President Passerby needs urgently to become a participant in his presidency.
Late Monday came the breathtaking news of a full-frontal assault on the First Amendment by his administration: word that the Justice Department had gone on a fishing expedition through months of phone records of Associated Press reporters.
And yet President Barack Obama reacted much as he did to the equally astonishing revelation on Friday that the IRS had targeted conservative groups based on their ideology. He responded as though he were just some bloke on a bar stool, getting his information from the evening news.
In the phone-snooping case, Obama didn’t even stir from his stool. Instead, he had his press secretary, former Time magazine journalist Jay Carney, go before an incensed press corps Tuesday afternoon and explain why the president will not be involving himself in his Justice Department’s trampling of press freedoms.
“Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of The Associated Press,” Carney announced.
And now that Obama has learned about this extraordinary abuse of power, he’s not doing a thing about it.
“We are not involved at the White House in any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations,” Carney argued.
Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason asked how Obama felt about “being compared to Richard Nixon on this.”
The press secretary laughed. “People who make those kinds of comparisons need to check their history,” he said.
Carney had a point there. Nixon was a control freak. Obama seems to be the opposite: He wants no control over the actions of his administration. As the president distances himself from the actions of “independent” figures within his administration, he’s creating a power vacuum in which lower officials behave as though anything goes. Certainly a president can’t know what everybody in his administration is up to, but he can take responsibility, he can fire people and he can call a stop to foolish actions such as wholesale snooping into reporters’ phone calls.
At the start of Tuesday’s briefing, the AP’s Jim Kuhnhenn pointed out that in all the controversies of the moment — the Benghazi “talking points,” the IRS targeting and the journalists’ phone records — “you have placed the burden of responsibility someplace else. … But it is the president’s administration.”
President Passerby, however, was not joining the fray. Carney repeated Obama’s assertion that the IRS’ actions would be outrageous only “if” they are true. Never mind that the IRS has already admitted the violations and apologized.
The press secretary said repeatedly that “we have to wait” for a formal report by the agency’s inspector general before the most powerful man in the world could take action. By contrast, Carney didn’t think it necessary to wait to assert that nobody in the White House knew about the IRS activities until “a few weeks ago.” (They apparently didn’t tell the boss about the matter until Friday.) Tuesday night, Obama issued a statement saying he had seen the I.G. report and directed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew “to hold those responsible for these failures accountable.”
The response to the deep-dive into AP phone records also got the President Passerby response: “He cannot comment specifically on an ongoing criminal investigation or actions that investigators at the Department of Justice may or may not have taken.”
It didn’t matter to Carney that the Justice Department had already admitted the actions in a letter to the AP.
“But we know it happened, just as the IRS admitted what it had done,” Fox News’ Wendell Goler protested.
“Again, it would be inappropriate to comment,” said Carney, one of the 42 times he used the words “appropriate” or “inappropriate” in his hourlong briefing. One of the few things Carney thought it appropriate to say was that Obama thinks the press should be “unfettered.”
NPR’s Ari Shapiro asked Carney to square Obama’s belief in an unfettered press with the fact that he has prosecuted twice as many leakers as all previous administrations combined.
Carney said Obama’s love of press freedom “is backed up by his support for a media shield law.” This would be the shield law that died in Congress in 2010 because of Obama’s objections.
Alexis Simendinger, from RealClearPolitics, challenged Carney to harmonize the refusal to meddle in an “ongoing investigation” with Obama’s comments on the Trayvon Martin case last year, when a Justice Department investigation was ongoing.
“Come on,” Carney replied with scorn, repeating the excuse that “we have no knowledge” of the phone snooping “beyond the press reports that we’ve read.”
And that’s just the problem.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is email@example.com.