Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I have a newspaper column out tomorrow which pursues the hypothesis I mentioned a few days ago that an escalating crisis in Iraq might actually help President Bush, even though the crisis is demonstrably of his own making.

Meanwhile, Ruy Teixeira has a post on his blog DonkeyRising which says Bush's recent rise in the polls reflects his bulking up on support in the bright red states without making much if any headway in the battleground states where the race will be won or lost.

For what it's worth, I remain fundamentally optimistic about this race.

Secret liberal influence at the Coalition Provisional Authority?

Compare and contrast the CPA Website with that of the Brookings Institution.

Who knew Strobe's influence still stretched so far?

Actually, a quick look under the hood of each site shows that either the CPA or Brookings snagged the other outfit's website and remodeled it as their own.

The presence of this line ("submenu name="Brookings Review" id="brs" url="/press/review/rev_des.htm") buried in the code of both websites seems to give a pretty good sign of who did the deed.

Now if they'd just crib the policy proposals and not just the html!

Oh, the Humanity!

Hey, at least those CPA folks are saving money!

Okay, I'm done.

Another follow-up on the White House press conference question.

As I said before, for the reasons I noted below, I'm sure the Presidential press conferences don't work from presubmitted questions.

However, as I noted a couple days ago, that doesn't mean the president's aides, don't give him "must-calls" -- a list of ringer journalists who they know will toss the president a lifeline with some gimme question.

Bill Sammon of the Washington Times was one of the 'must-calls' from last week.

He served up this ridiculous question: "You have been accused of letting the 9-11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature far enough. First, could you respond to that general criticism?"

For all I know, maybe Sammon gave Scott or Bartlett at look at his question in advance. Who knows? But I really doubt it. After all, they could be pretty confident it would either be something like this or maybe: "Mr. President, many commentators claim John Kerry is a ridiculous liberal who can't stand up to the bad guys. Can you comment?" You get the idea.

In any case, this strikes me as a separate point. I remain quite sure the journalists from the straight-up publications (real newspapers and TV nets) don't submit their questions in advance.

There's been quite a lot of chatter in the last couple days about an article in the Daily Trojan (no snickers, please), the USC student newspaper, which reports the following about what author Ron Suskind allegedly said at at a public forum on campus ...

One of Suskind's most severe critiques of Bush was not only Bush's lack of press conferences but also his management of those conferences.

For each press conference, the White House press secretary asks the reporters for their questions, selects six or seven of the questions to answer and those reporters are the only ones called upon to ask their questions during the press conference, Suskind said.

I'd never heard of such a <$Ad$>thing and couldn't believe it was true. But Suskind's a serious person and a first-rate journalist. And a bunch of readers asked if I knew anything about it. And, frankly, I've gotten burned a few times underestimating the degree of skullduggery this White House is capable of. So, with some trepidation, I emailed two friends from the White House press corps just to make sure.

I know and trust both of them and both assured me, categorically, that this is not what happens.

In the words of one of them: "It's complete ---------. As in 'I can't believe that he was quoted accurately' ---------. Occasionally, before background briefings, White House aides will canvass reporters to ask what we're interested in on that day (but "the Middle East" is plenty answer for them). But I have never, ever heard of submitting questions in writing, orally, by email, or any other way before a presidential press conference. Not under Ari, not under Scott."

Onward and upward with the rule of law.

Following up on our post of two weeks ago, Ahmed Chalabi's nephew Salem has now been appointed "general director" of the Iraqi war crimes tribunal which will try, among others, Saddam Hussein.

Salem, you'll remember, earlier went into the war contracting and lobbying business with the law partner of Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith, a prime architect of the war, and the Pentagon official in charge of the contracting process.

And, no, I'm not making any of this up.

From this article, it seems that the spokesman of Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, Entefadh Qanbar, is also acting as the spokesman for the Tribunal. Perhaps he already is the spokesman for it. It's just not clear.

In any case, the operation -- holding the malefactors of the old regime accountable for their acts -- does seem to be becoming a family affair.

Along similar lines, we should still be asking why the CPA, the sovereign authority in Iraq, allowed Chalabi to confiscate the files of the former regime's secret police to use to blackmail his political enemies. Given these most recent developments, perhaps it will be argued that this was part of some rather broadly construed discovery proceeding pursuant to the Chalabi family's prosecution of Saddam Hussein. But I would find that rationale less than convincing.

Let's do a moment of follow-up about the president's reaction to the August 6th, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief.

'How did the president react?' and 'What did he do?' have been the chief reactions swirling around this story. So let's look back at the AP story from the day in question.

According to the story, the president went out for the morning 4 mile run before 8 AM. He came back, washed up, and went to meet aides for a foreign policy briefing.

"With sunlight pouring in through a floor-to-ceiling living room window," said the Associated Press, "Bush met with deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, national security aide Steve Biegun and spokesman Scott McClellan for about 45 minutes. They took a call from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, discussing peace efforts in Macedonia."

After that, the president headed off to work on a nature walk on the ranch.

Now, there's been some questioning as to whether the president himself ever actually read the PDB at all. According to an article in Salon last week, the president usually does not read his PDBs himself but rather has them summarized for him by George Tenet.

