Whenever a scandal with the capacity to deal serious damage to the White House’s credibility arises, you can be sure that the administration only just learned about it in the same way you did: Reading about it in the papers.
Lois Lerner’s admission that the IRS had inappropriately targeted tea party groups with undue scrutiny? “The deputy secretary of the treasury was made aware of just the fact that the investigation was beginning last year,” former White House communications official Dan Pfeiffer insisted. “But no one in the White House was aware.” As for Lerner’s missing emails, apparently the White House had been informed of the cascading hard drive crashes six weeks before even Congress was told of that debacle, but you’re asked to believe that the targeting scandal was a complete shock to everyone in the West Wing.
And what about the systematic effort by Veterans Affairs administrators to cover up the deadly wait times America’s vets were forced to endure? That, too, came as a devastating and lamentable surprise to the Obama administration. “You mean the specific allegations that I think were reported first by your news network out of Phoenix, I believe,” said former White House Press Sec. Jay Carney, summoning all his powers of haplessness, in an exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta. “We learned about them through the reports.”
The Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal? Obama “heard on the news” that a series of firearms had been misplaced in Mexico and were being used by gangs to kill civilians and American border personnel alike. “He found out about the news reports yesterday on the road,” Carney said of the scandal involving the Department of Justice monitoring Associated Press reporter’s communication records. Et cetera. Et cetera.
It’s become clear that you can measure the potential political danger that any one controversy poses to the White House by administration officials’ willingness to feign ignorance and betrayal. It seems that the scandalous revelation that Hillary Clinton constructed her own unsecure email system that she used exclusively as secretary of state has joined the pantheon of controversies of which the White House had no foreknowledge.
“The White House counsel’s office was not aware at the time Hillary Rodham Clinton was secretary of state that she relied solely on personal email and only found out as part of the congressional investigation into the Benghazi attack, according to a person familiar with the matter,” The Associated Press reported on Thursday.
The AP indicated that the White House believes Clinton was operating as a rogue agent, flagrantly disregarding administration “guidance” (which, presumably, consisted entirely of advising her to follow the law) and striking out on her own by using only an unsecured email network.
Since the revelations surfaced this week, the Obama administration has been pummeled by endless questions about Clinton, who hasn’t formally announced a run. In the absence of an official campaign to defend her, the White House press secretary has been put in the awkward position of being a de facto Clinton spokesman and the most public voice speaking on her behalf.
While trying to avoid doing political damage to Clinton, the White House has put the onus on her aides to explain exactly what happened.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged Wednesday that Clinton would have emailed White House officials on a non-government account. But the person familiar with the matter said the White House was not aware that was her sole method of email and that she wasn’t keeping a record of her emails at the State Department.
According to AP, our heroes in the White House have been “pummeled” by an unyielding press corps with questions regarding the ethicality of the president’s former Cabinet official. They have been put in a bind by their erstwhile ally, and are now trying desperately to extricate themselves from the suboptimal position in which her callous actions have placed them.
The editorial determination to either frame Clinton as a victim of circumstance or Obama as a victim of Clinton in this narrative must have been an agonizing one.
Of course, the White House and Team Clinton have been coordinating their messaging as this scandal deepened, even as both are apparently eager to throw the other under the bus.
Top White House aides have been in contact with Clinton’s team to clarify specific facts that the White House is likely to be asked about. The White House also reached out to Clinton’s team ahead of Tuesday’s press briefing to advise them of what the White House planned to say, according to a senior White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.
So, are White House officials arguing that they never once engaged in an email exchange with Clinton via her private account? No, they’re not. White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest conceded recently that they had corresponded with Clinton via this account, but that the administration was completely unaware that she did not even have access to a .gov address. While that strains credulity, it’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.
Given this White House’s inclination to contend that they are babes in the woods whenever a serious scandal dominates the news cycle, at least you can say that they are consistent.