White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, August 27, 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, August 27, at 1 p.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House chat. I'll be honest with you: It's a little slow on the White House beat these days -- at least by this administration's standards. There's still something to write about every day. For instance, today, in a column titled Bush's Big Nyet I write a lot about Bush and Russia. But most of the attention, understandably, is on Denver right now. I guess my big question is: Will Bush ever get it back? Or is it time for me to start working on the retrospectives?


New York, N.Y.: Hello, Dan. As Bush's time in office winds down and we can begin to adopt the long-range view of his time in office, would you please comment on this interpretation: that the fallout from his administration's response to 9/11 -- alienating allies, abandoning the moral high ground globally, squandering lives and money in Iraq, compromising civil rights, violating the Constitution, and on and on -- is an outcome that was beyond Osama bin Laden's dreams? That despite all the administration's avowals of doing what it takes to fight terrorism, the terrorists have won (so to speak)? Thanks very much.

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's certainly one way of framing things. I do think bin Laden must be pleased at how many more people around the globe now share his view of the United States.

And as we start to look back on the Bush years, I do think we should consider this central question: Was fear really the right response to 9/11? Did we let ourselves get more terrorized than we had to? Could we have responded differently? And what would that have meant for us and the world?

Mark Warner touched on this a bit last night in Denver, when he criticized Bush for not asking us to sacrifice after 9/11. But that particular argument has always confused me. What exactly would he have wanted us to give up? That said, perhaps what we needed was to not be so afraid, not to let fear overwhelm us.

See also former CIA terrorism expert Glenn L. Carle in The Washington Post last month, who wrote that we have allowed the specter of terrorism distort our lives and take our treasure.


LaGrande, Ore.: Last Tuesday's column stated that Bush was the last to recognize that Musharraf had to go and that he insisted that the Pakistani coalition leaders provide Musharraf with "indemnity from penalization". Given that Musharraf was facing impeachment for, among other things, subverting justice, by removing judges who disagreed with him, I am wondering if we have been given another hint of what is to come in Bush's final days.

Dan Froomkin: That wasn't my own reporting -- I was quoting from a fascinating report by Anwar Iqbal in Dawn, Pakistan's most widely read English-language newspaper.

But that is something worth wondering about, indeed. I'm very interested in who and what Bush will pardon on his way out the door, maybe even including himself.


San Diego, Calif.: So, apparently the media has chosen "Friction between Obama and the Clintons" to be the over-riding theme of the Democratic convention, to the detriment of just about any other storyline entirely. What do you see the media choosing as the theme of the Republican convention? Something such as "Unity" or "A rebirth of the Republican Party?" I ask only half in jest, unfortunately.

Dan Froomkin: I do think that the "friction between embracing Bush and pushing him away in disgust" may be one theme. That would only be fair, right?


San Jose, Calif.: Maybe you should change the title of your column to "White House Pardon Watch"

Dan Froomkin: Ha! Maybe in the last few weeks.


Springfield, Va.: I know it's difficult to dig into Cheney's world, but do you know if anyone is attempting to verify that he planned weeks ago to visit Georgia? I'm obviously skeptical that that is the reason his guy was there before the fighting began.

Dan Froomkin: It's virtually impossible to dig into Cheney's world. Which, it seems to me, makes it open season on conspiracy theories!

For background, see this James Gerstenzang blog post for the Los Angeles Times.


Midwest: Hi Dan, Thanks for your great reporting. I have two questions about the Russia-Georgia conflict. First, I'm unclear on why the U.S. is siding so adamantly with Georgia, given the complexities of Georgia-Russian relations and the breakaway regions. McCain says that Georgia was one of the first Christian nations -- does that come into play with Bush's response, or is this just residual Cold War, anti-Russia policy? Why send Cheney, when one of the major selling points for Rice is her expertise in Russian affairs? Second, do you think this renewed attention on Russia decreases the odds that Cheney will succeed in launching an attack on Iran?

