White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, November 12, 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, Nov. 12 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also moderator of the White House Watchers discussion group and 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 (out shortly) is about President Bush's continued inability to acknowledge any substantive mistakes. In a CNN interview yesterday, he copped to a few public-relations gaffes, but that was it.

And as it happens, I'm launching a new discussion group today. It's called White House Watchers. I intend for it to be a welcoming and civil place where my readers can discuss specific White House-related issues. I'm also hoping to cull your posts for use in my column. Today's topic is What Might Bush Regret?. Read the About This Group post for instructions.


Seattle: I think the first thing that the Obama White House should do is plead "nolo contendere" to a wide variety of cases coming before it. California wants tougher clean air standards and Bush administration attorneys are filing suit? Drop the suit. ACLU wants to find out how many illegal wiretaps were placed? Drop your opposition. Isn't it amazing how much the Bush legal strategy of delay, delay, delay turns out to be a house of cards?

Dan Froomkin: You raise an important point: A lot can be accomplished by the executive branch -- unilaterally -- through its legal strategy. But you seem to be forgetting that the Bush White House still has that power for now -- and on the way out the door could, for instance, settle some lawsuits on terms favorable to Republican special interests. As I wrote for Niemanwatchdog a while back: "Will the administration suddenly settle major litigation on different terms than what a new administration might prefer? While rulemaking is reversible with difficulty, litigation settlements can have profound policy implications and are not reversible."


Vienna, Va.: Dan: Regarding the upcoming international economic summit, can you see any useful purpose to this event other than a weak effort by a lame-duck president to act as if he's still relevant, and appear as if he is laying substantive groundwork for transition to his successor? His last-minute effort at a Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation (remember that?) was delusional, there is no final Status of Forces agreement with Iraq, the surge appears to be more of a holding action than a success, and his approval ratings are dismal, with the result that the GOP took a solid beating in the election (not that any conservative pundits would admit it).

The Obama transition team apparently wants no association with this meeting, and a follow-up already is scheduled anyway. Realistically, what can President Bush do besides serve cookies and punch? The economic situation seems to worsen day after day, and I don't see how this summit is going to stabilize such turmoil.

Dan Froomkin: It may even be worse than you think. It has put the president-elect in a bit of a bind, too. Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "The world is waiting for President-elect Barack Obama, and some of its most prominent leaders are flying into the United States this weekend clamoring to meet with him. But they will have to keep on waiting.

"The leaders of 19 foreign powers, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, converge on Washington on Friday for an emergency economic summit meeting hosted by President Bush. Although invited, Mr. Obama has opted to stay in Chicago and will not meet any of the leaders separately....

"Several Obama advisers, in separate interviews, all used the word 'awkward' to describe the situation. But Robert Gibbs, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said: 'While some may say it's awkward that he's not there, it would be far more problematic to be there. We firmly believe there is only one president at a time.'"


Bowie, Md.: What are President Bush's plans post-presidency?

Dan Froomkin: He reiterated yesterday that he plans to go back to Texas, work on his library and think tank ... and maybe write a book.


Houston: Hi Dan. Bush regrets some of his comments; I wonder how many voters regret a vote for Bush/Cheney?

washingtonpost.com: "Bush also reiterated comments he made in 2006 and this June by telling CNN that he regrets 'saying some things I shouldn't have said . . . like, "dead or alive," "bring 'em on." . . . I was trying to convey a message. I probably could have conveyed it more artfully.' " Bush Marks Holiday On Carrier (Post, Nov. 11)

Dan Froomkin: Good question. I would like to read interviews with people who "switched."


Re: Settling Suits: But it takes two parties to settle a suit, right? Why would the other party settle with the lame-duck administration instead of just waiting nine weeks to deal with the new guys?

Dan Froomkin: If they think they'll get a better deal from the Bushies.


Asheville, N.C.: In the story on replacing intelligence agency heads, two things I didn't know stand out: One, that intelligence agencies are blamed not just for the failure to know the status of Saddam's WMD program, but for a "failure to anticipate Sept. 11"!? And, two, that there has been no talk yet about retiring the "national intelligence director" layer Bush put in place to take the heat off him.

washingtonpost.com: Top Two Officials In U.S. Intelligence Expect to Lose Jobs (Post, Nov. 11)

Dan Froomkin: Why shouldn't they be blamed for a failure to anticipate Sept. 11? (Or, perhaps more properly, for a failure to make sure the White House fully appreciated the threat?)

