to mention Valerie Plame's identity to Robert Novak (or anyone else)? The answer to that is Richard Armitage.

But the real question of significance is: Did White House officials, as part of a coordinated White House campaign to discredit Plame's husband Joe Wilson, an administration critic, expose Plame's identity as a CIA agent and then (repeatedly) lie about it? The answer to that question, of course, is yes, starting (but not finishing) with Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

And in fact, as I've noted many times before, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald made it pretty clear that he suspected the plot was hatched and put into motion by Vice President Cheney. So another key question is the one I asked yesterday: Did Cheney tell Libby to do it?

That Armitage was chronologically the first is a great big red herring espoused by the most die-hard Rove-and-Libby defenders -- including (again, see yesterday's column) Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. I find their arguments ludicrous and shrill.

Your point about all the McClellan attackers piling on him, rather than on the substance of his charges, is also a good one.


Stamford, Conn.: Hi Dan -- you sure pick your weeks to be away! As you rightly stated in an earlier column, McClellan's book is a clear vindication, but will the mainstream media also wake up and realize that the all the administration's press secretaries were/are just as bad as McClellan in terms of being part of the propaganda machine? Snow is getting an obvious (and undeserved in my view) pass because of his illness, but Perino should be challenged far more often, and vigorously at that. One last question: Do you think McClellan will be be asked to testify before Congress?

Dan Froomkin: Editor & Publisher's Joe Strupp asked Washington reporters -- including Washington Post White House correspondent Michael Abramowitz -- if they think the revelations in McClellan's book will affect future press-spokesperson relations.

"Abramowitz said he would not let McClellan's actions tarnish his view of future press secretaries, adding that each must be approached individually, but with clear skepticism.

" 'Every press secretary is different. Every press secretary starts off with a clean slate with me,' Abramowitz explained, offering positive views of former spokesman Tony Snow and current press secretary Dana Perino. 'They are both very aggressive defenders of their boss, but I don't think that they lied to us point blank the way McClellan did. One goes into this understanding that everything they tell you is filtered through being an aggressive defender of the president.' "

Me, I don't see that Snow or Perino were/are any more credible on a day-to-day basis than McClellan. McClellan obviously was flat-out wrong when waving reporters away from Rove and Libby, but other than that, I think it's mostly stylistic differences.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: If Olmert is so intent on stopping Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, why doesn't Israel attack its facilities themselves? Why do President Bush and the United States have to spearhead the offensive?

Dan Froomkin: He could -- but unlike the attack on Syria, which ostensibly was conducted without American preapproval, an Israeli attack on Iran immediately and viscerally would impact U.S. national security -- not to mention that Israeli jets presumably would have to cross Iraqi airspace. So the idea that they could do this without explicit or at least implicit U.S. approval is a farce.


Atlanta: Hi, Dan. I thought the O'Reilly interview with Scott McClellan was pretty funny. Scott kept talking about ending the partisan rancor in Washington, and here's O'Reilly in full right-wing partisanship mode. I guess he missed the point. Yes, he should be asked about torture. And though it's not your area, I have not heard the presidential candidates speak significantly on this subject either.

Dan Froomkin: I thought that interview was a hoot. A keeper.


Raleigh, N.C.: I have heard a number of press people (most notably David Gregory) defend the media against the McClellan's assertion that the press did not do its job in the run up to the war. Gregory and the others were more than happy to beat on the little guy, Scott McClellan, every day. However, when the opportunities came to question the "big fish," Bush or Cheney, I don't remember anybody really grilling either one. They blithely accepted the answers doled out. Gregory and the rest of "political press" who thought they did a good job should climb out of their bubble of denial as well. Speaking to power means just that.

Dan Froomkin: As I wrote last week over at NiemanWatchdog.org, there really is no debate on this issue. I'm dumbfounded by those who suggest otherwise.

As for Gregory, he does often ask tough questions, both of the press secretaries and of the presidents, and he isn't afraid to follow up. That's admirable. But just asking the questions isn't enough -- you have to report when the questions are ducked and dodged, you have to report when the answers either are unsupported by the facts or are obvious untruths, and you have to go to the people who do have the answers. On a scale of one to 10, meek to aggressive (say, Jeff Gannon to Helen Thomas), I give Gregory a seven for questions, but about a two or three for reportage.

Dan Froomkin: I'm being a bit facetious with my scale. But you get the point.


