White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, December 3, 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, Dec. 3, at 1 p.m. ET.

A 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 chat. My column today, Rejecting the Torture Legacy, is about the pressure that President-elect Barack Obama is under to to make the cleanest possible break from President Bush's interrogation policies. It's also about the debate over how best to bring light and accountability to such a dark period in our history.

In yesterday's column, Bush Gets Out the Shovel, I pretty much took apart Bush's interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson, and wrote that despite what you might have heard, Bush still refuses to take responsibility for a single thing that went wrong on his watch.

And in Monday's column, The Return of Debate?, I speculated on the possible return of spirited policy debates to a White House that has been largely devoid of them for the last eight years.

So let's talk about those issues -- or whatever else is on your mind.


Boynton Beach, Fla.: You've been writing about the late rules changes, embedding of political appointees in government agencies, the concerns the media has expressed for the pardons to come and similar end-of-administration issues. Clearly this isn't a lame duck. So while the preening has begun over his legacy, what bird or animal would you use to describe the end-of-term nature of this president?

Dan Froomkin: This is an obvious one to turn over to you, dear readers. Bring it on.


Dallas: I, like many, am appalled, but unfortunately not surprised, by the last minute efforts of the Bush administration to force onto the American public things it seems they were unable to achieve legislatively. I am also confused -- as to how they can actually do this. And, everything I've read on it says that it will be virtually impossible to reverse. Could you please explain this? Everything I've read focuses on the actual regulations, and not where this power comes from and why it is so hard to reverse.

Thank you for your incredible work at the Post.

Dan Froomkin: Some of these last-minute actions will be easy to overturn; some will just take a little time and effort; some will be very difficult indeed. In that last category are the formal "rules" that take effect before Obama takes office. To overturn them requires a new rule, which can only come out of an elaborate and lengthy rule-making process.

Much of this, to be honest, was entirely predictable. (See this, for instance.)

Some of this sort of stuff goes on with every administration. The question, as always, is the scope and the motivation.


Dallas: Dan

As always, I enjoy reading your column.

In yesterday's column there was the question of why Bush does not and will not take responsibility for any or all of the failings of his presidency. I think it is quite simple of an answer. Bush has never had to take responsibility for his actions. He has always had scapegoats, or family to fall back on or to cover his rear. In his mind it is never his fault, always somebody or something else. So why change now??

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And with interviewers like Charlie Gibson, he's not exactly under any pressure to do it now, either.


Washington, DC: "It's also about the debate over how best to bring light and accountability to such a dark period in our history."

Ohhh please Dan. Just because the media wants to define what has happened as torture doesn't make it so. The media is so arrogant to think that just because they repeat and repeat and repeat these things, people are stupid enough to believe it.

After reading through the confirmed reports, not the stuff that has found out to be lies, I personally don't believe temperature manipulation, sleep deprivation and the occasional waterboarding is torture.

PLUS REMEMBER, BILL CLINTON STARTED RENDITION, NOT BUSH...I have never heard you acknowledge this. Why?

Dan Froomkin: Actually, I've been shocked at how "even handed" the media has been about describing what I'm quite sure the overwhelming preponderance of experts and Americans would have no hesitation to call torture.

As for rendition, yes it dates back to Clinton, who bears some responsibility. But Bush expanded the practice dramatically -- and arguably used it as a way of outsourcing torture.


Anonymous: Bush is now an lame ostrich as he squawks and drives his head into the sand

Dan Froomkin: Vivid image.


Palm Beach, Fla.: What bird or animal? A dodo bird!!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Rockville, Md.: So you want Internet dissent at the White House? I wonder how long that will last and who will be fired first when they are quoted by you. I can just see your headline "Text proves President is...."

Dan Froomkin: You're referring to a piece I wrote last week for NiemanWatchdog.org (and cross-posted to Huffingtonpost.com): It's time for a Wiki White House.

Those of you who've been reading this column for a while know that I'm a big transparency buff. I've also long been intrigued by the promise the Internet holds for increasing government transparency -- and in particular what a truly modern whitehouse.gov Web site could mean for the public's ability to see into the White House. That piece was the result of a lot of my thinking.

I'll be writing a lot about this stuff in my column soon, as well, as I think Obama absolutely needs to be held to his promises of transparency and accountability.

But your specific question appears to be about my proposal that the sausage-making part of the White House policy process, where different people are arguing different positions, be made public on the Web. And of course you are correct that there is an enormous disincentive for doing this. History has certainly shown how the temptation to operate in secrecy is a hard one to resist once you're inside the White House.

But I think that overall, the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks. I think Obama is going to have to act very differently from Bush in very many ways -- starting with transparency -- if he is to earn and keep the trust of the American people. And so far, I don't think it's out of the question.


What bird or animal...: Being that Bush doesn't make many appearances and when he does he doesn't say much at all, I'd say a Cuckoo Clock.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Saint Paul, Minn. : Hi Dan -- I'm sorry, but this is too easy, with possibilities endless. Personally, I'd go for albatross or turkey, for obvious reasons.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


New York: We ask so little from the Charlie Gibsons of the world, and we get even less. Can't we at least get somebody, anybody, to call Bush on his repetition of that lie about how the intelligence community blew it with their reports of WMD, when we now know that Cheney's gremlins worked overtime to insert the false intelligence in the NIEs. We know there was no "mistake." Bush knows it. Why doesn't Gibson know it?

