White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, July 30, 2008; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He was online to answer your questions, take your comments and links and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, July 30, at 2 p.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone. Welcome to another White House Watch chat. My column today leads with President Bush's obligatory show of disapproval over China's dismal human rights record -- before he heads off to the Olympics and adds his own personal pom-pom to China's celebration of itself just as it is.

Yesterday I looked at the latest report of politicization of the Justice Department; on Friday, I wrote about the latest torture memos. On Thursday, I unveiled the latest White House salary list.

Yes, despite Associated Press White House correspondent Ben Feller writing that Bush "has long ceased to be a hot story," I think it's been another busy two weeks for those of us who cover the White House. So we've got plenty to talk about.


Boynton Beach, Fla.: Thank you for the way you pulled together the articles on the Justice Department investigation, and to the newspaper for providing the link to the report so we could read it for ourselves (a practice I hope you continue). You raised one good question: Who in the White House orchestrated this (since underlings weren't the catalyst). But another major point is the hiring of less qualified people to positions that involved our nation's security meant a far greater priority was placed on the conservatives' power than our country's safety. Please speak to the other examples of this thread that run so strongly in the Bush administration.

Dan Froomkin: The issue of government competence is one that, I've frequently noted, the public seems a lot more attuned to than the media. It's really odd. See my September 24 column, What Has Bush Done to the Government?.

Also see a recent piece on NiemanWatchdog.org by Pete Davis entitled "Bush broke the government. So who's going to fix it?" And another from September by David E. Lewis entitled "How badly has Bush damaged the federal government?"


Ramsey, N.J.: With respect to the report re: Monica Goodling's hiring policies, what can be done with these attorneys who are in career positions, but who were hired using blatantly partisan criteria? Can they be fired?

Dan Froomkin: That's a great question -- and as far as I know, no, at least not summarily. I believe they are now covered by civil service protections. (Isn't that nifty? It's why historically, there's been such a firewall to prevent political appointees from getting careef positions.)

Presumably, if some of them were horribly unqualified to begin with, some of them are displaying manifest incompetence, in which case their supervisors could start papering their personnel files... but that takes a while to come to fruition.


Charlottesville, Va.: Thanks for chatting, Dan. How can the White House pretend to care about our military families when it doesn't ask any sacrifice of the rest of us for the war in Iraq, other than the guilt of knowing that our children and grandchildren will be paying for it for decades to come?

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's an interesting question. On the one hand, I agree with you. On the other, I wonder what kind of individual sacrifice you have in mind that would actually be of any use to the troops and their families?

That said, I've often wondered about two things: 1) Whether Bush should have called for domestic manufacturers to start churning out IED-resistant armored vehicles and the like a long, long time ago; and 2) Why he's never called for people to reach out to military families -- and wounded soldiers -- to offer help? So many of them are cut off from view at relatively isolated military bases -- it seems like we could have launched a national support movement by now. Were those the sorts of things you had in mind?

Oh, and of course, there's the issue of individually honoring their sacrifices. Bush could have led by example on this, but he hasn't.


Buffalo, N.Y.: Will you take an election question rather than a Bush White House queston? The only way that McCain has a snowball's chance of getting elected is to get the MSM to set the conventional wisdom that this election is a referendum on Obama. How do we let this happen every four years. In 2004 it was a referendum on Kerry . The focus of the election should be a referendum on the past 8 years of Republican rule. We should be combing through the WH Watch archives and be shouting them from the rooftops. That even the allegedly left wing portion of the MSM (MSNBC) has bought this narrative hook line and sinker is jaw-dropping!

Dan Froomkin: I would tend to agree.


Bremerton, Wash.: Great Post today. With the Monica Goodling Scandal, Part 2, is there any way the next President can review all the hires that went through her office and remove those that were clearly political? Or would he have to fire them all?

Also, your colleague Mr. Robinson suggested in the Opinion Page that there should be a "Truth Commission" to look into all executive excess taken by the Bush Administration. Do you think this is possible?

washingtonpost.com: A Torture Paper Trail (Post, July 29)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Every president has the ability to clear out all the political appointees -- but not the career people. That's why it's so sneaky and wrong to apply political litmus tests to those career positions.

As for truth commissions, war crime trials, congressional hearings, criminal investigations -- I'm agnostic at this point about the how, I just care about the what: It's imperative that we learn what's been done in our name these last eight years -- and have a chance, as a people, to definitively address whether that's who we are or not.