Your point about not undoing Bush's intelligence "reform" is a good one. That, and the creation of the hugely bloated Department of Homeland Security may be effectively un-undoable.


Washington: For how long after the inauguration will you continue to be fixated on George Bush? Any chance that you might throw your jaundiced eye on the new White House?

Dan Froomkin: My fixation on George Bush will go into remission on Jan. 20 -- at the latest. (Though I'm sure he'll make some cameo appearances.)

White House Watch will continue during the Obama Administration, although the new president and his staff inevitably will bring a new set of themes for me to explore.

The hard part, actually, is figuring out what to do during the transition. I'm still quite fascinated with Bush, and don't want to let him out of my sights -- but Obama is certainly the bigger and more important story right now. I guess I'll try to do a bit of both. As it happens, a big theme of the Obama administration looks to be the undoing of the Bush administration!


Baltimore: Dan: My clear memory of presidential elections stretches back to Kennedy/Nixon, and I cannot remember another election where the public seemed to immediately embrace the president-elect as the new guy in charge. From press coverage and the comments of everyday folks, President Bush is being treated like the guy who won't leave the cocktail party at 2 a.m. Does it seem that way to you, and to other chatters? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: There is undeniably something exciting about the change Obama represents, in terms of his being African-American, as well as generationally -- and as far as ushering in the end of a widely despised Bush presidency. I suspect the nation (if not the punditocracy) will be giddy well past inauguration. What say the rest of you?


winoohno: "Bush's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, said the White House is even preparing a 'tabletop' exercise to simulate how Obama's national security officials should respond in the event of a terrorist attack. ..." Now wait a second, is this the same Josh Bolton who refused to appear before Congress in response to a subpoena? Is this administration going to give Obama pointers on responding to a terrorist attack? For real?

I mean, didn't Sept. 11 happen on Bush's watch? Wasn't our air defense nonexistent? Wasn't the Pentagon completely unguarded on Sept. 11 under this administration? Has the Bush Administration found Osama bin Laden? How many convictions has this administration won in court for terrorism? I think you see my point: This is the most corrupt, criminal and incompetent administration ever -- I don't think they should be doling out any advice!

Dan Froomkin: I think you're being a bit uncharitable. Regardless of what you think of them, they've learned something these past eight years about how things work over there, and I'm sure the Obama people appreciate any and every bit of advice they get from the Bush White House -- particularly when it comes to logistics -- while reserving the right to disregard it! And it's Bolten with an "e."


Seattle: I'm a lawyer by training and know that there are dozens of ways to stall a trial for another two months. Also, anyone suing the U.S. government at this point probably isn't that friendly to Bush or his administration and knows that Obama will be coming into office in a short amount of time. How much incentive would there actually be for, say, California to settle now, when it knows it'll get better terms later?

Dan Froomkin: For California, none at all -- but there may well be other plaintiffs or defendants who know they'll get a much better deal from the Bush folks than they would from the Obama folks.

I have two words for you: tobacco settlement.


Chicago: Dan -- when you forget to notify your readers that you are taking the day off, it's a big let-down. (I kept checking washingtonpost.com during the day to see if your column was posted.) While Veterans's Day may be a generally-recognized federal holiday in the D.C. area -- and therefore you might be reasonable to presume that everyone knows you're taking a day off -- out here in the hinterlands (in the private sector) we don't enjoy the same federal holidays off. When you're gone, you're missed!

Dan Froomkin: Sorry ... and thanks. When the column relaunches on Jan. 20, I think there will be a better way to discreetly alert readers to my absence.


Dan Froomkin: The column is up! Bush Still Draws a Blank.


Minneapolis: Hi Dan. If I heard correctly, Pres. Bush also said he regretted the "Mission Accomplished" debacle. Will that forever be seen as the turning point when things started to go south for the administration, or is there another key event that you'd point to?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, he did. I certainly wouldn't call that a turning point. You may recall, the initial coverage was in fact hugely positive. I think there was a more gradual awareness that the war would drag on a long time, and that Bush hadn't planned for that.

