At Wednesday's White House Daily Briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked to react to Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) suggestion that the United States send special forces to Nigeria in order to rescue the kidnapped girls from the Boko Haram terrorists who abducted them. Carney's response is being reported as "White House: No US Special Forces to Nigeria," but really, people, what was he supposed to say? "Yes, it is now time for these guys to really tool up, because here we come!"
This exchange is great because it showcases, in textbook fashion, three aspects of political journalism: the nut-punch, the shop, and the ubtle-say esponse-ray. Let's break those down.
The Nut Punch: This is where a politician takes a cheap shot at someone with actual responsibility, which that person cannot possibly respond to. A great example of this was when Newt Gingrich called President Obama "weak" for not sending special forces to take out the Somali pirates, right before U.S. special forces took out the Somali pirates. The unfortunate thing is that the mainstream press rarely points out that the nut-punch is a nut-punch (in Gingrich's case, they invited him on This Week to do it harder). Every once in a while, some other politician will accidentally give up the game, as Rick Santorum did to that same Newt Gingrich at one of the 2012 debates. See, if we're going to do something secret, it has to actually stay secret until we do it.
McCain must have known this when he told The Daily Beast that “If they knew where they were, I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without permission of the host country,” and then threw in a shot at the Nigerian President's name, adding “I wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan.”
True to form, The Beast's Josh Rogin didn't point out the nut-punch, or McCain's earlier insistence that we use other secret things to help. He also didn't point out that McCain wasn't always so gung-ho to ignore foreign leaders in pursuit of terrorists:
KING: If you were president and knew that bin Laden was in Pakistan, you know where, would you have U.S. forces go in after him?
MCCAIN: Larry, I'm not going to go there and here's why, because Pakistan is a sovereign nation. I think the Pakistanis would want bin Laden out of their hair and out of their country and it's causing great difficulties in Pakistan itself.
All of this sets up...
The Shop: The Shop is the single best tool in a White House reporter's kit, because the most difficult part of our job is to get the press secretary to say anything at all that hasn't already been in a press release, and hopefully something newsworthy. It's really quite simple: you take a quote, like McCain's, and "shop" it to Carney (or the President) for a reaction. See also: Pete Alexander's shop of a Karl Rove quote yesterday, which produced a sick burn from Carney. The shop is the highest-percentage shot we have, and the result can be gold. I have no problem with the shop, and the crazier the quote, the better.
At Wednesday's briefing, CNN's Jim Acosta was first to shop McCain's quote to Carney. "What's the White House take on that today," Acosta asked. "Is that something that might be examined as we get closer to maybe finding them?"
The Ubtle-say Esponse-ray: The problem with shopping a nut-punch is that Carney can't really even point out that it's a nut-punch, because if he says "Well, even if we were considering it, I couldn't tell you that," then he's kind of tipping our hand. Instead, Carney told Acosta "Let's not get ahead of ourselves," and ran down the list of assistance that the U.S. is already providing. "Finding them is the first step," Carney added.
"At this point, we are not actively considering the deployment of U.S. military forces to participate in a combined rescue mission," Carney continued, then quickly added "It's important to be mindful of where we are in this process, and not get ahead of ourselves."
Later in the briefing, NBC News' Kristen Welker took another shot at it, asking if special forces were "off the table," and Carney put a bit of a finer point on the fact that we actually have to find the girls before we can consider any sort of rescue.
The plain English takeaway is that "At this point, we are not actively considering the deployment of U.S. military forces to participate in a combined rescue mission," but reading between the not-so-subtle lines, and common sense, of course special forces are on the table. It would make no sense to announce that to the terrorists, or to announce to the government of Nigeria that we intend to use them whether they like it or not.
Also at today's briefing: In a sweet moment, Jay Carney wished Audio Video News' Connie Lawn a happy birthday, along with an offer of cupcakes. Since the untimely retirement of Helen Thomas, Lawn has been the most senior member of the White House press corps, just ahead of my pal, Les Kinsolving. Happy Birthday, Connie!