The toughest question yesterday about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal didn’t come at the Democratic debate, but in the White House briefing room. After Barack Obama categorically stated that the secret, unsecured, unauthorized, and wide-open server at Hillary’s Chappaqua residence didn’t pose a national-security risk despite having been used to transmit highly classified material, both Byron Tau and Michelle Kosinski pressed Josh Earnest for how Obama reached that conclusion. Was this a directive to the FBI on which conclusion they should reach in their investigation, and why did the normally reluctant Obama discuss this particular ongoing probe?
Earnest doesn’t say it explicitly, but the implied message is … Obama acted stupidly on 60 Minutes:
[WSJ reporter Byron Tau] Thanks, Josh. In the interview that the President gave to 60 Minutes, he was asked about Secretary Clinton’s email server. And he said — and I quote — “I can tell you this is not a situation in which America’s national security was in danger.” How does he know that? Because there’s two inspector generals that disagree, and the FBI is investigating.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President was making an observation about what we know so far, which is that Secretary Clinton herself has turned over a bunch of email to the State Department. And the review that email has garnered some differing assessments about what’s included in there, but she made clear that nothing that was stamped “Classified” was sent to her from that email account. And we know that to be true based on what has been collected so far.
So I think what the President was observing is that Secretary Clinton has acknowledged that this was a mistake. But she is cooperating with the inspectors general who are taking a look at this, and even with a partisan investigation on Capitol Hill — the eighth one — to take a look at this. That’s obviously the right thing for her to do.
Q But we’ve heard you many times, for a variety of different topics, say, I cannot comment on an ongoing investigation. There is an ongoing counterintelligence investigation on this. Why did the President decide to comment, given that the FBI is looking at this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he made that observation based on what is publicly known now, and what we publicly know now is that no information that was stamped “Classified” was sent to or sent from that particular email server.
Q Should his comments be read as an attempt to steer the direction of that FBI investigation?
MR. EARNEST: Of course not. The President certainly respects the independence and integrity of independent investigations, including those that are conducted by the FBI.
That wasn’t quite good enough for CNN’s Kosinski, which is where the video picks up:
[Kosinski] And going back to that 60 Minutes interview, I know you just said that the President made those comments on whether or not Hillary Clinton’s email issue was a national security issue based on what is publicly known. But given that the investigation is still going on, was he trying to preclude the results of that investigation? Or —
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely not. The President has a healthy respect for the kinds of independent investigations that are conducted by inspectors general and, where necessary, by the FBI.
Q Yeah, but that’s the question then. So if he has a healthy respect for an investigation that’s ongoing, to the point that you guys almost never want to say anything about that subject, then why would he say so confidently that it is not — or was not a national security issue? Why would he say that as a statement of fact?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think because that was the question — I don’t have the transcript right in front of me. I think that was directly the question that he was asked, and so he was trying to answer the question based on what we all know right now publicly about this particular case. But that certainly was not an attempt in any way to undermine the importance or independence of the ongoing FBI investigation.
Q So does he, in fact, not know until the results of the investigation whether or not this could have had an impact on national security?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think that’s —
Q Is that what you’re saying?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m saying is that what the President — based on what the President knows now, and that’s what all of us know now, the President wasn’t speaking based on any information that has not yet been made public. But based on what has been made public and based on the public pronouncements of Secretary Clinton herself, that’s how the President arrived at the conclusion that this has not and does not pose a threat to national security. But obviously the FBI will take their own independent look at this. And for questions about the status of that investigation, I’d refer you to them.
That’s what Obama should have done with Steve Kroft. The Washington Free Beacon’s Alyssa Canobbio picked up the exchange late last night:
The Wall Street Journal‘s Byron Tau first asked Earnest how Obama knew that Clinton’s server was not a threat to national security. Tau pointed out that two inspectors general and the FBI disagreed with the statement. Earnest said the president was making a statement based off of what Clinton had said before. …
CNN’S Michelle Kosinki asked Earnest if the president was precluding the results of the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s server.
“Absolutely not. The president has a healthy respect for the kinds of independent investigations that are conducted by inspectors general and, where necessary, by the FBI,” Earnest said.
Kosinki asked Earnest why would he make a blanket statement on the issue if the president did respect the current investigation. Earnest stumbled around his answer by saying he did not have the exact transcript of the interview in front of him but said the president was answering the question based off the information that was currently available.
Earnest may not have had the transcript in front of him, but it’s easy enough to find. Obama didn’t insert any of the qualifiers Earnest tried to inject ex post facto. In his interview with Kroft, Obama sounded as though he was offering a final conclusion on the Saga of the Secret Server:
Steve Kroft: Do you think it posed a national security problem?
President Barack Obama: I don’t think it posed a national security problem. I think that it was a mistake that she has acknowledged and– you know, as a general proposition, when we’re in these offices, we have to be more sensitive and stay as far away from the line as possible when it comes to how we handle information, how we handle our own personal data. And, you know, she made a mistake. She has acknowledged it. I do think that the way it’s been ginned-up is in part because of– in part– because of politics. And I think she’d be the first to acknowledge that maybe she could have handled the original decision better and the disclosures more quickly. But–
Steve Kroft: What was your reaction when you found out about it?
President Barack Obama: This is one of those issues that I think is legitimate, but the fact that for the last three months this is all that’s been spoken about is an indication that we’re in presidential political season.
Steve Kroft: Do you agree with what President Clinton has said and Secretary Clinton has said, that this is not– not that big a deal. Do you agree with that?
President Barack Obama: Well, I’m not going to comment on–
Steve Kroft: You think it’s not that big a deal–
President Barack Obama: What I think is that it is important for her to answer these questions to the satisfaction of the American public. And they can make their own judgment. I can tell you that this is not a situation in which America’s national security was endangered.
Steve Kroft: This administration has prosecuted people for having classified material on their private computers.
President Barack Obama: Well, I– there’s no doubt that there had been breaches, and these are all a matter of degree. We don’t get an impression that here there was purposely efforts– on– in– to hide something or to squirrel away information. But again, I’m gonna leave it to–
Steve Kroft: If she had come to you.
President Barack Obama: I’m going to leave it to Hillary when she has an interview with you to address all these questions.
So no, Obama wasn’t just making this point in the context of what Hillary told him. He was commenting on an ongoing investigation, contradicting the findings of two Inspectors General, and sending a signal flare to the Department of Justice. Tau and Kosinski caught him at it, and Earnest had to beat an embarrassed retreat. It seems Obama hasn’t learned from his “acting stupidly” moment regarding Henry Gates in 2009.
If Josh Earnest wants to avoid these kinds of awkward moments, perhaps he should work for someone else. Or take questions at a Democratic presidential debate.