Politics & Policy

Jay Carney’s Waterloo

The White House spokesman flounders in front of a newly curious press corps.

‘Thank you for that question,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said feebly when, early in Friday’s press conference, the issue of Benghazi was raised. And then he reflexively tried to recruit the questioner to his side. Look, Carney insisted, those darned Republicans are involved in an “ongoing attempt to politicize a tragedy that took four American lives.” We’re not going to fall into their trap and ask questions of the administration, are we? We’re not like those other outlets that are engaged in a “pattern of spreading misinformation.” Right, guys?

Evidently, Carney had not yet realized that things had changed. What had been a fringe story had by now gone mainstream: The New Yorker had written that new evidence “seriously undermines the White House’s credibility on this issue”; ABC News’s Jonathan Karl had averred that developments “directly contradict what White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said . . .  in November”; Thursday’s Morning Joe panel had agreed that the news was troubling for the White House; and George Will was gearing up to go onto the Sunday shows and complain that the nation had been “systematically misled.”

#ad#Newly intrigued, the assembled press corps ignored Carney’s ploy; so, too, his flippant, Obamaesque insistence that “efforts to re-fight the political battles of the past are not looked on kindly by the American people.” Benghazi might well have “happened a long time ago,” as Carney hilariously assured the media on May 1, but the fourth estate was now interested.

Cutting short the dismissal, Jim Acosta of CNN inquired of Carney why the State Department had removed Anshar al-Sharia’s name from the CIA’s story, and what the discovery of this edit has done to the credibility of the White House. “References to that group are removed from the conversation and don’t make their way into the talking points,” Acosta argued. “That is not a stylistic edit. That is not a single adjustment as you said back in November. That is a major, dramatic change to the information.”

“I appreciate the question and the opportunity,” Carney said, twitching slightly and starting to go red. But apparently he didn’t appreciate it enough to answer it. Nor to take the opportunity to admit that his prior claim that “the CIA drafted these talking points and redrafted” them — and that only “stylistic and non-substantive” changes were made from outside — was demonstrably false. At the fork in the road, Carney once again chose the well-worn low way.

Acosta was visibly unimpressed. Here it became clear that we were in it for the long haul. “Let me just follow up on this once and for all,” he eventually asked.

“Do you promise once and for all?” pleaded Carney.

“Maybe not,” Acosta shot back. “You are comfortable with the way you characterized this back in November? That this was a single adjustment?”

“I do. I do stand by it,” Carney replied.

“Jay, you told us that the only changes were stylistic,” asserted ABC’s Jonathan Karl, who earlier in the day had mainstreamed the yeoman work of The Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes. (Hayes had blown the lid off the talking-points deception almost a week before, to little public thanks.) “Is it a ‘stylistic’ change to take out all references to previous terror threats in Benghazi?” Karl asked.

“I appreciate the question again,” Carney answered, closing his eyes and twitching a little. “I accept that ‘stylistic’ might not precisely describe a change of one word to another . . . ”

Bristling, Karl interrupted, observing that the original talking points referred to al-Qaeda and to Anshar al-Sharia and had “extensive discussion of the previous threats of terrorist attacks in Benghazi.” A new set of talking points, “based on input from the State Department” was written, Karl added. It featured none of those things. “Do you deny that?” he jabbed.

“I’ve answered this question several times now,” Carney pretended. “I’m happy to answer it again if you’ll let me.” he continued. Looking anything but happy to answer it, Carney started to list the branches of government involved in the draft. Then he moved back to blaming Republicans for creating a “distraction.”

#page#Frequently, Carney attempted to assure the press that the government’s talking points had been carefully put together in order to make “concretely for sure” that no mistakes were made. After all, he insisted, we weren’t sure who did it, so the aim was “limiting the talking points to what we knew, as opposed to speculation about what may or may not have been, in the end, relevant to what happened in Benghazi.” The message: Better “not include things we could not be sure of.”

Like blaming protests on a YouTube video, perhaps?

#ad#The only thing that was inaccurate about his previous assertions, Carney insisted, was his claim that there were anti-video demonstrations outside the Benghazi compound on September 11 last year. Besides, he continued, Republicans are wrong to accuse the White House of “playing down an act of terror and an attack on the embassy,” because “the president himself” took to the Rose Garden on September 12 and told the country that the attack was an “act of terror.”

This was quite an astonishing thing for Carney to repeat, not just because the CBS transcript is available to anyone who cares to look it up but also because Carney himself claimed on September 14 that the attack “was a response to a YouTube video.” Worse, five days after that, he told the press:

Our belief based on the information we have is it was the video that caused the unrest in Cairo, and the video and the unrest in Cairo that helped — that precipitated some of the unrest in Benghazi and elsewhere. What other factors were involved is a matter of investigation.

This line was repeated at least once by Hillary Clinton, many times by Susan Rice, and, on September 26, by President Obama in his speech to the United Nations. We are thus supposed to believe that the government was so concerned about “the integrity of the investigation,” to use Carney’s peculiar words, that it removed all the suspects from public discussion while simultaneously blaming the attack on a video.

Among their many claimed sins, Republicans also drew Carney’s ire for “leaking” information “for political reasons.” “That’s their prerogative,” he sniffed. But this disgust at leaks struck a false note, given that the White House had held a secret meeting just a few minutes earlier in which it passed — “for political reasons”? — unattributable information to reporters. Just a few minutes before Carney’s on-air press conference, Politico’s Dylan Byers reported:

The White House held a “deep background” briefing with reporters on Friday afternoon to discuss recent revelations about the Benghazi investigation, sources familiar with the meeting tell POLITICO. . . . I asked [White House spokesman] Earnest to explain the meaning of “deep background,” as defined by the White House, for my readers. He emails: “Deep background means that the info presented by the briefers can be used in reporting but the briefers can’t be quoted.”

At times, Carney veered into abject nonsense:

The effort is always to, in that circumstance, and with an ongoing investigation and a lot of information, some of it accurate, some of it not, about what had happened and who was responsible, to provide information for members of Congress and others in the administration, for example, who might speak publicly about it that was based on only what the intelligence community could say for sure it thought it knew.

Glad we got that cleared up, then.

Until those damnable journalists got involved, May 10 had been billed by the White House as “Health Care Day” — a happy occasion on which the virtues of Obamacare were to be extolled. It was not to be. Eight months late, curiosity about Benghazi finally intruded on the president’s parade. “A throne,” Napoleon held, “is only a bench covered with velvet.” If the president is to ride this one out, Jay Carney is going to have to start nailing that velvet back down.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.

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