The Washington Post

Jay Carney’s tough day

Washington Post White House reporter David Nakamura was in the press briefing room today and got a close-up look at the grilling press secretary Jay Carney endured at the hands of the press corps. He wrote about what he saw below.

White House press secretary Jay Carney insists that President Obama is committed to “unfettered” media scrutiny of his administration. For an hour Tuesday, at least, the White House got it. Big time.

White House press secretary Jay Carney.

On the trail of a pair of juicy stories of government overreach, the press corps let Carney have it during his daily briefing, pounding him with a barrage of more than 60 questions about reports that the Internal Revenue Service inappropriately targeted conservative groups and that the Justice Department secretly obtained private phone records of the Associated Press.

Over and over, reporters pressed the spokesman to explain what the administration knew about the two unfolding scandals, and time and again Carney found himself on the defensive against a wounded pack of reporters eager to look out for their own.

“President Obama's being compared to President Nixon on this,” asked Jeff Mason of Reuters, a rival to the AP. “How does he feel about that?”

“I don’t have a reaction from President Obama,” Carney responded. “I can tell you that the people who make those kind of comparisons need to check their history.”

CNN’s Jessica Yellin pushed backed: “Jay, you say check our history… but you have to understand and hear how it sounds like the administration might be hiding something.”

It was that kind of afternoon for the former Time magazine White House correspondent, who, in the face of deep skepticism, continued to assert that Obama is committed to robust investigative journalism that is unobstructed by the government. Carney used the word “unfettered” a dozen times in his insistence that Obama believes in an open press.

“How can it be unfettered if you're worried about having your phone records seized,” asked ABC’s Jonathan Karl.

The press secretary explained that the Justice Department was conducting an investigation into leaks of classified information in issuing a subpoena for the AP records, and he emphasized that Obama understands the need to prevent leaks if they could jeopardize national security.

On the IRS scandal, Carney said the president will be outraged if a forthcoming inspector general report reveals that the tax collection agency was targeting tea party organizations applying for non-profit, tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny, as news reports suggested. Until then, Carney explained, the administration would have limited reaction because it could only go on what was published in the media.

Reporters were skeptical. When Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics pressed Carney on whether Obama might have supported what the IRS is alleged to have done, Carney called the question “preposterous.”

Later, as Simendinger continued to question him, switching her focus to a third White House headache -- the Republican focus on whether administration officials changed talking points over its response to terrorist attacks at a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya -- Carney said: “Alexis, shake your head and editorialize but let me -- let me finish.”

Toward the end of the hour-long session, Carney began to look frayed. Pressed by Bloomberg’s Hans Nichols over why he could be so sure no administration officials were involved in the IRS targeting, Carney said it was simply based on his own understanding. He offered no direct evidence.

“So what gives you the confidence?” Nichols asked.

“I think I can say that I feel confident in that, but I, you know, I don't have any,” Carney began. Then he changed course: “You're asking me to prove a negative.”

The questioning continued unfettered.

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.

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