I would like to see Obama and McCain weigh in on this issue explicitly. See Steven Aftergood's questions for the presidential candidates about their willingness to disclose just what the current Administration has done.


Baltimore: Why all the focus on politicization of the Justice Department? Isn't this possibly the tip of the iceberg? There are a lot of other agencies in D.C. where it is likely other (yet-unknown) Goodlings exist. Who's to say that the Department of Defense doesn't have a Goodling or two charged with hiring only Republicans in normally career-track positions? Who's to say a Goodling wasn't in charge of spinning important policy points into talking points? Given what we know about this Administration, politics and party loyalty come first, competence is a distant second.

Dan Froomkin: I agree completely. Goodling's testimony should have been a wake-up call to reporters, sending them looking at all the key departments and agencies.

And in fact, there's been quite a bit of coverage lately about the politicization at the EPA. See for instance these recent stories by Juliet Eilperin of The Post.

That said, Justice was a natural lightning rod for Rove et. al., and I wouldn't be surprised if the worst of it has happened there. But I'd like to know for sure.


Richmond: This thing with Goodling is like the invasion of the body snatchers. Instead of aliens we get preselected conservatives who may or may not be qualified. I suggest all of those people appointed by Goodling need to reapply for their jobs through a non-partisan panel. If they are found to not be qualified, turf them and re-open the position.

Dan Froomkin: Hmm. I wonder if there's any precedent for that.

Judging from the comments and e-mails I've been getting from readers, this is a real sore point for a lot of you.


Rockville, Md.: What happens to the people hired by Ms. Goodling at the Justice Department? Do they remain there? Won't this just mean that the ends justify the means as far as Ms. Goodling is concerned?

Dan Froomkin: See what I mean?


San Clemente, Ca: Love him or hate him you have to give Karl Rove credit, he is the master.

He floated the "uppity" story line about Obama a few weeks ago on Fox News and now it seems everyone in the MSM is picking up the ball and running with it.

He definitely has a shrewd eye for America's worst impulses.

Dan Froomkin: The New York Times editorial board writes today: "On July 3, news reports said Senator John McCain, worried that he might lose the election before it truly started, opened his doors to disciples of Karl Rove from the 2004 campaign and the Bush White House. Less than a month later, the results are on full display. The candidate who started out talking about high-minded, civil debate has wholeheartedly adopted Mr. Rove's low-minded and uncivil playbook."


Atlanta: I hear the suggestion frequently that the House should hold Karl Rove in "inherent contempt" by which he would be held in the capital jail until he testifies. Other than the fact that it has not been used in 70 years, why would this not be a satisfactory strategy?

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that the Democratic leadership is terrified of doing anything that in their most fevered imagination could somehow alter the current political dynamic, by which they are expecting to win big in November. Such a bold assertion of their power, while apparently justified at this point, seems to be way beyond them.

See my June 24 column, Battered Congress Syndrome. I thought it was an absolute scream that, during oral arguments about whether a federal judge should enforce congressional subpoenas against a belligerent White House, representatives of the judicial and executive branches both noted that Congress hadn't exercised its full constitutional powers. The judge pointed out that the House could have arrested Harriet Miers without his help. Even the Bush representative pointed out that Congress could have threatened to withhold funding from the Judiciary Committee until it got its way.

But no. As Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press today: "[T]hree months out from Election Day, a lame-duck Congress conducting oversight of a lame-duck White House produces mostly talk. There's little time and less willingness to spend the remaining five weeks of the congressional session doing more than holding televised hearings to try to convince voters that President Bush has abused the powers of his office."


Silver Spring, Md.: Hey Dan, Thanks for your column -- a rare bit of fresh air in the MSM. I'm curious, do you ever quiz your colleagues about their unwillingness to confront Bush and the administration? Just today, you reported on the lack of questions to Dana Perino about the DOJ politicization scandal. Why do they continue to give this discredited and lame-duck administration pass after pass. Also, have you ever tried to get access to the White House Briefings?

Dan Froomkin: The sense I get is that no one expects anything of substance from the briefings anymore. Fewer reporters from the big news organizations even attend. And while I think someone should have asked about the Justice report, I'm quite sure they wouldn't have gotten a serious answer.