Dan Froomkin: There are any number of classic, endlessly repeated Bush assertions that interviewers could and should come prepared to question aggressively. I don't understand why they sit there and nod.

For better or worse, I suspect that the answers Bush gave Gibson are pretty much what he'll say in his other exit interviews. Let's just hope the next interviewers aren't such pushovers.


Yelm, Wash.: Hi Dan, It will certainly be a different world without GWB's antics to follow along with your informed insight into his hijinx.

Will there be a book in your future plans detailing your experience chronicling his time in office?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think so. I plan to keep going with Obama, and I don't think that will leave me a lot of time. Also, keep in mind that I only started this column in 2004. The idea of having to revisit 2001 to 2003 is, well, off-putting.

I admit I'm kind of interested in exploring the question of why the people who knew what they were talking about (regarding WMD, the Iraqi insurgency, the economy, etc.) were so roundly ignored by the traditional media for so long -- and what we can learn about that.


Rockville, Md.: How soon will White House Watch be watching the Obama White House? As soon as he takes the oath? Or will there still be a Bush-hunt into 2009?

Dan Froomkin: Definitely as of Jan. 20. And perhaps more and more as we get closer. I'm still trying to figure out the proper balance.


Long Beach, Calif.: Can Bush really issue blanket preemptive pardons for himself and others? If so, how? With no charges pending, what is he pardoning against? Surely future indictments can be worded around any pardon legalese?

Dan Froomkin: Yes he can.

From what I understand, it wouldn't be too hard to write something pretty ironclad.


Vernon, British Columbia: re: Bush interviewers perhaps the ladies of "The View" would do a better job of interviewing Bush. Whoopie and Joy told McCain flat out he was lying.

Dan Froomkin: I would love to see Bush on "The View."


Chicago: Dan -

Despite the challenges he will face as soon as (before?) he assumes the presidency, I think that Obama can go a long way towards getting re-elected merely by being the "anti-Bush" in as many ways as possible: (1) overseeing a "transparent" presidency (as you've long advocated); (2) thoroughly airing differing viewpoints before fixing on a policy or strategy; (3) not "subcontracting out" his role as President to the VP, etc.

One great place for him to start is to hold weekly press conferences and really mix it up with his questioners. British PMs are required to answer to members of the House of Commons on a weekly basis (on TV no less) - this could be Obama's Americanized version of being held accountable to the people on a weekly basis. Some may think it potentially politically suicidal, but I think that Obama's got the chops to pull it off. Can you imagine a such a thing after 8 years of living with the "Bush Bubble"?

Dan Froomkin: That would be something, wouldn't it? And I think your final question is a very much to the point. We need to start imagining things as they ought to be, not just thinking about incremental changes to what has been.

We shouldn't be demanding from Obama simply more transparency than we've gotten from Bush; we should be demanding the transparency the American people deserve.


Washington, D.C.: Dan,

I know you are busy -- but a column that lists Bush's interview talking points and points to evidence that proves those points to be wrong would be great. Maybe the next interviewer would have the guts to raise a point -- if you did their homework for them.

Dan Froomkin: Maybe I can get my readers to do this for me. (I have a new discussion group, you know: White House Watchers.) Let me mull this.


New York: I think the animal suggestions have been far too benign. I would suggest a cockroach that has left egg cases hidden throughout the government (esp. the federal court system), waiting to hatch and create problems for many years to come.

Dan Froomkin: Ouch!


Washington, D.C.: Don't take this personally, but to be frank, I think that the Washington Post needs to replace you with a conservative writer for the White House Watch column. It makes sense to have a liberal writing about a Republican presidency, but having you write about a Democratic presidency is just wrong. No offense, I hope.

Dan Froomkin: No offense taken, but I don't agree. My goal in the column is to aggregate and annotate what I think are the most interesting and important stories about the White House, and call particular attention to emerging themes. I intend to keep doing that.


New York : When you think about it, Bush being forced to pre-emptively pardon himself, Cheney and their cronies would almost be the equivalent of a conviction after trial. If they accept a pardon, it means they must acknowledge guilt of a crime, right? None of them are going to jail, at least not in this country, anyway. Go to it, George.

Dan Froomkin: That is indeed one theory -- and one big reason why he might not do it.


Washington, D.C.: During the election, Obama and Biden NEVER held press conferences or spoke to the media, in fact they have shown the same disdain for tough questions from the media as you say Bush has. So, why should we expect Obama to be different?

Dan Froomkin: Recently, Obama has been holding (admittedly short) press conferences almost daily. I think that's a good precedent.


RE: Bush Pardons: Too bad prosecutors can't ignore the pardons to the same extent the administration was able to ignore subpoenas.

Dan Froomkin: Ha! Funny. Thanks.