Dan Froomkin: That was three questions.

1) When Bush went to visit Georgia in 2005, he was greeted by 150,000 exuberant Georgians cheering "Bushi! Bushi!" I suspect that's part of it. That and they are an emerging democracy.

2) Why send Cheney? I can only hope that the real reason he's going there is that there was in fact a previously scheduled trip, and the White House felt it couldn't lose face by canceling it. If Cheney's actually there to deliver messages, we're in trouble. (As for Rice and her alleged expertise in Russian affairs, don't get me going.)

3) Yes. But that's total speculation.


Rockville, Md.: Why is the Bush administration escalating tensions with Russia over Georgia? I find it confusing that the Bush administration is trying to deal with Russia as the irrelevant sick man of Europe, when Russia is neither sick nor irrelevant. Russia can play spoiler in the Middle East and Latin America; at the very least, they can veto U.N. resolutions favorable to U.S. interests. Is the Bush administration still suffering from hubris, or is there a more sinister ploy at play?

Dan Froomkin: These are great questions, and I think we'd all be talking about this a lot were it not for the major distraction of the political conventions. What is our Russia policy? Who knows? (And what good is all that alleged expertise from Condi Rice and Bob Gates?)


San Jose, Calif.: I do not think the question is will Bush get it back (it is long gone), I think the question is, to what extent will we find out the extent of corruption and outrageous conduct that has infected this administration for years -- isn't that hanging in the balance of Obama v. McCain?

Dan Froomkin: You make an interesting point: That the Bush legacy is, or at least ought to be, at the very heart of this election.

The irony, however, is that the people who could conceivably dig up more evidence regarding that legacy -- journalists and members of Congress -- appear to have almost entirely lost interest in Bush, they are so focused on the horserace.


Palo Alto, Calif.: Given this "administration's" penchant for wiretapping Americans, lying, dirty tricks, fanatical secrecy, not to mention torture, what are the top three things you would do if you are President Obama moving into the former Bush/Cheney White House on January 20, 2009? My top three: (1) treat the White House like it's bugged (kinda like our old Moscow embassy) and rip out the walls, i.e.. redecorate; (2) bring in a Geiger counter to make sure Cheney hasn't hidden any life-threatening radioactive substances in the Oval Office; (3) coat the building/windows in RF jamming material.

Dan Froomkin: Another great conspiracy theory! Thanks.


Cocoa Beach, Fla.: Will Harriet really have to testify?

Dan Froomkin: It's certainly possible. But the most likely scenario is that she'll show up -- and then refuse to say anything. In other words, while no longer citing absolute executive privilege, she will instead cite specific executive privilege about just about everything. If there's anything these guys excel at, it's running out the clock.


Fremont, Ohio: Is Cheney still dictating his own foreign policy? Does Bush even know everything Cheney is doing or is Cheney still the lone ranger?

Dan Froomkin: Who knows? There was a lot of speculation last month about Cheney's Waning Influence. But Bush's bellicose approach to Russia seems Cheneyesque. And like I said above: We just don't know. How decisions get made over there remains utterly opaque.


Centreville, Va.: As always, thanks for a great column! As for what we could have 'given up' for the war: How about those pesky tax cuts that have run the debt to astronomical levels? I'm amazed the Dems haven't been more focused on what the consequences to subsequent generations are going to be. Seems like a perfect time for a 'think of the children' type campaign.

As for being 'slow' at the WH. Seems like the flurry of last minute policy changes seem to be picking up rather than slowing down. From the sparks of Cold War II to endangering endangered species in general, to right whales in particular, this administration is pushing all sorts of dramatic changes without much time for discussion. I think you'll have plenty of material to work with, Dan!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And yes, I agree that the End Days are going to be quite fascinating, if not quite as roller-coastery as I've gotten used to.