I would attend the briefings occasionally -- except they tend to take place just when I'm wrapping up the column! Maybe next administration, I'll get an intern to go and ask questions on my behalf -- or more to the point, on the behalf of my readers.


Monterey, Calif.: About the political "career" hires, how difficult will it be for the new administration to identify the worst cases? Could they be given "useful work," like copying the dictionary, and replacements hired?

Dan Froomkin: That would certainly be more doable than firing them outright.


Chantilly, VA: Dan, I read your piece and other Post coverage of the Monica Goodling hiring scandal, including the DOJ IG's report-- and from my reading, while it's clear Goodling's conduct was reprehensible and I wish it could be prosecuted somehow, I wasn't clear on just how many permanent positions were hired for in this warped way; many of the positions in question seemed like temporary detail positions. Do you have a hard or somewhat hard count of how many current career employees now hold positions they gained because of their fealty to the Bushies or their rote parroting of a Bush/John Birch/Christian Dominionist/anti-gay ideology?

Dan Froomkin: I think we'll have a much better sense of the scale of this once the IG and OPR finish their report on the Civil Rights Division.


McLean, Va.: Is there an increased urgency within the White House to find Osama Bin Laden before this term ends, to save Bush's legacy? What a blow that would be to the Obama Campaign.

Dan Froomkin: I'm sure there is. But it's not clear how much they can do about it. As I've noted before, if they've been trying as hard as reasonably possible to catch Osama for the last seven years, then all that's left if you want to try harder is for us to get unreasonable, right?

That said, every time I note an uptick in military activity in Afghanistan -- not to mention a massive increase in the use of air power, I do have to wonder.

As for such a capture/killing being a blow to the Obama campaign, I certainly agree. Not because it would undermine Obama in particular, but because it would take the sting out of one of the most visceral disappointments the public has with Bush. And I still think the upcoming election is going to be more a referendum on Bush than on anything else.


Boston: Are you as shocked as I am at the ho-hum attitude in America? They torture people (oh well they probably deserve it), they spy on you (if you're not guilty what do you have to hide?), they illegally hire their "good Americans" (they all do it), they refuse to show up when required by law (executive privilege). Will SOMEBODY start caring?

Dan Froomkin: I am shocked, yes. But I blame the media.

Ever since 9/11, we've been the proverbial frog in the pot of gradually hotter water.

I think it will take something large and national in scope to shake us out of lethargy. Like an election, maybe.


Philadelphia: Re: Rove's playbook, DOJ scandal, EPA, etc. The election coverage highlighted this, but it seems relevant across all of political/government reporting. It seems like news organizations are compartmentalizing news too much. They do not draw story arcs across departments even in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence. So, you find the pressures placed on EPA career officials reported independently from DOJ hiring practices. Likewise, McCain's use of Rove's advise and playbook is reported independently from Bush's governing style. If the layman can draw these comparisons, why can't news organizations devote resources into reporting them?

Dan Froomkin: Individual observers can often draw conclusions that reporters are not able to literally document -- especially if none of the people who are a party to the acts in question are willing to go public.

That said, people are put in jail every day based on circumstantial evidence. I don't see why political journalists can't be a little more open about the general conclusions they've reached based on their informed analysis of the evidence that is available.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Dan. What happened to the employees who were deselected by Goodling? Are any of them planning to sue her or others for using illegal criteria to deselect them?

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that lawsuits are indeed likely in some of these cases. Ironically, of course, they inevitably won't be resolved until the next administration.


Rockville, Md.:"And I still think the upcoming election is going to be more a referendum on Bush than on anything else."

To be honest and allow for your job I really think it will be the economy this time. Iraq will be good enough that it will not be a bit issue. As the people say "don't live in the past." Works both ways.

Dan Froomkin: Not mutually exclusive. People tend to see the president as largely repsonsible for the economy.


Crofton, Md.: It's not that the White House hasn't asked other Americans to sacrifice for the sake of the War in Iraq, it's that they don't care if there is a sacrifice. How else to explain the present state of the economy other than the wasted billions that have been sent to Iraq? Ask someone who has lost his job and/or his house if they have sacrificed for this War and I'll bet you get an answer you weren't expecting.

Dan Froomkin: I wonder if any of the folks who have lost their jobs and/or houses are making that connection. Because -- again -- it's not something you see in the media much.

The late Gen. William Odom certainly made the connection. (He also that the surge was just postponing the inevitable.)


