White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, August 13, 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, August 13 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 chat.

Today's column -- my 1000th, by the way -- should be up very shortly. I write about President Bush's hastily scheduled statement about Georgia this morning. Just last night, Bush administration officials had apparently been congratulating themselves for having stopped the Russians in their tracks by threatening to banish them from certain international summit meetings. But this morning, it turned out the Russians weren't even honoring a sweetheart cease-fire agreement. The Georgian president virtually called his former hero Bush a wimp. And Bush came out swinging with a vow to send in the American military -- sort of. It's a humanitarian mission, but by choosing to put U.S. planes and ships into a war zone, I still think Bush is raising the stakes dramatically. And we can't exactly afford another war right now, certainly not against Russia.


Intervale, N.H.: Would you please comment on Attorney General Mukasey's breathtaking comment that some lawbreaking activities are not crimes? I'll keep that in mind the next time I'm stopped for running a traffic light. Or perhaps I can use it in court after I've held up a bank!

Dan Froomkin: His quote -- "But not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime" -- is kind of breathtaking. But it's also technically true. In this case, violating civil-service laws is not actually prosecutable.

What's really outrageous is his continued cover-up for senior administration officials who are implicated in all sorts of Justice Department scandals. See, for instance, today's New York Times editorial.


Concord, N.H.: Our government's response to the conflict in Georgia is laughable. Both presidential candidates are pretending that we have any credibility in telling Russia to stop being so darn mean, after we fed Georgia's naive belief that the U.S. would come to the rescue. If I were Putin, the U.S. would look like quite the paper tiger.

Seriously, what power do we have in this situation? Verbally slap him on the wrist and hope he backs down? He probably will without much more trouble, because his point has been made. Any other bordering Russian interests now know that we will not aid them physically when Russia puts her foot down. Now Georgia can join the legions of other countries feeling betrayed by fair-weather U.S. politicians.

Dan Froomkin: All this week I've been exploring this general theme -- how Bush might have been able to prevent this from happening, but seems to have very little ability to make it stop. I'll be interested to see how this morning's comments play out. Does sending in our military with humanitarian shipments give us any leverage? Or does it just heighten the stakes?


Seattle: I've been hearing reports that Bush was acting a bit too chipper at the Olympic Games. Any truth to the rumors that he hit some of that Chinese liquor Baijiu while visiting?

Dan Froomkin: Oh for goodness sakes. I think sports make him a bit high, is all. He sounded really miffed in that Bob Costas interview that Russia was messing it all up with an invasion.


Richmond, Va.: Can you please give me the anatomy of Bush's admonition to Putin about getting out of Georgia? In other words, does Bush have any clout with Russia (though one could ask if any American president would have clout with Russia)? And doesn't an American president look foolish if he/she asks the Russians to stop and they don't? (Though one could ask, doesn't an American president have to try?)

Dan Froomkin: I can't give you an anatomy, no, but I can at least let you raise your questions. And I'll add some.

Did the Bush administration know the Georgians were going into South Ossetia, the precipitating incident? Shouldn't they have?

Did they give the Georgians the impression that we would back them up? How then did the Georgians get that impression? Were Vice President Cheney and his loyalists giving the Georgians different advice?

How much of the Russian overreaction was actually a response to Bush's provocation, in the form of trying to get Georgia and the Ukraine into NATO, or trying to put anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic? Could this have been avoided?

And once it happened, could we have stopped it more effectively? The answer to that one may well be no. The whole point is that seven years of Bush foreign policy haven't left us with much leverage. The moral authority thing is bouncing off Putin's hide, both because that's some thick hide and because our moral authority is, objectively, at a low ebb. We can't exactly go to war. In fact, they've got more that we want than we've got that they want.


Seattle: The biggest thing, to me, that this Georgia/Russia war has revealed to me is that the push-and-pull style diplomacy of Bush's is very open to people willing to buck us. Because Bush has had to push and pull other countries into Iran sanctions, it leaves him open to being blackmailed for support. Same thing with Afghanistan or Iraq support.

Dan Froomkin: A valuable observation. Thanks.


Froomville: Hi Dan! Have you ever considered making your blog more like a blog, i.e., with multiple posts per day and more visible comment threads? It's labeled a blog but it's really a column, isn't it? The Post does have some more bloggy blogs, like The Fix or The Trail.

