The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rhodes: ‘Echo chamber’ uproar is ‘part of what happens in Washington’

In this Feb. 16 file photo, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. The White House on Monday declined an invitation to Rhodes to address controversial remarks he made regarding the promotion of the Iran nuclear deal. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

The senior White House official who recently became a lightning rod for critics of President Obama’s foreign policy after he made brusque comments in a magazine profile briefly defended his approach during an appearance Tuesday at a Washington think tank.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said he would not “Monday morning quarterback every article that I have been a party to” and said the uproar that followed his remarks to the New York Times Magazine are “part of what happens in Washington.”

“The people who know me know what I care about and how I approach issues and know what motivates me in this job,” he said at the Center for a New American Security, where he delivered remarks previewing Obama’s trip to Asia next week.

Rhodes spoke a day after the White House declined an invitation to have Rhodes address a Tuesday hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on “White House narratives” surrounding last year’s nuclear deal with Iran, joining a panel of foreign policy experts.

The subject gained new currency this month after the New York Times Magazine, in a lengthy profile of Rhodes, quoted him as saying that the White House “created an echo chamber” to advocate for the deal, by enlisting like-minded policy groups and journalists to say “things that validated what we had given them to say.” He also made uncomplimentary remarks about journalists and the Washington foreign-policy establishment, calling the former callow and the latter infested with groupthink.

Rhodes responded to the controversy last week, writing that the White House effort to sell the Iran deal “wasn’t ‘spin,’ it’s what we believed and continue to believe, and the hallmark of the entire campaign was to push out facts.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Oversight Committee chairman, invited Rhodes last week to make that case to his panel, where he undoubtedly would have faced hostile questioning from Republicans. White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston responded Monday to decline Chaffetz’s invitation on Rhodes’s behalf, citing “significant constitutional concerns rooted in the separation of powers.”

“Specifically, the appearance of a senior presidential adviser before Congress threatens the independence and autonomy of the President, as well as his ability to receive candid advice and counsel in the discharge of his constitutional duties,” Eggleston wrote.

Chaffetz on Monday tweeted his response: “Talks to reporters and his ‘echo chamber’ but not Congress. Disappointing but typical.”

Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, after the House hearing ended, Rhodes briefly recalled a dinner at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Burma where he met a woman whose husband had been arrested one day earlier for a Facebook post that had offended the military government there. She had come to the dinner because she was worried about her spouse and wanted to speak with a representative of the president.

“That’s somebody who sacrificed something,” Rhodes said. “That’s who American policy should be focused on.”