Washington, D.C.: Dan...what about all the Clinton era-holdovers who have spent the last 8 years leaking gov secrets? Aren't they political people who were hired for career positions. The outrage from the libs is funny..like your party doesn't do the exact same thing

Dan Froomkin: What leakers? With a few notable exceptions, I've been utterly outraged at the lack of leaking (I'd call it whistleblowing, thanks) from the government.

And for the record: I'd be outraged about political questions of any ilk being asked of career hires.


Re: Philadelphia: Juries and judges are willing to convict, beyond a reasonable doubt, on circumstantial evidence. Political reporters won't call it a lie unless the person admits it as a lie, not even if the statement is proven 100 percent wrong. Maybe that's a reason why the Post, LA Times, etc has been firing people, huh?

Dan Froomkin: If what you're saying is that because we don't call it as we see it, we're losing readers, and therefore market share, and therefore money -- well I don't entirely disagree with you. See, for instance, my potty-mouthed blog post of November 2006 over at NiemanWatchdog.org.


Monterey, Calif.: The worst of the the political hiring by this administration may be judges (e.g. Jay Bybee, author of the Aug. 2002 torture memo). Any conceivable chance we will see some impeachments?

Dan Froomkin: Isn't it amazing to realize that the author (or at least signatory) of some of these horrific torture memos is now sitting on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals? But I think the chances of a lot of judicial impeachments is essentially nil.


Burrowing deep: As an administration comes to the end of its term, Schedule C (political) appointees tend to request that their jobs be given Civil Service status. Has anyone looked into how many political jobs in this administration have been requested to be reclassified?

Dan Froomkin: This is one of the "burrowing in" methods I noted in my recent series on what to look out for in the coming months. But it's also one method that the GAO among others keeps a very close eye on.

Last week, by the way, Carol D. Leonnig had a great exposed a great example of one of the other methods I warned of: Last-minute rulemaking.


Philadelphia: I'm not sure which alarmed me more -- that one applicant greatly admired Condoleezza Rice (who has been a, er, somewhat strong supporter of all the things the administration has been doing that I would hope reasonable people would find wrong -- like torture), or that the response to the applicant was a furrowed brow and "but she's pro-choice."

And why did it take so long for this to come out? Did none of the applicants realize the questions they were being asked were illegal? Weren't at least a few of them lawyerly types?

Dan Froomkin: Why it took so long to come out is a great question. The fact is that politicized hiring of career people, certainly at Justice, was an open secret in Washington a long time ago, at least anecdotally.

But my sense is that back then, there was the (correct) sense that no one would do anything about it. There would be no stories in the press and therefore no oversight hearings -- or was it no oversight hearings and therefore no stories in the press? There would be no witnesses under oath. There would be no outrage. So what was the point in even bringing it up?

Another example of the frog in the pot? Either way, worth understanding better.

Dan Froomkin: See, for instance, an essay in Legal Affairs in 2005 by William R. Yeomans about what was happening in the Civil Rights Division, which he had just left: "Political officials screen resumes and interview applicants. Section chiefs are told that attorneys they have never met will report for work in their sections. Increasingly, experienced hires have been identified because they are friends or former associates of political appointees. Few bring any experience in enforcing civil rights laws. Most bring an ideological commitment that is inconsistent with vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws. Overall, career managers say, their records and preparation do not compare well with the hires made when career attorneys were more involved."


Leesburg, Va.: Today, you referred to a report suggesting that the term "War on terror" should be dropped, for various reasons. Wouldn't following that advice require the administration to relinquish the indefinite war powers that the President has adopted? Why would he want to do that? Considering expansion of executive power was a primary goal of the administration, wouldn't ensuring that the "War on terror" continues indefinitely also be one of their primary goals?

Dan Froomkin: There are lots of reasons why the Bush White House wouldn't abandon the term, yes. The question at this point is, what will the next president do? And should the media stop using the term? I've long advocated that we call it something else.


Seattle, Wash.: Here's an angle to consider: What are the chances that post-November, Congress will suddenly re-discover (or discover) it's ability to do stuff with regards to past violations, especially if the election results are a massive blow to the White House's candidate and party?

Dan Froomkin: Hmm. I hadn't really considered that possibility. I'd been assuming nothing would happen -- if at all -- until after January. But you may be exactly right.


Dan Froomkin: OK, I've got to run. Thanks for all the great questions and comments. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the homepage or at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.


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