Dan Froomkin: Hello Froomvile. I have considered it. And I wish I could allow links and comments to individual sections. But for this presidency, I really like being able to have a beginning, a middle and an end each day. The themes tend to weave in and out.

I'm thinking about mixing it up when we relaunch in January, with the next administration, though.


Dan Froomkin: My column is out: From Green Light to Yellow.


Chicago: Hey Dan, congratulations on your 1000th column. Given the military, economic and diplomatic support we give Georgia, would Georgia launch the invasion of South Ossetia without getting some sort of green light from Bush/Cheney? Has any reporting shed any light on why the Georgian's felt so emboldened as to attack South Ossetia? I find it hard to believe they would defy the U.S. if we told them not to do it.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And those are important questions.

The answer, if it comes out at all, is likely to emerge slowly. And, like so many other of the controversial things about this administration, it may have its roots in the vice president's office.

I was quite struck by one passage in today's Los Angeles Times story by Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel. They quoted David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, saying: "I think the State Department was assiduous in urging restraint, and Saakashvili's buddies in the White House and Office of the Vice President kept egging him on."

The story, by the way, also describes "increasing signs that administration hard-liners are using the crisis to reassert their view that Moscow should be isolated.

"Vice President Dick Cheney's declaration Saturday that 'Russian aggression must not go unanswered' was seen by some experts as the first salvo of what could be a new battle over administration policy."


New York: Hmmm ... let me get this straight: We are castigating Russia for invading a sovereign country and advocating the overthrow of its leader. Oh, for the day we get our moral high ground back.

Dan Froomkin: You may have to wait a while.


Salinas, Calif.: Why was the neocon establishment condemning Russia's incursion in South Ossetia, yet condoning Israel's bombing of South Lebanon two years ago? Do these people have any yardsticks to decide when legitimate military action may be taken, or is it all based on whom they perceive as their allies/enemies? Clearly, Georgia's current president is an unreliable hothead, and the U.S. should not be doing business with this guy.

Dan Froomkin: It's all relative, of course.

Thomas Meaney and Harris Mylon write in an Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Like every great power, the U.S. favors self-determination movements that destabilize its competitors -- Russia, China, Iran -- and opposes (or ignores) ones that might upset our allies. That's the code of realism in foreign policy. But it's also a Pandora's box. If America opts not to respect the principle of national sovereignty, it discourages other world powers from doing so and undermines state sovereignty the world over."


Boynton Beach, Fla.: Thank you for your coverage on the Suskind book. A week later, has the White House succeeded in riding it out, or are you seeing any aftershocks?

Dan Froomkin: Too soon to say. If I were at the White House, I would be very pleased at how little enthusiasm the book has generated in the mainstream media. But it's possible some ingenious reporter will be able to match and build on what Suskind found out.

And then there are the congressional hearings. House Judiciary Committee Chairman
John Conyers, Jr.
on Monday announced plans to review some of the allegations in the book.


Baltimore: I just saw breaking news that the president will postpone his vacation so that he can stay on top of the latest developments in Georgia. Nice to know that they're more important than New Orleans.

Dan Froomkin: Indeed. From the AP's Matthew Lee: "[P]residential spokeswoman Dana Perino said that Bush was delaying the start of his vacation by 'a day or two' to monitor developments. He had been scheduled to leave Thursday for a two-week stay at his Texas ranch."

This is actually a big sacrifice for him.


Silverton, Ore.: Dan, I have seen some discussion on the Web that if some the people at Justice -- i.e. Goodling and Sampson -- are not prosecuted, private individuals may have standing to bring bar complaints against for their actions under ethics violations or some other provision, in the same manner that Bill Clinton was sanctioned by the Arkansas Bar. While a Bar sanction may not be the same as sending someone to jail, it could have a profound impact on their ability to earn a living by practicing law.

Dan Froomkin: And you'll notice that Carrie Johnson reports in The Post today that "an official in the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility said the unit has notified bar associations of its findings against five lawyers singled out in reports thus far. The bar groups could initiate their own disciplinary proceedings against the lawyers, who include former Justice Department White House liaison Monica M. Goodling; former attorney general chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson; and former deputy attorney general chief of staff Michael D. Elston. Two lower-ranking officials, Esther Slater McDonald and John Nowacki, also were cited in the previous reports and their bar associations were notified, the official said."