I've written over at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, about the many ways Bush officials can be expected, in the coming months, to use their executive branch powers to entrench their policies in the bureaucracy and make it harder for their successors to change course. I've been chronicling some of them in the column, including most recently the attempt to push through regulations that would effectively gut the Endangered Species Act, new FBI guidelines to allow the bureau to open up investigations without any indication of suspicious activity, and the scaling back of protected zones for right whales.

As for rolling back the tax cuts, that obviously made particular sense once we went to war in Iraq, but how would that have been an appropriate response specifically to 9/11?


Anonymous: Should Obama win (hope, hope), do you see an immediate effort to delete, erase,etc. the regulations Bush has rushed to implement in his final stretch? I'm thinking about the environment and civil rights for two.

Dan Froomkin: I think we should ask Obama. Here are some more questions in the same vein.


Arlington, Va.: Do you see the difference between Russia invading Georgia (with democratically elected leaders) and the U.S. and coalition fighters going into Iraq to take out a brutal dictator? Do you understand that Russia is trying to occupy the two regions of Georgia and absorb them into Russia and that is the meaning of the "territorial integrity" phrase?

Dan Froomkin: There are way more differences than similarities between our invasion of Iraq and Russia's invasion of Georgia. But the fact that there are any similarities at all has cost us an awful lot of moral authority.


Pittsburgh: Can the President preemptively pardon anyone (read: political loyalists) who might in the future be convicted of something?

Dan Froomkin: My understanding is: Yup.

There's nothing to stop him legally. The pardon power is pretty absolute. That is why I have called for a national conversation on pardons before, not after, they are granted.

The only two things that could stop Bush from doing something like that are his own sense of impropriety -- or shame.


Wilmington, N.C.: Hi Dan. I think you could make the case that Bush's presidency has been extremely successful. In fact, all of the things that I was worried about when he took office -- fiscally irresponsible tax cuts for the rich, deficit spending, anti-environmentalism, deregulation, corporate influence on policy -- have come to pass. And 9/11 provided the cover for this dismantling of government infrastructure. The only time this agenda backfired was over immigration policy, when he rejected the wishes of his working class constituents in favor of those of his big business buddies. Perhaps that's why he's still so popular among republican elites. They must know that he is a fool, but at least he's their fool. Any thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: You have nicely articulated an argument I hear from quite a few people. It would be interesting to ask Bush loyalists what they think has been successful about the Bush presidency, and put it up against your list.

Mind you, I suspect the one "accomplishment" we're going to start hearing about constantly is that Bush "kept us safe." I for one am still looking for the first shred of evidence that even one minor terrorist plot was thwarted due to his most controversial national security measures. And I mean that, I am looking.


Fairfax, Va.: I am unclear on Obama's position about aggressively investigating Bush administration crimes. Do you think Obama will stride forward not wasting a moment to look back and educate the electorate on what was done to us or will Obama root out every single one of the Bush henchmen and women who have been tearing down our democracy?

Dan Froomkin: You are unclear because it is not clear. As far as I know, Obama has only been asked about this once, more than four months ago, by Philadelphia Daily News blogger Will Bunch, and his answer was somewhat ambiguous.


Anonymous: Can Bush pardon himself?

Dan Froomkin: My understanding is: Yup.

A president's power to pardon is vested in Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution, which says "he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment."

That said, it's pretty inconceivable that he would do so, at least explicitly. But he might issue a pre-emptive umbrella pardon -- say for "anyone involved in the creation or implementation of the CIA's interrogation program," etc. -- that would cover him as well.


Wilmington, N.C.: First, thank you for giving voice to the anger and disbelief I feel every time I hear about the most recent attack on our system of government, checks and balances, constitutional protection, etc. this administration attempts. My question is this: How are they able, at this late stage, to gut existing law (the protection of endangered species law, EPA enforcement, etc.) without engaging in new law writing or getting Congressional approval? How much leeway are they able to create when it comes to enforcement of existing law, and how on earth is this possible? Keep up the great work.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Putting aside for a moment this administration's incredible assertions of unprecedented executive power, the fact is that the executive branch has plenty of precedented power, including the ability to set rules and regulations. There's a process, and there are guidelines, and there are ways to overturn them, but there you have it. See the NiemanWatchdog.org series I reference above.