Northville, N.Y.: Doesn't the McClellan book make you think that an attack on Iran is more likely than not? If the sole counterweight to the pro-war forces is Condi Rice -- who repeatedly has failed to do anything but anticipate what Bush wants and give him support for it, no matter how misguided -- what hope is there?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for tying our two themes of the day together. You make an important point. In fact, Talking Points Memo's Andrew Tilghman today pulls out the seminal -- and damning -- excerpts about Rice from McClellan's book. In a nutshell, she's an extraordinarily accomplished enabler.


Seattle: What is Congress prepared to do if Bush attacks Iran?

Dan Froomkin: Pout?


Baltimore: I'll concede I haven't read McClellan's book, but I did watch him on "The Daily Show." When questioned by Jon Stewart to call the lies from the administration outright deceptions, McClellan wouldn't bite. He continued to blame "the culture of Washington" and claimed he was trying to "change the culture." Sounds like more spin to me. I think the press has made this out to be a bigger deal than it really is because, until I hear him say "Bush lied while Americans died," or something to that effect, don't put me down as wanting to buy or read more schlock from this group of jerks.

washingtonpost.com: Scott McClellan on 'The Daily Show' (Comedy Central, June 3)

Dan Froomkin: I thought Stewart, whose interviews sometimes are disappointing, was dead-on with McClellan. As I wrote on Monday, McClellan's insistence that self-deception rather than a conscious disregard for the truth was behind what he now describes as the White House's consistent lack of candor is spectacularly self-serving.

I excerpted some of the Stewart interview in my column yesterday.


Anonymous: Bush said in his May 15 Knesset speech: "America stands with you in firmly opposing Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. Permitting the world's leading sponsor of terror to possess the world's deadliest weapons would be an unforgivable betrayal for future generations. For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. (Applause.)" How is this to be interpreted other than that -- in the event diplomacy and sanctions fail to bring a halt to what Bush decides is Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons -- he will authorize the use of military force to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure?

Dan Froomkin: That's a good question -- especially knowing what we know about Bush's decision-making habits (i.e. more influenced by fervor than facts).


Reality-based Washington!: I loved Tent Duffy's op-ed! Perfectly explains Scott McClellan's actions. What insight. ... Here's my question to you and Mr. Duffy: Why on Earth would anyone express anything less than full and complete admiration for Bush while working at the White House? Holy moly -- they must think we all live in that bubble.

washingtonpost.com: Will the Real Scott Please Stand Up? (Post, June 2)

Dan Froomkin: I just would add that it didn't have to be this way. A White House can function just fine -- in fact, better -- if dissent is allowed, certainly in moderation. One thing I will be watching closely in the new administration, whomever's it is, is the state of the bubble.


Albuquerque, N.M.: I'm still wondering why we haven't seen mainstream media coverage of the Pentagon propaganda story, especially given that Scott McClellan is publicly making claims that the White House was behind the selling of the war. By the way, yours is one of the few columns I read in the mainstream media, given that most journalists now reside in the blogosphere.

Dan Froomkin: I pretty much have given up on the MSM pursuing this story. Pathetic, but true. There is, however, some hope that Congress will assert itself.


Chicago: I am curious about the role of the press. If they were threatened by the Bush administration with a loss of access, why didn't they counter that threat with the risk of a big (or multiple) investigative push? It seems to me that the press easily could gather its resources to tie up the Bush administration in constant battles about information and in placing every scandals on the front page or at the top of the nightly news. Shouldn't bullying by the government beget an aggressive press?

Dan Froomkin: I think history will show that it wasn't overt threats from the White House but internalized fears and pressures that skewed the press coverage in the Bush era. We're really good, generally speaking, at responding to external threats. It's from the inside that we're dying.


Seattle: One thing in your column about Abramowitz's response to McClellan's book was that he didn't seem to understand that he had been played on a fundamental level. The press largely has gone the way of passive "he said, she said" reporting; the Bush White House knew that, and then abused it. Is that a fair read?

Dan Froomkin: My analysis would be a bit more nuanced. My guru on this matter, however, is Jay Rosen.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Dan, who wrote Scott McClellan's book? That, as you'll recall, was a question raised by Robert Novak in your paper earlier this week. I think it's worth addressing, because the media tend to treat with great credulity public figures hawking books under their names, even if much of the actual writing was done by ghostwriters. I well believe McClellan was involved in the production of "What Happened," but has he to your knowledge been quizzed on how someone who struggled to get through the recitation of talking points in a daily briefing managed to produce a book of more than 300 pages?

