Now that everyone knows he’s leaving, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs is the subject of numerous articles people were afraid to write only weeks ago about how awful relations are between the press office and the White House, how Gibbs doesn’t return calls, how he’d rather be in meetings, and so on.
BECAUSE WHEN PEOPLE NEED YOU IN WASHINGTON, THEY ARE AT YOUR KNEES. AND WHEN THEY DON’T, THEY ARE AT YOUR THROAT.
This morning Gibbs got a letter from the White House Correspondents’ Association scolding him for failing to open today’s signing of the New START treaty to anything more than still photographers, and for yesterday not having “a substantive update from the White House all day on the situation in Egypt.”
Now, this blog is all about openness and accountability. But I’ve frankly never seen a letter like this to a sitting press secretary, and it seems the wrong time to pick the fight.
Obama probably would not have answered any questions while signing the treaty. He never does. And the White House clearly decided that it was not in the interest Tuesday of the United States and the evolving situation in Egypt to have the press secretary answering questions and screwing up delicate negotiations to get Mubarak to step aside.
I like getting all the information I can get. But the lack of a briefing Tuesday seems to me, as these things go, a relatively understandable thing to do, especially when Gibbs tried not to answer questions anyway during Monday briefing and today’s. The harm to the republic was minimal.
My understanding is that there was a little more at play here than merely keeping the public informed. One big problem, it seems, is that TV needs videotape, and it can’t get that when there’s no briefing and no video cameras are allowed into the treaty signing. That helps inform, sure, but it’s not as essential as reporting.
If the correspondents were going to pick this fight now, they should have at least delved into the variety of problems related to this press office, including Gibbs’ inattentiveness – he was attentive enough to me, I’d say, but not to others – the browbeating of reporters – nicely outlined today in a piece by Dana Milbank on Jay Carney – the failure of Obama to answer questions during most encounters with reporters, the endless evasions, and so on.
Here’s the letter.
Good morning Robert,
We recognize that the crisis in Egypt is a quickly evolving story and you are working to get us the information we need in a timely manner, but we are concerned about several access issues on Tuesday and now today.
On behalf of the White House Correspondents Association we are writing to protest in the strongest possible terms the White House’s decision to close the President’s Cabinet meeting on Tuesday and his signing of the START Treaty today to the full press pool.
The START treaty was held up as one of the President’s most important foreign policy priorities for almost a year dating back to the trip to Prague last spring. We are concerned that now his signing of it is open to still photographers but closed to editorial, including print and wire reporters and television cameras.
We know the President came out late last night to speak on Egypt, and we appreciate the email updates from NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor, but his emails have not gone to all members of the press corps and are not a substitute for access to the Press Secretary or the President.
Prior to the President’s statement Tuesday night, the press corps had not received a substantive update from the White House all day on the situation in Egypt. In addition, the press corps did not have an on-camera briefing, or an off-camera gaggle, with you yesterday to ask the White House about its decision-making process during this major foreign policy crisis. Now for two straight days the full press pool is being shut out of events that have typically been open and provided opportunities try to ask the President a question.
These issues are vitally important for all of our members – print, TV and radio.
We value our working relationship, and we hope you will reconsider and at least open the START Treaty signing to the full pool.
Thank you for your consideration,
The WHCA Board