Cocoa Beach, Fla.: Dan:

I watched the Gibson interview with Bush and read the transcript and it infuriates me! Do you think Bush really believes the BS he is spewing, or is he just beginning his revisionist history early? I cannot believe with the facts that are now out that he actually believes everything is someone else's fault.

Dan Froomkin: It's a mystery.


Chicago: Dan -- I'm a loyal and regular reader, and think you are rarely if ever unfair, but you might have been in characterizing Pres. Bush's comments about Obama's victory in Tuesday's column. When he said (paraphrasing now) "I'm sure some people voted against me, but I'm sure a lot of people decided they wanted to hear Obama explaining policy on their TV for the next four years," he wasn't trying to deflect blame, or dig at McCain, as you suggested. He was trying to be gracious: "Yes, I probably share blame, but instead of saying I lost the election, say Obama won it."

There's little to give the man credit for, but I think we can grant him that small act of grace.

Keep up the excellent work, and don't let up a bit when Obama's in office.

Dan Froomkin: Noted. That may have been a stretch.

But keep in mind, a lot of conservative Republicans are saying that Bush cost them the election because he wasn't acting Republican enough. So it was amazing to hear him reject the notion that the election was a repudiation of him, and calling it a repudiation of Republicans.


New York : Do you have any regrets about your coverage of the last eight years?

Dan Froomkin: Sure. Everyone has regrets. Well, almost everyone.


Chicago: Hi -- Re: last minute rule-making -- while I realize that un-doing unpalatable regulations may be time-consuming, can the courts also play a role? Specifically, in thinking about the proposed (or enacted as reported yesterday?) HHS ruling that could be construed as erecting barriers to providing contraception.


Dan Froomkin: Court challenges are certainly an option -- but they're unlikely to result in quick action.


Transition: Isn't it amazing how incredulous Republicans are at the competency and non-ideological nature of the appointments so far? Kinda shows how badly Bushism has infected the rank and file, huh?

Dan Froomkin: I think you raise a very important point here, which is that being the anti-Bush could consist in large part of simply running the government competently. But I won't believe anything until I see it.


Philadelphia: "I personally don't believe temperature manipulation, sleep deprivation and the occasional waterboarding is torture."

So, are you signing up to take part of victim in the waterboarding event at your local school fair? I suggest you read about the experience by someone who has been waterboarded. The actor Richard Armitage, for example, agreed to be waterboarded after being told it was a "humane way of extracting information" when filming an episode of "Spooks" in the U.K. under carefully controlled conditions, with a signal to get it to stop and health and safety people standing by. He said he "only lasted five to ten seconds, and the sound of my voice crying out to stop isn't me acting."

Dan Froomkin: Waterboarding in fact has been an archetypal form of torture since the Spanish Inquisition. I'm just not sure what to make of people who say it's not torture.

Maybe what they really mean is it's torture, but these people deserved it. (See, for instance, this article.)


Washington, D.C.: In response to the cockroach comment...I wonder if Bush's "eggs" will leak government secrets for 8 years the way Clinton's "eggs" did

Dan Froomkin: You're making all sorts of assumptions there. But since I'm very much pro leaking, I'll just say I hope so!


Re: Court-based actions: Attorney General Holder takes over the case when confirmed by the Senate. AG Holder agrees with the plaintiffs seeking to void the rule on procedural grounds. I can see the AG's office, for reasons of independence and precedent not agreeing with the plaintiff, but if the AG does decide to agree, the courts will be left with little choice by to void the rule, won't they?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think it's that simple. For instance, DOJ would be crazy to encourage the establishing of legal precedents that erode the government's ability to establish rules.


Riverdale, N.Y. : I can see why Laura Bush's memoirs are a superior get to GW's. After she came to Mrs. Obama's defense over the "for the first time I'm proud of my country" remark -- which she really didn't have to do -- I wondered about whether she might secretly be a sensitive, balanced person with a superior outlook to that of her husband, whose full character was on display with Gibson. It will be interesting to read what she writes.

Dan Froomkin: There are indeed tiny glimmers of independence in Mrs. Bush -- but absolutely no evidence to suggest that she will ever publicly undermine her husband.


Admitting guilt: Nah, he'd just say he was acting to protect people who had bravely served their country from "politically motivated prosecutions." And while he would include himself, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other high-level officials, he would frame it as being all about the front-line soldiers and agents. (Just like how any criticism of his decision to go to war, and his conduct of it, was "an attack on the troops.")

Dan Froomkin: You are absolutely correct that Bush would cast any preemptive pardons not as an admission of guilt but as a defense of brave and patriotic souls who deserve better than being hounded by politically motivated prosecutors. But Bush's ability to frame things is greatly reduced.


DC: I thought your piece yesterday was spot on. The way most of the news reports re: Bush's Gibson interview changed the meaning of what Bush ACTUALLY said was astounding. I had only read the news reports until your piece which prompted me to read the transcript. Thanks for staying on top of all this even when most of your colleagues aren't!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks so much. There's an understandable desire on the part of some of my colleagues, in these End Days, to find some sign of Bush's self-awareness. But I think they're just going to have to keep looking.


Dan Froomkin: Okay I have to run. Thanks everyone for your questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them.


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