A staffer for a Republican congressman resigned Monday amid public outrage over disparaging comments she made last week about President Obama’s daughters, proving that there still may be some taboos in Washington’s ever more rancorous political culture.
Elizabeth Lauten, the communications director for Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher of Tennessee, became the latest political operative to lose a job by misusing social media after she mocked Malia and Sasha Obama on Facebook for their appearance and demeanor at the president’s annual turkey pardoning.
What set Lauten’s resignation apart from past instances in which aides were forced out over social-media lapses was the speed of her departure and the widespread condemnation of her remarks, in which she stated that the Obama daughters should try “showing a little class” and avoid dressing as though they wanted “a spot at a bar.” Although Lauten apologized on her Facebook page Friday, her initial posting spread rapidly, propelled by bloggers and Twitter users who chastised her for a personal attack on the girls, who are minors.
Lauten confirmed her resignation in an e-mail to The Washington Post on Monday morning. At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest called it “pretty much common sense” that personal criticism of the president’s children should be off-limits.
“I was taken aback that there was a political operative on Capitol Hill who did use the occasion of a Thanksgiving-themed event to criticize members of the first family,” Earnest said during his daily briefing. “She has posted an apology to her Web site, and I think that was an appropriate thing for her to do.”
Fincher’s office did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Several news media outlets had pointed out last week that Malia, 16, and Sasha, 13, appeared bored while their father spoke during Wednesday’s event. The exasperated looks on their faces were used to gently mock the turkey pardoning — and sometimes the president — and drew wry headlines from USA Today, BuzzFeed and Gawker.
But Lauten had virtually no defenders on either side of the political aisle Monday.
GOP aides on Capitol Hill agreed that Lauten broke one of the cardinal rules of politics. In the words of one senior Republican aide, “You’re always free to invoke your own children, but invoking other people’s kids is not among the things you should do.”
Instead, Republicans objected to what some called the overwrought media attention to the comments of a low-level aide of a rank-and-file congressman. Some GOP officials suggested that the media attention helped a bid by Democrats to exploit the kerfuffle for political gain.
“Children, especially the first daughters, are off limits. While the comments were inappropriate and insensitive, the mainstream media’s coverage of this story is appalling,” Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer wrote in a series of messages on his Twitter account. “In over 20 years in politics I have never seen one of the countless inappropriate comments by Democrats ever covered” to this extent.
But self-inflicted political wounds on social media have shown no partisan tilt in recent years. Some high-profile Democrats have lost their jobs because of missteps on social media, most famously former congressman Anthony Weiner of New York, who resigned in 2011 after he sent sexually explicit messages and photographs of himself to women. Last year, a White House aide on Iran policy resigned after being outed as the author of an anonymous Twitter account that criticized the president and his top aides, including a reference to an outfit worn by national security adviser Susan E. Rice as “dominatrix-like.”
And former Democratic National Committee executive director Patrick Gaspard drew headlines in June 2012 after posting the message “it’s constitutional. Bitches” on his Twitter account in celebration of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the federal health-care law. Gaspard is now the ambassador to South Africa.
On the Republican side, Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho fired a spokesman last year after he posted the message “Me likey Broke Girls” about a television show on the congressman’s Twitter page during the Super Bowl.
Some GOP aides noted that this wasn’t Lauten’s first misstep online. In early August, she accidentally posted to Fincher’s Twitter account about a song she was listening to on the music Web site Pandora.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama have aggressively tried to shield their daughters from the media spotlight during the family’s six years in the White House. Mainstream news organizations have generally abided by requests not to write about the girls unless they are participating in official functions.
There have been lapses that have angered presidential aides, however. Malia’s spring-break trip to Mexico in 2012 became news, despite attempts by the White House to contain the story, after an earthquake struck near the area she was visiting. Her week-long Hollywood internship this summer also drew news coverage.
“When they were minors just trying to live their life, there was an understanding that they should be left alone,” Tommy Vietor, a former White House spokesman, said of the unspoken agreement between the press and the White House.
Obama’s predecessors have had similar struggles with the media coverage of their children. In 1993, conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh compared first daughter Chelsea Clinton to a dog. And in 2001, President George W. Bush’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, then 19, received widespread media attention after being charged with underage possession of alcohol.
The White House discouraged reporters from covering the incident, calling it a family matter.
“I would urge all of you to very carefully think through how much you want to pursue this,” then-press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters. “I understand that there’s a question of law. I’ve never called anybody or suggested to anybody that the coverage today is in any way inappropriate. But to go beyond that I would urge you to be very careful, because any reaction of the parents is parental. It is not governmental. It is family. It’s private, and the American people respect that.”
Amy Carter, who was 9 when her father, Jimmy Carter, was elected president in 1976, was put in the spotlight when her parents decided to enroll her in public school after moving to Washington. Her time at school was parodied on a 1977 “Saturday Night Live” skit that many viewers would later criticize as tasteless.
GOP strategist Ron Bonjean characterized the Lauten episode as a lesson in what not to do as a Capitol Hill press aide.
“When you work as a press secretary for an elected official and are sharing your outside-the-box thoughts on social media,” he said, “you must always think twice before sharing them or be prepared to get your walking papers.”
Jose A. DelReal and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.