But I'm much more interested in the bigger fish myself.


Washington: I love how you lefties like to say "hey ... we invaded Iraq, so Russia can invade Georgia." Saddam was a mad man who enslaved his own people. Georgia is a former commie country that is trying to be democratic and an ally. Read the history of World War II and the Russian conquest of Eastern Europe before making these outrageous statements.

Dan Froomkin: What I hear "lefties" saying is that neither invasion was justified. And that Iraq has given our adversaries a weapon to use against us.

See, for instance, Karen DeYoung in yesterday's Post: "While the administration yesterday recalled the days of Soviet empire, the Russians suggested that invaders and occupiers of Iraq lacked the moral authority to offer criticism. In remarks broadcast on state television, Putin, now Russia's premier, decried Western 'cynicism' for defending what he said was Georgian aggression against separatist enclaves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 'They, of course, had to hang Saddam Hussein for destroying several Shiite villages,' he said of the United States."


Vancouver, B.C.: I notice that Dick Cheney had some public comments on the Georgia events. I thought that Cheney stayed in the shadows and let Bush do all the spotlight stuff? Do you think that Cheney lost it because Bush was not responding in the manner he wanted? Has Cheney come to the same conclusion as the rest of the of world -- that Bush has very little credibility?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not quite sure what to make of Cheney's comment. Was it because Bush was out of the country? Or not being belligerent enough? See the LA Times story linked above, about Cheney's statement being "seen by some experts as the first salvo of what could be a new battle over administration policy."


Baltimore: While I am concerned that Bush's last-minute rules changes by government agencies could cause some short-term problems, couldn't they be reversed just as easily as they were introduced if Obama comes into office in January? I am far more concerned that the hirees of Monica Goodling will be around a long time. I also am concerned that there are Goodlings in every agency in the government. I cannot imagine that she was the only one dong that sort of illegal hiring.

Dan Froomkin: There are all sorts of things to be worried about, as I enumerated in my five-part series for NiemanWatchdog.org, Do we really expect the Bushies to go quietly?. In part two, Midnight rulemaking, last-minute hires and executive fiats I explain that rules are actually quite difficult -- though not impossible -- to change. (Although the effects of the Goodlings are not to be minimized either.)

Me, I'm wonkily fascinated by the Interior Department's blatant violation of White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten's May memo demanding that agency heads -- except in "extraordinary circumstances" -- submit proposed regulations before June 1 and "resist the historical tendency of administrations to increase regulatory activity in their final months."

So what happened? Did Bolten change his mind? Or is there a revolt being led by the more industry-friendly types (read: Cheney loyalists) throughout government?


Putin as a Bully: I think the problem is that Bush misread Putin's objections over Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO as the blustering of a bully. Some bullies, when confronted, bluster and back down. Some are crafty and mean, like Putin, and strike back when and where you are weakest --say, during the Olympics when you are desperate for their support in another round of Iran sanctions and have all your troops occupied in foreign countries.

Dan Froomkin: And what kind of bully is Bush?


Suskind book: Well the other reason it hasn't received attention is the Olympics, Russia/Georgia, the Olympics, Michael Phelps, the Olympics, and McCain suddenly figuring out how to campaign.

Dan Froomkin: That's part of it, certainly, but some news outlets have refused to even acknowledge the book's existence. Odd, isn't it?


Washington: How is it legally possible for the administration to gut the Endangered Species Act wholly within the confines of the executive branch? How can regular guys avail themselves of the public comment period?

washingtonpost.com: Endangered Species Act Changes Give Agencies More Say (Post, Aug. 12)

Dan Froomkin: There's all sorts of things the executive branch can do unilaterally. I believe there will be an official notice in the Federal Register soon. I'll keep an eye out.


Concord, N.H.: I'll take a stab at how sending nonmilitary planes and humanitarian aid to Georgia will play out: Putin will sit back and laugh, as it's further proof that our words don't have teeth. He doesn't want to invoke our true ire by hurting U.S. citizens, and probably will take great care not to inflict damage to them. Also, Georgia will know that we'll only pitch in to clean up the bodies and feed the displaced after the actual fighting is done, which is likely small comfort.