And then of course there was Katrina. Perceptions of his competence and integrity took their hardest hit then. But if you look at this chart of presidential approval, except for a big bump immediately before and after the invasion, it has been a long, slow decline from the post-Sept. 11 stratosphere to the 2008 toilet.


Settlement: One would hope than any attempts to push sweetheart settlements would be outed by government attorneys and killed by the resulting press coverage. Hasn't this administration learned anything from the U.S. Attorneys scandal? As a lawyer in private practice -- with lots of friends at Justice -- I would hope one of them would call you or another paper to blow the whistle on these types of last-minute giveaways. Maybe you can set up a hotline for these kinds of tips?

Dan Froomkin: Did I mention the tobacco settlement?

And as much as it pains me to say so, I think it's going to take an awful lot for anyone to get outraged by even the baldest Bush administration shenanigan at this point. Pretty much everybody is focused on the future.

Department of Justice lawyers know who to call -- starting with their own Office of Professional Responsibility. But at this point, do you really think the threat of an investigation (ooh!) is going to scare any Bushies?


Bush's Regrets: Violating the Geneva Convention and authorizing torture and extraordinary rendition; significantly curtailing the civil rights of U.S. citizens with no increase in security, including illegal wiretapping and safety measures at airports; misrepresenting the truth (okay, lying) about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; thousands of dead soldiers and civilians in a war that never needed to occur; the (non)response to Hurricane Katrina. This is just the beginning. Of course these are things he should regret. I'm not sure that he psychologically is capable of real regret -- it seems he simply won't allow himself to question what he has done.

Dan Froomkin: There does seem to be something going on at a psychological level, especially now that it's post-election. Now, some of the things you list are not things that I think he would regret even if he were capable of regret, but why can't he say "in retrospect, I never should have let troops go into Iraq without a detailed plan for the occupation"? Or "I should have made sure that there were clearer directives against torture in Iraqi prisons"? Why can't he say that?


Champaign, Ill.: I noticed in the CNN interview that Bush still was trying to sell the canard that the "Mission Accomplished" sign was intended to mean that the ship's mission had been accomplished. Hasn't that excuse been dismissed as a plain -- even crude -- attempt at spin?

Dan Froomkin: Pretty much. The White House (including Bush himself) initially insisted the banner was put up by the crew, but then finally had to admit that wasn't the case -- it was put up by the White House's crack image-creation machine, which knew exactly what the message would be.


Bala Cynwyd, Pa.: Any thoughts on whether and how Obama will change the "all war on terror all the time" Bush rhetoric? These guys do not pose a threat anything close to the threat posed by nation states like Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany, yet Bush and Co. seem to imbue "terrorists" with almost superhuman abilities. How does one change the discussion and the strategy?

Dan Froomkin: That's a great question. How do you purge all the fear Bush injected into the national consciousness? Obama's going to have to give one hell of an inaugural speech!


Re: The Banner: One of the keys to understanding Bush -- and to a lesser extent Palin -- is that they are correct in everything they do. Read the statement about the banner: He regrets that it was there, but does not accept any responsibility for deciding to put it there or having his staff put it there, or that he didn't have it removed when he saw it, or that he explained what it meant when he saw it. That's the problem: no acceptance of responsibility.

Dan Froomkin: With one caveat: He generally will acknowledge that he bears responsibility for ... being the Decider.


Boston: Hi Dan. If Bush issues a blanket pardon for everyone in his administration, which seems likely, does the possibility exist of some kind of "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" being formed? Do you think it would do any good?

Dan Froomkin: Even I can't imagine such a big blanket. By contrast, I certainly could imagine a blanket pardon for any official involved in the interrogation of terror suspects, or warrantless wiretapping -- but in both those cases, then I think some sort of truth commission would be an absolute national necessity.

I wish people would talk about this issue before it's moot.


Atlanta: Hi Dan. I was listening to Joe Scarborough while getting ready for work this morning, and he made a comment that to the effect that Bush has done some bad things, but that he has done a lot of good things. Which got me to thinking: What are the good things? All I could come up with was increased funding for fighting AIDS in third-world countries. Anything else you can think of?

