The administration is now in the tenth month of its Benghazi investigation, with no signs of it ever ending. Nine and a half months ago, President Obama told the UN the Benghazi attack was an “assault on America” and that he would be “relentless” in bringing the killers to justice, but so far no action has been taken. The administration’s investigation into Assad’s game-changing, red line-crossing use of chemical weapons in Syria is entering its third month, while Hezbollah and Iran threaten to end the game before the investigation is complete.
At yesterday’s State Department press conference, a reporter noted that a week ago France had provided additional evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and asked spokesperson Jen Psaki for a response. That produced a remarkable colloquy:
I agree with Jonathan’s post both in terms of substance and the media response to the NSA/surveillance stories.
On the former: the PRISM program, in the right hands and used with discretion, can be justified based on the threats to America. But in the wrong hands–in executive branch hands that have abused power and punished political enemies–it has the potential to be misused. Which brings me to the current chief executive.
My views on President Obama are such that very little would surprise me in terms of the ethical lines he would cross in order to gain and maintain political power.
That may seem like an overly harsh judgment, so let me take a moment to explain what I mean. I have become convinced, based on what I would argue is the increasing weight of the evidence, that Mr. Obama is a man whose sense of mission, his arrogance and self-righteousness, and his belief in the malevolence of his enemies might well lead him and his administration to act in ways that would seem to him to be justified at the time but, in fact, are wholly inappropriate.
Two new polls–one from Bloomberg National Poll, the other from the Wall Street Journal/NBC News–show a clear erosion in the public’s trust in Barack Obama’s honest and integrity.
Nearly half of those surveyed–47 percent–believe the president isn’t telling the truth when he says he didn’t know the IRS was giving extra scrutiny to the applications of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. More than half–55 percent–say the IRS actions raise questions about the administration’s “overall honesty and integrity.” Fifty-eight percent believe the administration’s handling of the Benghazi consulate attacks raises questions about the honesty of the White House, while the same number say the Department of Justice’s subpoenaing of reporter e-mails and phone records in its leak investigations raise concerns.
For roughly half the public to believe Mr. Obama is lying at this relatively early stage in the congressional investigation is quite high, especially since at this point there’s no direct evidence showing the president knew about these scandals prior to May of this year. (Which isn’t to say the IRS and the Treasury Department didn’t know about the IRS’s nefarious activities long before the 2012 election or that the White House chief of staff and White House counsel didn’t know about the scandal prior to when Obama says he learned of it.)
The news that Susan Rice will be named to replace Tom Donilon as President Obama’s national security adviser is not surprising in the least–indeed, it was close to a sure thing as soon as Rice’s name was dropped from consideration to be secretary of state. But there is irony aplenty in this promotion, and it explains why the New York Times is wrong to cast the appointment as “a defiant gesture to Republicans.” The Times joins many commentators on the left in being completely confused by the complicated politics of l’affaire Rice, so it’s worth reviewing.
Rice’s stock began to drop because of her own attempt to raise her profile. When Hillary Clinton was permitted by the Obama administration to evade accountability for her failures that led to the Benghazi terror attack, the administration needed someone to go on the Sunday morning political talk shows and push false talking points to mislead the American people on the causes of the attack. Rice was happy to step in, hoping to prove herself to the Obama White House and increase her chances vis-à-vis John Kerry to succeed Clinton at Foggy Bottom. But the false talking points proved understandably controversial, and put Rice at the center of the storm. What happened next is what seems to have the Times so baffled.
The Wall Street Journal has a rather startling report today about Libya: NATO is considering sending a training mission there to improve the quality of Libya’s security forces. The need for such a mission is obvious: not only is Libya at the mercy of various militias but it is so ungoverned that its distant deserts in the southwest have become a refuge for al-Qaeda fighters fleeing the French offensive in Mali. So why is this report so startling? Because the need for such a step is so long overdue.
Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in October 2011 by Libyan rebels assisted by NATO airpower. Many of us were warning even before Gaddafi fell that there would be a need for international help to reestablish lawful authority after the revolution’s success. Nearly a year and eight months have passed since then, and the need for outside security assistance has become all the more clear and urgent. The murder of the U.S. ambassador and other Americans in Benghazi on September 11 of last year should have made that evident. Yet the Obama administration has not stepped in to fill the need. Neither have our allies. The result: yet another ungoverned space where al-Qaeda militants can operate.
On Wednesday I mentioned the possibility that President Obama will be treated as though his name is on the ballot in 2016 even though he won’t be running–much the way Obama himself ran against George W. Bush in 2008. But today the New York Times tackles a much more immediate version of this story: whether and how Obama will be used against Democrats in next year’s mid-term congressional elections.
