– Photo:Obama received daily briefings in person only 3 out of every 7 days.
Hours after President Obama announced in a 2014 speech that he was escalating his campaign against Islamic extremists, a number of prominent columnists suggested they knew exactly what he was thinking.
Michael Tomasky, a correspondent for The Daily Beast, wrote that “Obama clearly feels he has the constitutional authority to go after ISIS anywhere and everywhere.” Gerald F. Seib, the Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was equally certain about what “the president calculated.”
The next day, Fred Kaplan wrote in a Slate column that “Obama is loath to bring Iran or Assad’s Syria — both Shiite regimes — into the alliance” and asserted with confidence that “Obama is allergic to ‘Mission creep.’”
What none of the journalists told readers, because they had promised the White House that they would not, was that their attempts to portray the president’s intentions had followed a lengthy and secret meeting with Mr. Obama the day he delivered the speech.
Technically off the record, the president’s extended conversation in the Roosevelt Room that afternoon with 18 prominent columnists was part of a White House tradition aimed at influencing Washington thought leaders without leaving fingerprints — and without fear that an offhand comment from the commander in chief would spark the latest social media firestorm.
These presidential briefings are “a way for people to be able to set aside the urgency of supplying the latest quote from the president of the United States and sit back and listen to the broader argument,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. He declined to comment on the participants or the content of the discussions.
Mr. Earnest said the unannounced sessions with the president allowed Mr. Obama to speak more candidly than he can in public, especially about issues that defy easy answers. Columnists who have attended one of the more than a dozen private meetings with the president in the last seven years are directed not to quote him, disclose what was discussed or use the information they gleaned in further reporting. The attendees are not allowed to even acknowledge that the discussion took place.
But those restrictions, if followed literally, would serve little purpose for the president and his aides, who are eager to make sure his views are written about with what they consider the proper depth and context.
And so the most Washington of games goes on: Columnists, including several who write for The New York Times, get to describe the president’s thinking with confidence and authority, while Mr. Obama can hold forth at length with deniability. The White House holds far fewer private presidential briefings for news reporters who cover the White House.
In recent years, Times beat reporters have generally declined invitations to private sessions with the president, although they have at times been present when Mr. Obama has visited with reporters at the back of Air Force One for off-the-record conversations.
What we are hoping is that people will incorporate the president’s perspective into how he’s approaching these situations,” Mr. Earnest said.
The latest example took place in December when Mr. Obama met with about a dozen columnists before delivering a speech from the Oval Office to defend his strategy in combating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The next day, one of those columnists, David Ignatius of The Washington Post, pushed the off-the-record boundaries.
Throughout his column, Mr. Ignatius used phrases like “Obama doesn’t think” and “Obama appears to recognize” and “Obama clearly regards” to describe the president’s thinking without betraying that the meeting took place.
In an email, Mr. Ignatius said the job of foreign affairs columnists was “to learn as much as we can about how government leaders, here and elsewhere, think about issues and share that information with readers, consistent with the ground rules.”
After a Times article disclosed the existence of the presidential briefing that Mr. Ignatius attended, Mr. Earnest wrote to the columnists, reminding them of the ground rules. But Mr. Earnest said in an interview that the president regarded both the column and the Times story as “helpful in helping people understand exactly what he’s dealing with.”
Anita Dunn, who served as communications director for Mr. Obama early in his first term, said putting such sessions on the record would ruin them. “Once it’s attributed, it becomes an official policy,” she said. “You can’t really think out loud at that point.”
– Photo: President Obama walking to the Oval Office last month. He has held at least 12 off-the-record meetings with columnists.
The current White House is not unique in using secret presidential face time to try to influence coverage. Previous presidents of both parties regularly invited columnists to the White House for off-the-record sessions. But Mr. Obama is the first president to publish White House visitor logs that document who attends the discussions. It is now possible to match up the columnist briefings with the columns that result.
In June 2010, Mr. Obama invited five Washington columnists to an off-the-record discussion in the Old Family Dining Room. Three days later, David Wessel, then a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, wrote that Mr. Obama “appears less convinced of the virtues of free trade per se.”
“He loves exports, easily sold as creating jobs,” Mr. Wessel continued. “But he seems to view world trade like a basketball game.”
Ezra Klein, then a Washington Post columnist, attended a similar meeting in July 2011. In his columns on July 14 and July 15, he wrote about what “many in the White House also believe” and described the “White House’s telling” about budget negotiations.
Later that year, Mr. Obama invited 10 columnists, including Albert R. Hunt of Bloomberg News, to a briefing in the Roosevelt Room on Sept. 6 ahead of a jobs speech he planned to give to Congress.
On Sept. 11, after Mr. Obama delivered the speech, Mr. Hunt asserted that “the president believes that pushing for more job-creating infrastructure projects also is a political winner” and that “the basic view from the White House is that Obama inherited a horrible economic hand.”
He noted that “Obama-ites also think they get unfair raps” and that “what really infuriates the White House from Obama on down is what it views as the ‘equivalency’ that the press makes between Democrats and Republicans on the current deficit debates.”
Liberal-leaning columnists from newspapers tend to dominate at Mr. Obama’s secret sessions, but the White House has invited some new-media journalists, and prominent conservatives have attended as well. In 2013, Mr. Obama invited five conservatives to a Roosevelt Room discussion.
Two days later, Charles Krauthammer wrote in his Washington Post column that Mr. Obama “insists he won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling as a matter of principle.” Paul Gigot, the editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, talked knowingly on Fox News about the White House strategy to put “maximum pressure” on Congress.
Ms. Dunn said the sessions with the columnists — many of them fixtures of the Washington press corps — had been especially helpful for Mr. Obama, who came into office without knowing many of them. The sessions help the columnists understand his thought process, she said.
“They walk away from them with a better sense of him as a person and a policy maker,” she said. “That’s very valuable.”
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