Dan Froomkin: This will be the topic of a forthcoming "group" discussion, so start making your lists now.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: In your opinion, does President Bush genuinely believe he didn't make any mistakes, or is he simply refusing to acknowledge them out of pure abstinence, or out of the (ever-fading) hope that history will redeem him in the public's eye?

Dan Froomkin: Could it be some of both? Or that he thinks he's been the victim of circumstance? How about this for another theory: He is still hoping that the "Bush legacy" stories will have two sides -- and he worries that if he admits to various screwups, they might have only one.


Terror alert: We can at least celebrate that we got through an entire election campaign without the terror alert status being "elevated" one time.

Dan Froomkin: Yes! That was one of the more prevalent conspiracy theories a while back. Another one bites the dust.


St Paul, Minn.: Dan doesn't executive privilege end Jan. 20? If so, can't Congress call all of those rascals up to testify, starting with some of the lower officials (John Yoo for instance) -- like in a RICO hearing -- to get them to talk about the stuff from upstairs?

Dan Froomkin: Yes and no. This is something I should look into further, but my understanding is that presidents have at times been quite solicitous of executive privilege claims by their predecessors.

Hey -- maybe that's why Bush is being so classy all of a sudden!


Definitions: Do you think the Obama administration will redefine what the "war on terror" means? It's one thing I have seen get little discussion. "War on drugs," "war on poverty" -- those were understood to be metaphorical. No one expected poverty or bricks of cocaine to sign a treaty with America, and accordingly no special powers were granted the president to fight them. Not so with the "war on terror." This is apparently a real war with real soldiers and real war time powers for the president. How will we know when it's over? Who will surrender to us? It can't be realistic to think all terrorists will be eliminated. Does this war go on forever?

Dan Froomkin: One of the undeniable powers of the presidency is the ability to establish the core vocabulary of the political discourse. Bush has used that power to great effect.

The Obama inaugural would be a good occasion to start a Bush rhetoric rollback, starting with the war on terror.


Atlanta: Say, whatever happened to that banner, anyway?

Dan Froomkin: I assume it's in someone's basement.


"Does President Bush genuinely believe he didn't make any mistakes, or is he simply refusing to acknowledge them out of pure abstinence, or out of the (ever-fading) hope that history will redeem him": I suspect part of it is he believes that because he is a "good person" (i.e. evangelical), everything he does is borne of goodness, and even if it doesn't turn out quite right, he meant well, so it's okay. Absolution straight from heaven. As if Christianity were a get-out-of-jail-free card for bad behavior (rather than a moral code to be guided by in the first place).

Dan Froomkin: That has a certain plausibility to it.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Just out of curiosity ... when does the outgoing president actually move out of the White House? When does the incoming president move in? Is Jan. 20 the actual date when both of these events transpire?

Dan Froomkin: Yes.


Arlington, Va.: Regrets: You only should apologize for those things you had control over. If you did your best with the information you had at the time, then you have nothing to apologize for. In reality, that's what Bush did; with Katrina, Iraq after the invasion and the economy, hindsight is 20-20.

Dan Froomkin: That's an interesting point, but I'm just not sure I see the distinction. If things went wrong on his watch, why wouldn't he have regrets? And what about decisions that he made with all the best intentions, but which nevertheless turned out poorly. No regrets there? Can you ever make mistakes, by your definition? Come join my group and share your thoughts.


Seattle: More a question for media critics, but given the excitement and high-energy involved in this campaign, will the coverage of Obama's transition (now going on Day 7) slow down and let things develop? Or is the combination of lame-duck and the 24-7 news cycle likely to keep rumors and innuendo and speculation flowing, just as before the election?

Dan Froomkin: I think many of my colleagues have become addicted to speed in a deeply unseemly way, and I fear that they will not spend the time necessary to thoughtfully examine and communicate the overarching themes and the very complex policy challenges facing the Obama administration. Perhaps that will be my calling.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks everyone. I have to run. I'll be back here in three weeks -- after Thanksgiving -- and of course every weekday afternoon on the homepage.

Please don't forget to join my discussion group, post your thoughts, and check back often!


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