The conceit of the Times story is that Republicans are tempted to tie Obama to the various scandals of his administration currently in the news, and then tie Democrats to Obama, but they face a major obstacle: voters give Obama high marks for personal likability. It is another article warning Republicans against “overreaching,” with an added–and, frankly, bizarre–twist. The Times claims Republicans risk re-enacting the fallout from their predecessors’ conduct during Bill Clinton’s scandal-plagued year in his second term.
In discussing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects, media commentators have made a common and constant error, which I tried to point out repeatedly. They noted Clinton’s high approval ratings as secretary of state, and suggested those numbers buoyed her chances in 2016. But her approval numbers at State were unimpressive: her predecessors had those numbers too, and some had approval ratings even higher than Clinton. Secretary of state is viewed as an apolitical position and the face of the American government abroad, and as such earns inflated poll numbers.
I pointed out that those numbers not only don’t portend future political success (anyone remember President Colin Powell, who left office with a 77 percent approval rating at State?), but they would also come down to earth once Clinton left Foggy Bottom and began to re-enter the political arena. And so they have. Quinnipiac’s new survey finds Clinton’s favorability rating dropping to 52 percent (from Quinnipiac’s previous finding of 61). Her once-daunting lead over hypothetical challengers has narrowed to a surmountable 8 percent over Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.
And all that comes before Clinton actually begins campaigning–that is, if she decides to run. It would be difficult to beat her in a Democratic primary, but even the typical primary campaign process would expose some of her flaws as a candidate, as Keith Koffler writes in Politico. Clinton is hardworking, determined, sharp, and well connected, but that hasn’t stopped her from being, in Koffler’s determination, “the most overrated politician of her generation.” Koffler gets it exactly right when he notes that after her failure to produce results in health care, “The rest of Clinton’s record reads like an excruciatingly long CV that seeks to overwhelm with content but out of which nothing particularly impressive pops out.”
The November 7, 2008 broadcast of PBS’s Charlie Rose featured a conversation with David Remnick of the New Yorker and historians Alan Brinkley and Michael Beschloss.
“The extraordinary outpouring of celebration, joy, and hope all over the world at this election is something I could never have imagined in my lifetime,” according to Professor Brinkley. “There’s a discipline to Obama that is so extraordinary,” he raved. And then he added: “I don’t think we’ve had a president since Lincoln who has the oratorical skills that Obama has. Obama has that quality that Lincoln had.”
Mr. Remnick also compared Obama’s rhetorical skills to Lincoln. The campaign also “shows him in a decision-making mold that is very encouraging.” Obama demonstrated a “receptivity to ideas outside the frame” and possesses a “worldview that allows for complexity.” He “assumes a maturity in the American public” and possesses “great audacity.” Not to believe Obama’s election will have “enormous effect” on the streets of Cairo, or Nairobi, or Jerusalem is “naive.” It continued in this vein until Remnick finally had to say, “We’ll climb out of the tank soon.” (For the record, Remnick never has.)
I mention that discussion for several reasons. The first is that as a general matter it’s not wise to compare any person to Lincoln, particularly before they’ve even taken office, which was the case during this 2008 discussion. Second, Obama had achieved nothing in his life that deserved these types of encomiums. It didn’t matter. Journalists and historians were besotted by the Myth of Obama, not the reality. But now that we’re four years and four months into the Obama presidency, reality has set in. And let’s just say that Mr. Obama has lost some distance to Lincoln in the race for the greatest president in American history. Quite some distance, in fact.
Much has been written and said about the astoundingly tone deaf performance of White House spokesman Jay Carney during this past month of scandals. The former journalist has lost the confidence of the people who were once his colleagues due to his unwillingness to tell the truth about his own deceptive statements (never mind those he represents in front of the press) about the Benghazi talking points or even to acknowledge that he has changed his story. The same applies to the shifting story he has told about the Internal Revenue Service scandal and when the White House learned about it.
The latest iteration of Carney’s story contradicts earlier ones that claimed they knew nothing about the investigation. Now it appears that the White House chief of staff and other officials learned of the situation over a month ago and actually consulted with the Treasury Department about how to soften the blow when it finally went public. Like everyone else following this story, I look forward to finding out who was the genius who decided that IRS official Lois Lerner should be the one to let drop the news with an apology and also saying she didn’t know math.
But anyone looking for an explanation for his unashamed stonewalling and obfuscation got an answer yesterday during an exchange with CBS News’s Major Garrett in which he compared questions about the White House’s conduct about Benghazi and the IRS to those who pursue the birther myth. In other words, anyone who has had the temerity to notice the lies and the trimming is cordially invited to shut up.
Nine months after the terrorist attack in Benghazi that cost four American lives, we’re finally finding out who it was that the State Department thinks is responsible for the debacle: the middle managers. Josh Rogin’s exclusive interview at the Daily Beast with the only person to lose his job over the tragedy doesn’t tell us much about why Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were left without security in the face of clear danger from an al-Qaeda affiliate. But it does tell us everything we need to know about how Hillary Clinton’s State Department functioned.
