White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, July 16, 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, July 16 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 to another White House Watch chat. My column today, The 28 Percent President, is about how in spite of President Bush's professed optimism about the economy and his presidency, he finds himself overridden, ignored and disdained.

On Monday and Tuesday, I wrote a lot about New Yorker writer Jane Mayer's new book, "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals."

So we've got a lot to talk about. I look forward to your questions and comments.


Kentucky: With more revelations from Mayer's book about Cheney's power grab, how much more farcical does it now appear that, as chairman of the vice presidential search committee for Bush, Cheney would have selected anyone but himself?

washingtonpost.com: Discussion Transcript: Jane Mayer (washingtonpost.com, July 15)

Dan Froomkin: In today's column, I quote from an interview Mayer did with Eric Umansky of ProPublica.

Said Mayer: "The big argument being made by the vice president, his lawyer, David Addington, and the Justice Department was that the commander-and-chief needed almost unfettered powers to win the war on terror. And yet when you really examine the record, it's frequently not the president who's making many of these calls; it's the vice president," she said.

"The president, it's funny, I asked a lot of questions about him when I was doing interviews, and he keeps disappearing from the frame of the picture. He is described as distracted by one of the people who briefed him. Colin Powell tells a friend who I interviewed he sees the president not as being stupid but as being too easily manipulated by Cheney, who knew how to push him around."

That said, Mayer in her book seems to subscribe to the theory that Sept. 11 (and a subsequent anthrax scare) really changed Cheney. She quotes Larry Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Colin Powell, as saying: "Cheney was traumatized by 9/11. The poor guy became paranoid."


Long Island, N.Y.: According to a new Washington Post poll, our country is evenly split on the strategy for moving forward on Iraq. It is a stat that fills me with despair. What can antiwar advocates like myself do to let people know that our Iraqi incursion is destroying our economy, is not a "war" we can "win," and remains a boon for war profiteers and energy conglomerates, to our -- and Iraq's -- detriment? Are Americans really this ignorant, or have the media and the Democratic majority done a horrendous job of stating the case for pulling out?

washingtonpost.com: Poll Finds Voters Split on Candidates' Iraq-Pullout Positions (Post, July 15)

Dan Froomkin: Well, there's another possibility, which is that the question wasn't ideally phrased. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the liberal media watchdogs, argue that the question did not correctly describe McCain's position. And if you look at Iraq polling generally you'll see that a large majority of the public wants most if not all of our troops out very soon indeed.


Intervale, N.H.: Would you please comment on the stalling tactics successfully used by Reps. King and Issa during the House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing during which Douglas Feith was questioned about torture? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: I didn't watch the hearing, but judging from Dana Milbank's report, it sounds like their tactics were reprehensible and childish. There might be some excuse for disrupting a witch-hunt, but this is far from a witch-hunt. This is the beginning of an important exploration.


Buffalo, N.Y.: The standard bromide is that Bush has a "failed presidency." Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that he has been extraordinarily successful in implementing the policies he wanted, but that they are poor policies? After all, he regularly gets all the money he asks for to continue in Iraq, managed to stonewall for years on various "security" issues such as torture, and so on. He has had as of yesterday a total of four vetoes overridden in more than seven years. By the standard of getting what he wanted, hasn't he been rather successful?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, he's been enormously successful that way. And it's certainly been a very consequential presidency. The question at the end of the day, however, is not whether he accomplished his goals, but what he did for or to our country. And on that count, signs are that history will not be kind.


Des Moines, Iowa: As one of the 28 percent of Americans supporting of President Bush, isn't it best for our nation to have a strong, decisive leader protecting our nation? Doesn't Bush get credit for putting Homeland Security into place back in October 2001 by executive order rather than playing patty-cake with Congress at the high point of threats against our nation?

Dan Froomkin: That is your exhibit A in defense of Bush? C'mon, you can do better than that!


Anonymous: Assuming that you were brought before a vice-presidential tribunal with the right to torture (of course), what would be your threshold of pain before you told them what they wanted to hear? Would you give up Keith Olbermann? Would you implicate Henry Waxman?

Dan Froomkin: I would tell them whatever they wanted to hear to stop the pain.


Bremerton, Wash.: Thanks for having these chats, Dan. What do you think Bush was trying to accomplish with rescinding the offshore drilling ban at this time? Was there some poll that told him that people now want it, or was his brother Jeb away from the phone that day?

