There were only two subjects that concerned the media during President Bush’s December 19th news conference: Bad news on Iraq and domestic spying. Problems in Iraq accounted for six questions, while there were seven on domestic spying. (Note: Questions were counted based on their topic. Follow-ups on the same subject were not counted as separate questions.)
The assembled members of the press seemed relatively uninterested in the successful Iraqi elections. In fact, there were no questions specifically about the elections or about the improving economy.
The queries on Iraq were largely negative. Adam Entous of Reuters phrased his question this way:
"Mr. President, you have hailed the Iraqi elections as a success, but some lawmakers say you are not focusing on the threat of a civil war. Do you fear a civil war?"
CBS reporter John Roberts repeated a worn out question from a previous press conference. He wondered, "What would you say is the biggest mistake you’ve made during your presidency, and what have you learned from it?" Wendell Goler of Fox News suggested the President might have something to do with the country’s division over Iraq. He started with a question about intelligence and then segued into blame:
"And so I wonder if now, as you look back, if you look at that intelligence and feel that the intelligence and your use of it might bear some responsibility for the current divisions in the country over the war and what can you do about it?"
Other questions about Iraq included timetables for troop withdrawals.
The media focused heavily on the recent revelations about domestic spying. AP reporter Terry Hunt asked the President why he decided to "skip the basic safeguard of asking courts for permission for these intercepts?" NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell essentially repeated the question, asking:
"Why in the four years since 9/11, has your administration not sought to get changes in the law instead of bypassing it, as some of your critics have said?"
Martha Raddatz of ABC tried to trap the President by asking him why he wouldn’t go farther:
"Thank you, Mr. President. You say you have an obligation to protect us. Then why not monitor those calls between Houston and L.A.? If the threat is so great, and you use the same logic, why not monitor those calls? Americans thought they weren't being spied on in calls overseas -- why not within the country, if the threat is so great?"
Notice the repetition of the phrase, "if the threat is so great."
CNN's Suzanne Malveaux told the President that Democrats "have said you have acted beyond the law, and that you have even broken the law." The Washington Post’s Peter Baker asked the President about limits on a President during wartime:
"And if the global war on terror is going to last for decades, as has been forecast, does that mean that we're going to see, therefore, a more or less permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the executive in American society?"
The President interrupted and objected to the term "unchecked power." He pointed out that Congress has been briefed on the domestic spying program. Finally, April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Networks asked the President to give examples of planned attacks that have been thwarted through this program. Citing security reasons, the President declined.