Benghazi is one of the worst disasters in American diplomatic history, but the sum total of accountability for it is limited to the career of Raymond Maxwell, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) who was placed on administrative leave in December after the now-famous Administrative Review Board (ARB) led by Thomas Pickering issued its report. Pickering didn’t bother interviewing the person in charge of the department—Secretary Clinton—but according to Rogin’s sources, Maxwell was consigned to perdition for not reading his daily intelligence reports. If so, perhaps he deserves his fate even though Maxwell claims he had “no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi.” That is something that cannot be said of others, including the secretary, who sent Stevens on what proved to be a fatal mission. Yet what comes across loud and clear in the piece is that what happened at Foggy Bottom in the aftermath of the debacle was that a middle manager was made to walk the plank while all senior personnel were spared from the consequences of the mistakes that were made.
In a New York Times story about how President Obama is seeking a path forward beyond his troubles, we’re told this: “In the last few days, the administration appears to have stopped the bleeding. The release of internal e-mails on Benghazi largely confirmed the White House’s account.”
No it hasn’t.
The original White House account was that the White House and the State Department made only minor, stylistic changes to the Benghazi talking points. That claim was utterly untrue. In addition, the president, the secretary of state, the president’s press secretary, and the ambassador to the United Nations all blamed the lethal attacks on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi on an anti-Muslim YouTube video, a claim that was false and never even appeared in the talking points. And the early (correct) talking point references to Islamic terrorist attacks and Ansar al-Sharia were removed, which is one reason why then-CIA director David Petraeus concluded he’d just as soon not use them.
Throughout a long week of scandal, the growing evidence of wrongdoing in the executive branch has buffeted Democrats. Like President Obama, who was slow to realize the danger to his presidency, his supporters were initially put back on their heels by the triple threat posed by the Benghazi investigation, the Justice Department’s seizure of the Associated Press’s phone records and, most damning of all, the Internal Revenue Service’s discriminatory practices. But also like the president, who took to the road today to resume his attempt to blame the interest in these issues on his opponents’ narrow partisanship, liberals are starting to speak out to minimize the importance of the scandals.
The left is working hard to classify Benghazi as a “political circus”; blame the AP for being subjected to an unprecedented phone records grab; or to say the real problem in the IRS affair is that right-wing groups attempt to gain nonprofit status. But while they are having mixed success with those efforts, they are gaining some traction with the notion that the real problem today is not the administration’s incompetence or malfeasance but overreaching on the part of Republicans.
Indeed, Republicans are already second-guessing themselves about how hard to hit the president on the scandals, with liberals using those doubts to help craft a narrative in which the real threat to the republic is an extremist GOP. There are good reasons to fear that Republican hotheads will distract the public from Obama’s troubles but it should be understood that this storyline is essentially bogus. However the president’s opposition plays their hand, any attempt to shift the focus from the administration and the president to those who are attempting to make him accountable for the government’s behavior is a yet another attempt to deceive the public.
The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, America’s greatest living investigative reporter, was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and said this: “I would not dismiss Benghazi. It’s a very serious matter.” Mr. Woodward recounted his own memories of Richard Nixon’s role in editing Watergate transcripts in order to mislead the public.
The Benghazi scandal is obviously not comparable to Watergate at this stage and may never be. Watergate, after all, involved the president being at the center of a criminal conspiracy. But not every scandal has to be Watergate to be serious; and a scandal need not lead to impeachment to be deeply problematic.
There was a running joke in the fall of 2008 that John McCain should simply re-air Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m. phone call” ad, which highlighted Barack Obama’s lack of experience and meager knowledge of world affairs, and just tack on “I’m John McCain, and I approve this message” at the end of the ad. The point was that thanks to the bitter primary battle between the Clintons and Obama, Democrats had already developed the most effective lines of attack against Obama, and Republicans needed only to nod their heads in agreement.
Something similar is taking place amid the several Obama administration scandals that have surfaced almost simultaneously. (There has been new information on Benghazi, but the issue itself isn’t new; the IRS and AP phone records scandals, in contrast, hit less than a week apart.) Both Democrats and Republicans are raising the prospect that the GOP could get carried away or bungle their response to the scandals–surely a possibility. One way to prevent that, however, would be to simply echo the way Obama’s supporters have tried to defend him.
David Axelrod was once Barack Obama’s closest chief political adviser. He now comments for MSNBC, where he trotted out the latest defense of President Obama, who is being buffeted by three unfolding scandals: misleading the public in the aftermath of the lethal assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, the seizure of phone records of Associated Press reporters, and the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS.
On the latter, the Axelrod defense goes like this: “There’s so much underneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.”
Now isn’t that convenient.