Steven Pearlstein's chat today was interesting, as he suggested that this is a great time to take some swats at the Russian bear via subtle attacks on their financial interests. We can't afford an actual military intervention, but could siphon away some of Russia's financial strength by playing the same games Putin does.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And here a link to Pearlstein's chat.


Re: Suskind's Book: While reading the allegations by Suskind and the rebuttals on the facts (as opposed to calling Suskind a "meanie"), something profound struck me: While no one in the formal chain of command may have authorized this operation, is David Addington in anyone's formal chain of command? Isn't his command considered the word of Cheney, which is the word of Bush?

Dan Froomkin: All the denials have been very carefully worded. See my August 6 column. My best guess is that Suskind doesn't have it exactly right, but that he's closer than the administration would have you believe. More on that tomorrow if I can figure out whether this site is legit.


Chicago: Dan, your comments about Cheney being "off the reservation" in his Georgia comments, and the "Cheney loyalists" engaging in late-term administrative rulemaking in defiance of Bolten's missive, provide additional ammunition to those (like me) who contend that the current administration is more the "Cheney administration" than the "Bush administration."

This squares with Suskind's revelation that early on in this administration Bush got petulant because cabinet members were directing their comments to Cheney (and not Bush) in meetings where both were present. Bush went so far as to tell Cheney to "step back" in those meetings (to allow Bush the appearance of being in charge). Cheney agreed to take notes during those meetings -- and then discuss the issues with Bush privately afterward (read: tell Bush what to do). Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: One of the themes that runs through pretty much all 1,000 of my columns is that Cheney is running his own operation - and that at least some of the time, his is the operation that matters.


Champaign, Ill.: Hi Dan. Congrats on the 1000th column. I am almost finished with Suskind's book, and the most astonishing fact for me was not the forged letter trying to tie Atta to Iraq, but the on-the-record statement by the former head of MI6 that they provided Washington with information a month before the invasion indicating Iraq had no WMD and the Bush administration ignored it.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Yes. And the sense I get is that Suskind thought that was the biggest news in his book, too. But it wasn't much more definitive than other things we've heard about the doubts that Bush must have been exposed to -- and the forgery, well, that's an eye-popper by any standard.


Brigantine, N.J.: I tend to see Cheney's comments as the usual bluster rather than a "first salvo." Whatever the veep says, how can the U.S. possibly risk more military adventurism? (Of course, I was so naive that I couldn't imagine we were stupid enough to attack Iraq!)

Dan Froomkin: Perhaps. But on the other hand, I am fairly persuaded that Cheney has long been advocating for an attack on Iran -- and that he thinks we can risk it because it wouldn't be an added strain (at least initially) on the Army, Marines or National Guard, which are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force and the Navy -- with their hugely expensive and powerful weapons systems -- would handle it, ideally reminding the world that we are tough customers. Or so goes the Cheney belief.


Baltimore: Re: Bush and Putin, I don't often find myself agreeing with George Will (like once every 20 years), but he pointed out that as soon as the Georgia/Russia conflict started, Putin left China for Moscow. Bush, by contrast, played beach volleyball. By that action alone, Putin knows he's got checkmate.

washingtonpost.com: Russia's Power Play (Post, Aug. 12)

Dan Froomkin: And the Wall Street Journal editorial board today mocked Bush for his "weekend of Olympics tourism in Beijing while Georgia burned."
Strange bedfellows, huh?


Washington: "Dan Froomkin: That's part of it, certainly, but some news outlets have refused to even acknowledge the book's existence. Odd, isn't it?" Not really, Dan ... the media doesn't suffer as badly from Bush Derangement Syndrome as you do. Look at your past few columns -- "Bush's Provocation" and the other ones recently are way out there, not your normally insightful commentary.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks, I guess.


Regent University: I saw by reading the report on Goodling that she and Nowacki graduated from Regent University, Pat Robertson's Christian-oriented school. Is this a law degree that gets any respect outside of the religious community?

Dan Froomkin: Hardly. But what does that matter? See Dahlia Lithwick in Slate on "How Pat Robertson's law school is changing America?"


Washington: Dan, congratulations on the 1000th column! Keep up the great work.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And on that warm note, I have to run. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page!


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