The fight for control over the post-sequester narrative continued Wednesday afternoon, as several reporters pressed White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on the decision to cancel tours of the White House, in order to avoid Secret Service furloughs and cutbacks. After squaring President Obama‘s assertion that canceling the tours was not the White House’s decision, Carney faced grilling from ABC News’ Jonathan Karl, who wondered what it costs for the President “to go and play golf?”
Canceling the White House tours has resulted in some fairly deadly PR, but the White House insists they had no choice, or rather, a worse choice. White House tours are arranged months in advance, though, and disappointed schoolchildren are notoriously unforgiving on budgetary matters.
In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, President Obama said that the decision to cancel the tours was “not a decision that went up to the White House,” and that he’s having the Secret Service review the possibility of accommodating some tours. “What I’m asking them is are there ways, for example, for us to accommodate school groups– you know, who may have traveled here with some bake sales. Can we make sure that– kids, potentially, can– can still come to tour?” the President said.
Fox News’ Ed Henry saw daylight between the President’s statement, and Carney’s statement that the White House canceled the tours. Carney explained that “the decision to cease providing Secret Service staff to the tours was made by the Secret Service,” which forced the White House to cancel the tours, because if the Secret Service can’t admit people to the grounds for tours, then there aren’t any people to give tours to.
Later in the briefing, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl grilled Carney over the cost of the tours, relative to other expenses. “The Secret Service told us that the tours cost $74,000 a week. How much is it going to cost for the President to travel later this week to Illinois?” Karl asked.
“Well, the President is the President of the United States,” Carney replied, “and he is elected to represent all of the people. And he travels around the country, appropriately. I don’t have a figure on the cost of presidential travel. It is obviously something, as every President deals with because of security and staff, a significant undertaking. But the President has to travel around the country. He has to travel around the world. That is part of his job.”
“How much does it cost for him to go and play golf?” Karl shot back.
“Jon, again, you’re trivializing an impact here,” carney said. “People will lose their jobs. Three-quarters of a million people will lose their job.”
“This is about choices,” Karl said. “You have a certain amount of…”
“Right,” Carney interrupted, “The law stipulates what the costs will be for each agency. Those jobs will be lost, okay? And you can report on White House tours, or you can find out what the impacts are out in the real world, additional impacts are. This is a real-world impact here, and it is unfortunate. And it is an unhappy choice.”
“The fact of the matter is, Congress made this choice,” Carney continued. “Republicans made this choice. Their option was to do what they did a few months ago and delay the sequester to allow for time to try to negotiate a bigger deal. They chose not to because they refused to accept the principle that the well-off and well-connected ought to pay a little bit towards deficit reduction. That was a choice. And it was a choice that was presented to the American people as a home run, as something that was politically advantageous, in the back pocket of the Speaker of the House; it was a tea party victory. But there are consequences to that victory for the tea party, and the consequences are what we’ve been discussing today.”
Disappointing schoolkids is never good PR (even if you have a coequal branch of government to pin it on), so if the White House can find a way to put an end to those horrible optics, it should.
However, the exchange with Karl was a good example of Jay Carney’s style as press secretary. His predecessor, Robert Gibbs, was never shy about pushing back on the media, but Carney, as a former journalist himself, is particularly adept at pushing reporters’ buttons. Throughout today’s briefing, he repeated the theme that the press has been covering the sequester as a nothingburger, despite CBO estimates that it will cost 750,000 jobs and half-a-percent of GDP, yet obsessing about things like the White House tours.
It’s also interesting that Jon Karl pushed Carney on the President’s travel and golf expenses, when his own network’s George Stephanopoulos had Carney’s boss in the hot seat just yesterday. Unfortunately, we’ll never know how President Obama would have handled those questions.
Here’s the clip, from The White House:
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