Washington, D.C.: Can you name me one instance where Bush has "torn down our democracy." He was elected, twice. Get over it. Obama will probably win. Funny how when Bush came to power in 2000...he didn't investigate any of the Clinton crimes. Like the tech bubble burst, like invading a country we never fought with before, like China into the WTO without floating their currency.

Dan Froomkin: I believe the reader who wrote about Bush "tearing down our democracy" meant things like politicizing the Justice department, sanctioning torture, and misstating intelligence. Each of which are a lot more potentially damaging to our democracy, and to the rule of law, than the items on your list.


Pardon Me: Wouldn't there be some kind of legacy fallout or even political fallout should Bush pardon himself or issue a blanket pardon for whole areas? A self-pardon or any kind of blanket pardon would basically be an admission of guilt, would it not?

Dan Froomkin: There might indeed be some sort of fallout. And according to some legal precedents, yes, accepting a pardon is basically an admission of guilt. That's why I think exploring those issues BEFORE any pardons are granted would be a good idea for everyone. Well, almost everyone.


Stamford, Conn.: Hi Dan -- I have a comment on the opening post above. I think that the response to go after Bin Laden and company in Afghanistan was the right thing to do. It's Iraq that get everything screwed up. Remember that the world was with us on 9/12/01 and until we were misled into Iraq. The Bush administration has squandered an incredible reserve of good will that will a long time to rebuild. Thanks for all the great work!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Why has there be no real follow-up reporting on Ron Suskind's story about U.S. involvement in the fabricated Iraqi letter purporting to show a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam and the bogus uranium story? The only reporting I have seen has just reported on various U.S. government denials. There has been no reporting on the actual matter -- and it is worth noting that the "denial" of one of the key players, Rob Richer, confirmed as much as it denied about the story: Habbush, the Iraqi intel official, came under Western protection when he defected in 2003, there was a lot of discussion within the CIA and the Bush administration about how to "use" Habbush, and so on. Of course, Richer and the others now deny that they were involved in fabricating a forged letter from Habbush to Saddam, but that might be explained by the fact that they recognize that could well get them into serious legal trouble for violating the law barring CIA's involvement in any effort to influence opinion in the U.S.

Dan Froomkin: I was very disappointed by the lack of follow-up. But the Judiciary Committee is going to investigate, so maybe something will come of that.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: Dan, love the column and especially the cartoon links. Have readers ever submitted their own cartoons and would you be willing to post them for other readers to enjoy?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks! And I've never considered asking readers for cartoons -- possibly because the pros are doing such a great job. But maybe I should.


Glen Arm, Md.: Since Bush has now agreed very clearly to a schedule for withdrawal or time line for all U.S. troops to be removed from Iraq (in a plan very similar to Obama), I am lost to understand why the media has practically ignored this huge shift in policy? Where is the outrage that the terrorist now have a date marked on their calendars that will allow them to wait? If not that, then why are these so-called 'even handed' media types not pointing out that Bush has followed Obama's Iraq strategy and that the Democrats were right all along?

Dan Froomkin: Kind of amazing, isn't it? Seems like a pretty huge reversal to me. I think part of the problem is that we haven't actually seen anything on paper yet.

That said, I wonder if this is all a big plot just to muddy the whole Iraq issue before the November election. Wouldn't be the first time. More on this later.


San Clemente, Calif.: I guess we're treating you like a legal expert today, but I have been wondering about this. Since corporations have the rights of an individual citizen under the law, couldn't Bush issue pardons to war profiteers like Haliburton and Blackwater as well as the telecoms?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, I am no legal expert. But I'm pretty sure presidential pardons cannot extend to civil suits.


Dan Froomkin: OK, I have to run. Thanks for all the great questions and comments. See you again soon.


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