The breach of the White House by Omar Gonzalez was big news today, as agency Director Julia Pierson took a grilling on the Hill, and back at the White House, Press Secretary Josh Éarnest was asked, several times, when was President Obama informed of how far the fence-jumper got. With the lines I’ve been given to read between, there’s a strong possibility that the Secret Service tried to sell their immediate apprehension story to the White House, as well as the public.
Earnest was asked several times when President Obama was informed that the intruder, who was carrying a pocketknife, made it all the way to the Green Room, and Earnest refused to say, replying only that the president was “updated” several times over the past week-ans-a-half, including an in-person briefing by Director Pierson on Thursday, and repeated;y citing the ongoing review. He also talked about the “chaos” surrounding the incident, but this particular piece of information isn’t susceptible to some kind of Rashomon effect, this is something that was knowable almost immediately.
Toward the end of the briefing, I asked Earnest when he, personally, learned just how deeply Gonzalez had penetrated the White House. What I got was the answer to some question being asked by Tommy Christopher with a beard in some alternate universe:
Tommy Christopher: When did you find out that the intruder had not been apprehended just inside the North Portico?
Josh Earnest: Tommy, as I have said, a couple of times now, I did have a couple of conversations with White House staff, and with Secret Service, and what I have done in the context of these briefings is to try to convey to all of you our confidence in the ability of the Secret Service to conduct an investigation that would get to the bottom of what exactly happened, and to implement reforms to ensure that it will never happen again. The president is looking forward to reviewing the report when it is completed.
Short version: “Squirrel!”
Earnest’s problem is that there really is no right answer to that question, because if he knew about it before yesterday, then he’s on the hook for not telling us, and if he didn’t, then he’s throwing the Secret Service under the bus. Either scenario could be chalked up to the dynamic I described in my follow-up, that it is essential to the President’s safety that everyone have confidence in the Secret Service. If a sword is ever to be taken, it will be fallen on, not cut from above.
However, the immediate reaction around the White House leads me to believe that this was not a case of sticking to a story to calm the public, and it wasn’t some fog of war. Shortly after the Washington Post story broke yesterday, the firs fallback was that no one from Secret Service or the White House had actually said Gonzalez was apprehended “just inside” the North Portico. This thin defense relied on the ambiguous wording of the Secret Service’s initial press release on the incident, which said Gonzalez “was physically apprehended after entering the White House North Portico doors.”
This is accurate in the same way that saying he was physically apprehended after the fall of the Soviet Union is accurate. It was clear that this line was coming from Secret Service, and while super-thin, it was something. White House officials were surprised to learn that WaPohad cited Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan saying just that:
The man, who was not armed, was arrested just inside the doors, Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan said.
Still, it wasn’t a direct quote, and Donovan could have claimed he was misunderstood, but according to a White House official, Donovan acknowledges he said it, and that “it was the best information available to him at the time he made this statement.”
We may never know, again, because public confidence in the Secret Service is so important, but I can’t imagine the White House trying to sell that to begin with, and not if they had sufficient time to check it. If that’s the case, then Secret Service sold it to them, and that’s a breach of trust that’s impossible to overlook.