Dan Froomkin: It does seem awfully eloquent for a guy best known for his robotic adherence to talking points, but it appears he has his own voice after all. And there is a fair amount of repetition of the central points, which does remind me of the old Scott.


The State of American Journalism: I've read columns from old-school and/or now-deceased journalists where they remark with pride that they pissed off the president or government officials with persistent questioning. Now, I read about how journalists love being "tight" and "trusted" with those same officials and count them as friendly sources. What happened?

Dan Froomkin: I think you are oversimplifying. There always have been sycophants in the press, and there are still plenty of watchdogs out there. Furthermore, beat reporters always have had to walk a narrow line between developing sources and ticking them off. One thing that I think has changed is that White House "sources," once developed, typically have been more candid than the ones in this White House.


Lawrenceville, Ga.: It seems that Novak's position is that once the bank has been robbed, it's okay for anyone else to rob it, as the money is already gone.

Dan Froomkin: And keep in mind that even in your analogy, Rove drove the first getaway car.


Seattle: Not a question so much as an observation: George W. Bush actually may be regarded by historians as one of the most influential presidents in our history. No, it's not because he saw a problem and made the tough decisions in the face of terroristic threats -- it's because the radical increases in fuel prices, under free market principles, actually may limit the use of automobiles and ultimately reverse the trend of longer commutes to and from an ever-expanding exurbia.

The conversion of the landscape to impervious surfaces, mediated by an auto-centric economy, is one of the biggest and most proximal threats to water quantity and quality that we face in this country. George W. Bush's economically disastrous policies may be the serendipitous catastrophe that accomplishes what no legislature has even dared talk about -- genuine protection of the nation's freshwater resources.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I guess that will feature high in my "positive unintended consequences" retrospective.


McLean, Va.: With White House press briefings being nearly all show and nearly no substance, why do papers like The Washington Post waste valuable reporter time on these farces?

Dan Froomkin: They often don't. That's why you see questions from the briefing-room cranks popping up so early in the transcripts these days; they're sitting in the seats reserved for The Post and the Times and...


Chicago: Why hasn't there been any mention in the press about Richard Engel's book and the interview with Bush, where Bush says the war will go on for 40 years and that he doesn't care if the war on terror or the war in Iraq has created more enemies? This seems like a bigger, if not equal story to the McClellan book.

Dan Froomkin: Here are the excerpts in question. I haven't decided what I make of them yet. Check back tomorrow.


Annandale, Va.: Has Scott McClellan come out as a McCain supporter?

Dan Froomkin: No. In fact he's said he's intrigued with Obama.


Nixa, Mo.: If they attack Iran, gas prices would probably hit $6 or more a gallon. Wouldn't that destroy the Republican Party's chances of taking back Congress or the presidency in the future? Are they really that stupid?

Dan Froomkin: There are lots of ways an attack on Iran likely would backfire on Bush and all associated with him. That is one of them.


Cleveland: Hi Dan. If we were to attack Iran, what would be the best timing -- summer, to maximize coverage during the campaign and distract from other issues, or October, so as to maximize the "shock and awe" value at the polls? If not Iran, is there another October Surprise in your crystal ball?

Dan Froomkin: Actually, since I'm not at all sure attacking Iraq would be good for McCain, I think post-November is shaping up as the more likely possibility.


Silver Spring, Md.: I don't think that you are being fair when you say that the U.S. military leadership will not stand up fairly strongly against any direct attack on Iran. While there are certainly Air Force desk jockeys and others who want some of the glory that the Marines and Army have gotten in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think that you would find that most of the "combatant commanders" and their underlings are pretty sick of sending 20-year-olds out into the streets of Baghdad to have their legs blown off. Just about all we see of the military is the photogenic, pundit-type leadership such as Petraeus, but there are many responsible, decent and highly disillusioned colonels, majors and captains out there who know much better than you or I how many U.S. lives would be at stake if we attacked Iran.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'd love to see some reporting on this. I'm sure that you're right, and that a lot of combatant commanders would be hugely against a direct attack -- but are they in any position to do anything about it, especially if it comes about somewhat backhandedly?