Dan Froomkin: Bush -- and the Republican leadership -- see this as a winning argument in November. They accurately see a hunger for anything remotely like a solution to gas-price increases. Plus it's something I'm sure Bush and Cheney have long wanted to do, to help their oil buddies and poke the environmentalists in the eye.

Looking at this in the context of the Jane Mayer book, you might even see a pattern here: Take advantage of a national tragedy to archive long-sought political goals.


Champlin, Minn.: Another legacy of the Bush administration, as reported in you column, is the absolute lack of memory of appointed officials such as Attorney General Gonzales. That should not hinder prosecution after January 2009 -- only nonpolitical prosecution of members of the Bush White House and political appointees will give us justice, and perhaps reveal the whole picture of this administration. Democrats don't have the unity to challenge this administration while it's still in office.

Dan Froomkin: Well, I wonder if Democrats have the stomach to engage in a serious investigation even once Bush leaves office. Keep in mind, many Democratic congressional leaders were secretly notified of at least the outlines of Bush's most outrageous moves and didn't squawk -- making them more than a little complicit. (See, for instance, Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald.)

That said, unless these amnesiac officials have done an unprecedentedly good job of covering their tracks -- not putting anything down on paper or email, or destroying those records post facto -- then it's possible that much more will come out when someone else takes over the executive branch. (See, for instance, Steven Aftergood on NiemanWatchdog.org, writing about how the next president will have a unique opportunity to reveal what has been kept hidden for the last seven years.)


Farmington Hills, Mich.: Dan, I read your column regularly and love it. My question concerns the Cheney/Addington push for a unitary executive. To be honest I don't understand what their political motivation would be, considering they cannot control who would be elected as president in the future. Is it possible they truly believe that the unitary executive will provide more security for the U.S. -- be the president a Republican or Democrat? Any thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Good question. Of course all I can do is speculate. But I think they do believe that unlimited executive powers will make America safer. That makes a certain amount of sense, at least in theory and when it comes to such things as surveillance. The question of course is at what cost?


Boston: Hi Dan. Molly Ivins wrote about Bush prior to his election, and noted that many enterprises he ran he did not run well. Yesterday in Reuters there was an article about the disappointment of the failed promise of the first CEO president, yet there was no mention of his years in business prior to the White House. Do you feel that the poor performance of the economy under his watch is an indictment of the CEO-as-president model? Should we expect that, like many other CEOs of poorly performing companies, he will get a nice retirement package out of this deal?

Dan Froomkin: I had missed that story -- Freddie/Fannie crisis new threat to Bush legacy -- so thanks for pointing it out.

I don't think Bush's presidency is an indictment of the CEO-as-president generally, no. I think Bush is a very special case, and only in part because he wasn't a good CEO to start with.


Chantilly, Va.: Based on Bush's description of the U.S. economy yesterday -- it's growing, people are working, etc. -- he just reiterated/confirmed Phil Gramm's remarks that we are a nation of whiners. Agreed?

Dan Froomkin: His first words were: "It's been a difficult time for many American families who are coping with declining housing values and high gasoline prices."

But then he blamed Congress: "Our citizens are rightly concerned about the difficulties in the housing markets and high gasoline prices and the failure of the Democratic Congress to address these and other pressing issues."

And his further acknowledgments of public concern were immediately followed by an insistence that things are actually going well.

"I understand there's a lot of nervousness, but the economy's growing, productivity's high, trade's up, people are working," he said. "We're going through a tough time. But our economy has continued growing, consumers are spending, businesses are investing, exports continue increasing, and American productivity remains strong."

So yes, the subtext was that people are being insufficiently appreciative of all that's going well. In other words, that they're whining.


Stamford, Conn.: Hi Dan. Salon's Glenn Greenwald raises the specter of possible complicity among senior House Democrats and the Bush administration with regards to approving its most egregious practices (torture, FISA ... we know the list). I have to admit that Greenwald's hypothesis goes a long way in explaining why the Democrats are not pursuing these outrages, why impeachment is off the table, etc. Indeed, if criminal prosecutions were to proceed, it would ensnare them as well. What do you think? Have we come to this? Thanks, and keep up the good work.

Dan Froomkin: I linked to that Greenwald post above. And I agree, the hypothesis holds water.

I would just add that their complicity could fall far short of criminal, but still be so politically embarrassing as to make them incapable of putting their own self interests aside and doing the right thing.


