This may wind up as the most applicable use of the phrase video or it didn’t happen. Almost three years after the transition completed and Donald Trump took over the presidency, Stephanie Grisham publicly accused their predecessors of some outbound nastiness. “Every office was filled with Obama books,” the White House press secretary claimed in a radio interview today, “and we had noted left behind that said, ‘you will fail,’ ‘you aren’t going to make it.'”
CNN reporter Abby Phillip dutifully reported on the claim, which left a few journalists scratching their heads:
WH Press Sec Stephanie Grisham claims Obama aides left 'you will fail" notes in offices for Trump aides: “We came into the WH, I’ll tell you something. Every office was filled with Obama books and we had notes left behind that said ‘you will fail,’ ‘you aren’t going to make it,’”
— Abby D. Phillip (@abbydphillip) November 19, 2019
The claim produced immediate and sharp denials from Obama World:
This is another bald faced lie. https://t.co/E1U9KtdL77
— Susan Rice (@AmbassadorRice) November 19, 2019
Former speechwriter Jon Favreau pronounced himself insulted by the assumption he’d have been that boring:
It's appalling that she thinks our notes would have been that lame. https://t.co/EZWFZYBgDA
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) November 19, 2019
That one sounds a lot more on point. Grisham later clarified that she meant only the press office had been targeted by the notes:
Grisham clarified to NBC News that she didn’t mean to suggest that the notes weren’t left in every White House office, only in a press area.
“I’m not sure where her was, and I certainly wasn’t implying every office had that issue,” Grisham wrote, referring to Rice’s office. “In fact, I had a lovely note left for me in the East Wing, and I tracked the woman down and thanked her. I was talking specifically about our experience in the lower press office — nowhere else. I don’t know why everyone is so sensitive!”
Still, the claim raised a few eyebrows. Multiple journalists wondered why they’d never heard about before, especially since this administration had long dispensed with discretion when it came to complaining about their predecessors. (So, for that matter, did their predecessors about both their successors and their predecessors. How long did Barack Obama complain about George Bush’s “mess”?) Several also noted an absence — thus far — of pictures showing the offending notes and library stashes. Surely in this age of smartphones, someone would have thought to take a few pics or some video of the motif to present evidence at a later date.
Thus far, nothing — but that doesn’t mean no one heard about it at the time. David Martosko, US political editor of the Daily Mail, now says he was told about it from a single source at the beginning of the Trump administration. Today, he’s kicking himself for not following up on the story, and now he’s getting confirmation from “multiple vintage 2017 West Wing officials” (via Twitchy):
So perhaps this isn’t something out of Grisham’s imagination, or a clunky effort to distract from today’s impeachment hearings. It still seems very odd that someone as uber-connected as Axios’ Jonathan Swan never heard anything about this until today, and that this wasn’t brought up when former Obama officials or Obama himself teed off on the White House over the last three years. Swan tweeted that he’s heard plenty of complaining about Obama’s team, but nothing about this:
Interesting. Over the past 2.5 years I’ve heard no end of complaints from Trump officials about their Obama predecessors but never has this remarkable detail been mentioned. Would love to see a copy of these “you will fail” notes. https://t.co/BdvIHXaYaq
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) November 19, 2019
Finally, we do have some photographic evidence — although only of absence. ABC’s Jonathan Karl showed up on move-in day for the West Wing and took a few snaps. Guess what doesn’t show up in them?
I was in the West Wing on the evening of January 20, 2017, talking to several incoming Trump officials as they moved into their offices. I saw no offices "filled with Obama books" and nobody mentioned "you will fail" notes. Here are photos I took at the WH that night pic.twitter.com/TUZhbO6QbN
— Jonathan Karl (@jonkarl) November 19, 2019
This mystery may not have the impact of Fartgate nor the deep meaning of happy cows, but it is a mystery that demands a resolution … like the mystery of the vandalized keyboards in 2001 did. That one took a GAO investigation to settle, finding that Bill Clinton’s staff did $14,000 worth of damage to White House equipment, in significant part from removing the Ws from keyboards. That was also treated as an urban legend at first. This one might truly be false, but it’s not as if there hasn’t been nonsense in earlier transitions. Where is Hercule Poirot when you need him?