Tenet of course did not do the briefing that morning since Bush was on vacation in Texas. Rather, it was delivered by the number three person at the NSC, Biegun, who was the president's chief foreign policy advisor on hand. It doesn't seem to be a great stretch that Biegun would have summarized the brief just as Tenet normally did. But of course we don't know.

Now, there's another wrinkle to the story. The president arrived two days before the briefing noted above -- on August 4th. That was a Saturday. And the Monday briefing seems to have been the first after he arrived.

In addition to this, Biegun had only been on the job for about six weeks at the time. So it seems likely that this was the first time he had ever briefed the president. And that makes me wonder even more about just how the briefing was conducted.

So, what do we have? The fact that the meeting lasted less than an hour -- and also included discussion of another major issue, Macedonia -- tells us, I think, that the document generated little if any serious discussion.

But look who was also there: Scott McClellan, the president's current press secretary. The press gets a crack at him every day. Sure, he probably won't answer on principle. But he's one of only four people there that day. He was there. Why not ask him?

There's a lot of hand-wringing from Democrats and a lot of satisfaction from Republicans over the two new polls out this morning showing a small, but measurable lead for the president over John Kerry.

(CNN/USAToday Bush 50%, Kerry 44%, Nader 4%. WaPo/ABCNews Bush 48%, Kerry 43%, Nader 6%.)

The first thing that is worth noting is that if you look at the tally on the Polling Report website, there have been eight other polls conducted entirely or in part during the month of April. And only one of those showed a lead for the president. The most recent of those other polls, the Zogby poll conducted roughly simultaneously with the WaPo and CNN polls, has Kerry up by three points over Bush and tied when Nader is put into the mix.

What I take from this is not that the two most recent polls are outliers and should be discounted, but that we've just gone roughly a month when every poll agreed that Kerry was ahead. Before that, over the first four months of this year, they've oscillated back and forth a couple times. I think this is the just the nature of this race. And something folks on both sides are going to have to get used to.

From what I can glean from reader emails these new numbers have really knocked the wind out of a lot of Democrats because it's very hard for them to see how the president could have possibly gained traction over two or three weeks when the news for his White House has been universally and profoundly bad -- principally because of the uptick in fighting in Iraq, but also because of the 9/11 business.

If I could capture the mood in a sentence, it is, "If this doesn't sink the guy, nothing will."

I must say that it surprises me too. But, as I said, this is a close race that has bounced back and forth a couple times -- and often for reasons which are not as clearly tied to the current news cycle as we're inclined to think. In short, don't change your view of the race based on the president popping up a few points into the lead.

Another opinion is that of Charlie Cook, in the "Off to the Races" analysis out this morning, who points to the president's ad campaign.

Cook gives a rather downcast view of the state of the Kerry campaign and suggests that the massive Bush ad campaign against Kerry is finally bearing fruit. Nevertheless, measures of public opinion on Iraq keep heading south, as does the all-important 'is the country headed in the right direction/wrong direction' question. He concludes by saying that "Kerry's rising negative ratings and an increase in Bush's own problems create a wash -- a race that remains a dead heat in this evenly divided country."

A contrary reading of these polls might suggest that the president gains as national security and war issues become more salient, even if they are becoming more salient because of what seem to be objectively bad news about his policies. But I suspect Cook's read is closer to the mark.

The more I read that passage (below) from this morning's gaggle, the more perplexed I become. Why couldn't Scott McClellan give a straight denial to any of the questions about whether Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar had pledged to President Bush that his country would lower gas prices in time for the November election?

It's not that I don't think it could be true. In fact I find it quite plausible. It makes sense to me given the ties between the Bush family and the House of Saud -- particularly to Bandar. It makes sense given Bandar's Republicanism. And, perhaps most of all, it rings true because such an understanding would play to Bandar's once-exalted role as facilitator and intermediary between elites in both countries.

As David Plotz explained in this December 2001 article in Slate, Bandar's role in Washington and the essence of his once-vast power was as the man who created the illusion that elites from these two deeply dissimilar and in many ways antagonistic countries could hash out mutual understandings and find common interests in places like Aspen and other getaways far removed from the true pulse of both societies.

(Think about that when considering the ties between the Bushes and the Sauds.)

So, yes, I think such an arrangement or understanding is quite possible. Yet such agreements aren't written out on paper. And they should be easily deniable even if they are true -- especially with a White House that, from my experience, seldom gets hung up on such minor quibbles.

So, again, why the evasion?

Even odder is that Woodward now seems to be backing off the original claim. At least that's what I gleaned from this exchange from last night between Bandar and Woodward on Larry King (a cast of three characters about whom many funny things could certainly be said) ...

KING: The story that Mr. Woodward has about the promise to lower the oil prices by the election. Your government has denied has.

WOODWARD: That's not my story. What I say in the book is that the Saudis, and maybe you looked at this section of the book, Ambassador, that the Saudis hoped to keep oil prices low during the period for -- before the election, because of its impact on the economy. That's what I say.

BIN SULTAN: I think the way that Bob said it now is accurate. We hoped that the oil prices will stay low, because that's good for America's economy, but more important, it's good for our economy and the international economy, and this is not -- nothing unusual. President Clinton asked us to keep the prices down in the year 2000. In fact, I can go back to 1979, President Carter asked us to keep the prices down to avoid the malaise. So yes, it's in our interests and in America's interests to keep the prices down.

Clearly we're in good hands.