At a fundraising event earlier this week in New York City, President Obama said this:
What’s blocking us right now is a sort of hyper-partisanship in Washington that I was, frankly, hoping to overcome in 2008. My thinking was when we beat them in 2012 that might break the fever, and it’s not quite broken yet. But I am persistent. And I am staying at it. And I genuinely believe there are Republicans out there who would like to work with us but they’re fearful of their base and they’re concerned about what Rush Limbaugh might say about them…
As a consequence we get the kind of gridlock that makes people cynical about government. My intentions over the next 3 ½ years are to govern. … If there are folks who are more interested in winning elections than they are thinking about the next generation then I want to make sure there are consequences to that.
Mr. Obama’s statement, a variation of what he’s said countless times in the past, is worth examining for what it reveals about him.
As the Obama administration seems to stagger under the weight of dealing with three scandals at the same time, Republicans who have been frustrated by the president’s seeming golden touch the last four and a half years are obviously gleeful. While not licking their chops at the thought of tearing into the president’s aides about the IRS scandal, the Justice Department’s fishing expedition into the AP’s phone records, or Benghazi, they’re asking a salient question of journalists: What would you do with this material if it was George W. Bush or Dick Cheney who were accused of lying about a terror attack, infringing on the rights of the press, or selectively enforcing the laws to punish political opponents?
The answer is pretty obvious, since the mainstream media did its best to sink Bush under the weight of the blowback from the Iraq war, the fallout from Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown, and demonized Cheney to the point where he became a pop culture villain. While liberals will try to argue that Obama’s problems don’t rise to the level of those of Bush, they know that, as John Steele Gordon pointed out earlier today, the accumulation of woes are about to reach critical mass and doom the president to the same kind of dismal second term that virtually all of his predecessors have suffered.
But though anyone who listened to White House spokesman Jay Carney or Attorney General Eric Holder tap dance their way through brutal press conferences today might be forgiven for thinking this presidency is tottering, the administration’s seemingly clueless efforts to deflect blame may be an indication of confidence that this rough patch can be ridden out without serious long-term damage being inflicted on Obama’s ability to govern or his legacy. Though the media is up in arms over these scandals, especially the government’s snooping on the AP, the president seems to think his magic touch with the media hasn’t worn off. Is he right?
Last week was one of the worst for Obama in his presidency. This week looks no better. Indeed, it may be a long, hot summer for the White House. As Jonathan has pointed out, the IRS scandal is growing bigger, seemingly by the minute. The Benghazi scandal is continuing to percolate.
Now, the brand-new AP scandal has erupted. This one, because the victims are newsmen, is likely to have a powerful effect on the mainstream media. If the Justice Department has been going after the phone records of AP reporters, what other reporters are having their privacy violated? Even the New York Times, which thought page 11 was just fine for the IRS scandal, put this one on page 1, above the fold. The White House is “dodging and weaving” today according to the Times.
But wait, there’s more, as the TV commercials have it.
The dramatic testimony of Gregory Hicks, former U.S. deputy chief of mission in Libya, has shone the media spotlight on what happened in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, when U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack. Republican lawmakers and conservative journalists have managed to raise substantial and serious questions about the administration’s response to the attack, both as it was occurring and in the days that followed. The mainstream news media have been obliged to follow suit, putting White House spokesmen on the defensive, even if charges of a “cover up” remain far from proven.
But, oddly enough, almost no one is talking about what I regard as the real scandal here–the shameful failure of the Obama administration to extend state-building assistance to Libya’s pro-Western leaders after having helped them to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. The inability of the Libyan government to control its own territory created the conditions that led to the 2012 attack–and those conditions have not changed since.
President Obama faced the press briefly today in a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron. He got out in front of the IRS scandal by condemning the actions of officials who targeted conservative organizations for special treatment. But his response to a question about the Benghazi terror attack demonstrated that he has yet to come to terms with the fact that the administration won’t be able to go on pretending the issue can be ignored as a case of partisan sniping by Republicans.
But what was most instructive about the president’s presentation at the press conference was the contrast between the clinical way in which he described his disagreement with the blatantly illegal actions of the IRS and the passionate manner with which he claimed there was “nothing new” to discuss about Benghazi while demanding that the press and the public ignore the growing pile of troubling evidence of incompetence, cowardice and lies by administration figures in the days preceding and following the attack on 9/11/12 that took the lives of four Americans.
The president had a chance to acknowledge that what the American people were told last September was the product of talking points concocted by his aides in order to deflect attention from the revival of al-Qaeda as well as the administration’s culpability for failing to provide security for U.S. personnel. But instead he chose to bluster and sarcastically treat the whole thing as a plot by Republicans to make a mountain out of a molehill. And his use of terms like “sideshow” to describe the growing inquiries about the discrepancies between what was said then and the truth or to claim “there’s no there there” tells us more about his arrogant approach to governing than it does about the shelf life of this scandal.