Hammond, Ore.: Hi Dan. Just curious about something -- for the longest time President Bush attributed all of this country's "successes" to his tax cuts for the wealthy, but now that reality has set in and everything he has touched is going to pot, where is he and all the administration mouthpieces trumpeting how great his tax cuts are? Shouldn't they be taking to the streets and announcing: "Fear not, our economy is strong and resilient. Let's here it for the economy! The housing market! Gas prices! Inflation! Two wars! National debt!" Hmmm, not a sound. Wonder why?

Dan Froomkin: Actually, you underestimate the man. Just this past Monday he held a meeting with like-minded economists and had this to say: "[T]he economy is not doing as well as we'd like to do -- like it to do today, but there's no question that the tax cuts provided economic vitality. And now the question is, what will the Congress do? Given the facts that tax cuts have worked, what will be the congressional response? Our response is, let's make those tax cuts permanent. Let's make sure that there is certainty during uncertain times in our economy."


San Jose, Calif.: Hi Dan -- good to have you back. Let me get this straight: McClellan says the "media" did not do its job investigating the lead-up to the Iraq War. In the same way Fitzgerald could not get to the bottom of Cheney's involvement in the Plame leak because Scooter Libby was blocking him from getting evidence he needed, wasn't the media blocked from getting information from McClellan (and the media doesn't even have subpoena power)?

In other words, how can the most public figure involved in obstructing the media from getting information, the press secretary, blame them for not doing their job without first admitting that he was the primary reason they couldn't? It's like Scooter Libby blaming Fitzgerald for not indicting Cheney, isn't it?

Dan Froomkin: I have a problem with media criticism coming from a guy who, from behind the podium, made a mockery of the press and the public's right to know. But in this particular case, he's dead right. Watchdog reporting doesn't start and end with the White House press secretary. In fact, it has almost nothing to do with the White House secretary.

There were some journalists who got it exactly right, and they didn't do it from inside the briefing room.


Boynton Beach, Fla.: Dan, I'm a big fan, but I don't think you handled the McClellan issue (Monday's column) well. In his tour as press secretary, he had many embarrassing press conferences where he came across as a horse's ass, and while that was a role he willingly accepted, I believe it gave him the license to write the book he did. There will be others to follow, for a lot of people have a lot of blood on their hands.

I find it inexcusable that some in the corporate media are mashing McClellan when they were nowhere to be found at the moment of truth during the build-up to the Iraq war -- when the facts never added up as the Bushies laid them out. No reporter or columnist put himself out on a limb with the needed fearless reporting -- or did I miss the awarding of that Pulitzer? Media culpa, as Colbert called it the other night.

But all of this is important given the current rhetoric regarding Iran. Frankly, I think the president is waiting until after the election to launch his attack on Iran so as not to torpedo McCain's candidacy. If the media fails us on Iran because it is worried about offending Bush, then no one in the industry will have the first shred of credibility.

Dan Froomkin: You missed that Pulitzer because it wasn't awarded. And as for Iran, I agree that there are obvious lessons and it's not clear we've learned them.


Freehold, N.J.: Assume for a moment that you're going to be advising the next president. Choose three actions (or five, or whatever number you're comfortably coming up with in a fast chat like this) within the president's power, such as ordering the release of testimony/documents, declassifying material, pardoning someone to compel testimony. What would you advise the next president to do to expose some of the more dubious actions/plots/policies of the current administration? And what secrets most intrigue you that you doubt we'll ever get to the bottom of?

Dan Froomkin: That's a good question, and one that I'd like to mull. In the meantime, here's an interesting essay by Steven Aftergood suggesting a few questions for the presidential candidates about their willingness to disclose just what the current administration has done.


Wahpeton, N.D.: Hi Dan, Long time reader, first time with a question. Why do we not hear more from the White House press about the lack of desire from the people in Iraq to keep American troops there? If it is supposed to be a free and democratic country, how can we justify having troops there if the people there don't even want them?

Dan Froomkin: That question was worth the wait!

It's somewhat inevitable that the Iraqi voices who want us to stay will be over-represented in the news coverage. Most reporters congregate around the Green Zone and talk mostly to Iraqis in the Green Zone, and those people are dependent on American troops for their safety, if not their income, etc.

But the (very few) polls I've seen show that the Iraqi people are about as eager for our troops to leave as the American people are for them to come home -- i.e. by healthy majorities. I would like to see more reporting on this.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much everyone for your questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them, but I have to run.


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