Recall the 18-second exchange caught on an open mike before the Obama-Medvedev joint news conference. The event was part of the global nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea.
Obama: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.”
Medvedev: “Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you . . .”
Obama: “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”
Medvedev: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” meaning President Putin.
The particular issue between Washington and Moscow is the U.S.-NATO plan to protect Europe from potential missile attacks from Iran or some other Middle East country. Putin has objected to the system, saying it could be used against Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (or ICBMs) aimed at the United States, something that American officials have steadily denied.
There is also the question of future nuclear arms negotiations over strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, something both nations have put off until next year given the timing of presidential elections. Putin was inaugurated on May 7.
Obama’s open-mike statement came up last week in the Armed Services Committee markup of the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill. It was during discussion of an amendment offered by Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) to cut a GOP proposal to add $100 million to the bill. The money would be used to prepare for an antimissile site on the East Coast to meet the threat of a future nuclear-armed ICBM from Iran.
Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the panel’s strategic subcommittee, argued for keeping the money in and said Obama apparently has a different view of the threat. “We know apparently there is a secret deal with the Russians” about a time, he said, “when the president will have greater flexibility after the election” to deal with them.
He added, “We should not be responding to a secret deal with the Russians,” and when it comes to defending the East Coast from intercontinental missiles the United States should “proceed even if this president will not.”
Garamendi replied it was wrong to insert the presidential campaign into the debate. “To suggest the president has a secret deal is a nice campaign talking point, but has nothing to do with the issue before us,” he said.
That didn’t stop the Republicans. “It wasn’t Mr. Turner who suggested there was a secret deal, it was the president who suggested that he has a secret deal” on national television, said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).
Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) responded to Franks’s remark by saying Obama had said “after the election he would have more flexibility, he did not say he had a secret deal but rather he would get into discussions.”
Then Turner went farther: Obama telling the Russians he would have more flexibility on missile defense after the election “is a secret deal,” he argued.
Here’s how Turner sees it: “I’m [Obama] going to tell you, the Russian leader my real position” but I can’t tell the American people until next year.
In effect, Turner said, that was “a secret plan with the Russians to diminish our missile defense.”
The committee was having two discussions, Andrews replied. One is “a diversionary political discussion” and the other “an important substantive issue.”
The first, he said, “shows how candid and correct the president was.”
In the current political environment, there can’t be a serious discussion on missile defense, Andrews said. The issue of an Iran missile threat, he said, was premature since Iran had neither an ICBM nor a nuclear warhead.
The day after his conversation was overheard, Obama tried to defuse his remarks. He explained the only way he could negotiate with the Russians was “if I’m consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support and frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations.”
But his prospective November opponent, Mitt Romney, accurately predicted on the day of the president’s remarks exactly what would happen. After calling the Obama-Medvedev exchange “an alarming and troubling development,” Romney went on a Los Angeles conservative radio station with talk show host Hugh Hewitt.
Hewitt’s first question was: “Now Governor Romney, the press will of course attempt to dismiss this as not a big issue. Will this remain a front-line issue?”
“You know, I don’t think he can recover from it, to tell you the truth,” Romney replied. “I mean, I think he will try and spin something. But I don’t know how you spin from an open mike, where you’re talking about having more flexibility after the election, which means quite clearly that you don’t want the American people to hear what you’re really planning on doing.”
Sound familiar? Is it much like what Turner said last week?
Romney continued: “The mainstream media may try and put this to bed, but we’re going to keep it alive and awake. And we’re going to keep hammering him with it all the way through November.”
House Republicans on the Armed Services Committee did some hammering last week. Let’s see what effect it has as the campaign goes on.
For more Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.