Anonymous: I just read that Karl Rove is saying he is not ignoring congress, that this has nothing to do with him and is a White House vs. Congress thing. Do you think Rove wants to testify, but has been ordered not to?

Dan Froomkin: Bwah ha ha. Not a chance. He would go to the ends of the earth to avoid such a fate. See my May 2 column, What Karl Rove Fears Most. There is one thing that Rove avoids at all cost: being forced to answer a direct question -- especially under oath.


Palo Alto, Calif.: Thanks for your tireless work Dan -- you are top-notch. My questions: In your column yesterday, you mentioned Dan Fournier's "breezy" (his word) e-mails to Rove in 2004. In your opinion, is this the way reporters typically behave with sources -- i.e. supplicating and telling them what they want to hear -- or does Fournier really believe what he said? Also, after Mayer's book, it seems to me that our government owes us a full accounting of what this "administration" has done to this country, who was responsible and why. Following on Aftergood's suggestions, how can the media and the people ensure we get this accounting?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words. You can read about the Ron Fournier exchange with Rove here. I don't know what Fournier's intention was, but I found his public explanation -- "I regret the breezy nature of the correspondence" -- insufficient. I'd like to see this turned into a frank examination of the very thorny issue of source-maintenance. Some smarmy schmoozing is inevitable. But how much? And at what cost? Did this cross the line?

As for Aftergood's suggestions, he urges the press to ask the presidential candidates to commit themselves one way or the other.


Blairsville, Ga.: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Where in this oath does it say that "the citizens" come before preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution? The president does not take an oath to protect the citizens of the United States at all costs -- he takes an oath to defend the ideals on which this country was founded, and which it fought wars to defend.

The preamble to the Constitution doesn't even say "ensure the security" of the citizens. It says "provide for the common defence." Dan, why do people like Des Moines, Iowa, assume that the president's job is to defend them at the expense of the Constitution, and in violation of the oath of office the president took?

Dan Froomkin: Well put. And to those who argue that it would be political suicide for a presidential candidate to say he or she would put the Constitution ahead of the safety of the American people, I ask: Have we really come to this? Are we that afraid?


Silver Spring, Md.: I disagree with the president as much as anybody but isn't it unreasonable to expect Congress or the next president to "go after" anyone from the Bush White House after January? Last time I checked this still was America, and generally we get past these things pretty quickly. Splashy trials and hearings may make some people feel better ("see, I told you they were crooks") but I expect that most of us will be eager to move on.

Dan Froomkin: Not only that, but if it's Obama, he'll be under a lot of pressure to "heal the wounds" and so on. That said, as a journalist (and an American) I demand to know what has been done by and to my country. This is not trivial stuff we can just sweep under the rug; this is about who we are as a nation.


Madison, Wis.: Hi Dan, here's a follow-up on the question regarding the unitary executive: I can see why Cheney likes this model, but why are Congress and the judiciary going along? I'd expect the other two branches of government to protest the erosion of their own power.

Dan Froomkin: The Court has been pushing back. As for Congress, see my December 13 column, Congress Goes Belly Up.


Arlington, Mass.: In your column yesterday, you quote Jane Mayer as blaming "Cheney and his legal adviser, David Addington" for trying to restore the Imperial Presidency of Richard Nixon. While I agree that these two wield enormous bureaucratic power, wasn't "Scooter" Libby also as influential in his time as a vice presidential chief of staff? Why has Scooter disappeared as an integral member of Cheney's staff?

Dan Froomkin: Good question. Libby was definitely influential, and quite the neocon. But Addington, who was Cheney's legal adviser before he also got Libby's job, is thought to have been the vice president's closest co-conspirator when it came to hatching these outlandish legal theories about executive power. Libby was not known to have such intense or at least fully developed views.


San Francisco: Now that the president has invoked executive privilege to protect Cheney's conversation with the FBI about the Valerie Plame Wilson leak, is there any circumstance to which executive privilege cannot be applied? It's pretty clear that a presidential conversation, consultation or advisement is not a criterion any longer -- the president doesn't even need to be in the picture for executive privilege to be invoked by this crew (see emptywheel this morning).

Dan Froomkin: Here is the emptywheel post of which you speak.
I can't imagine anyone was surprised. Given previous White House arguments that Karl Rove and Cheney and his entire staff are all completely immune from congressional oversight, it was unlikely that the White House would roll over on this one without a fight. But perhaps a fight is precisely what's called for.


Dan Froomkin: I have to run. 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.


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