The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg has touched off something of an international incident over his reporting of an anonymous senior Obama administration official’s use of the word “chickenshit” to describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a drama that continued to play out at Wednesday’s White House daily briefing. Here’s the quote in question:
The other day I was talking to a senior Obama administration official about the foreign leader who seems to frustrate the White House and the State Department the most. “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” this official said, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname.
The article goes on to explain some of the context of the quote, which is, essentially, that Netanyahu lacks the political courage to move the peace process forward, but mainly paints this quote as emblematic of the U.S.-Israel relationship under President Obama. (Goldberg also reveals the disturbing detail that another administration official has described Netanyahu, in the past, as “Aspergery,” among a list of disparaging terms.)
The comment drew a defiant rebuke from Netanyahu’s spokesman, and a lecture from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) about profanity. At Wedneday’s briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest called Boehner’s statement “rich,” given the Speaker’s own penchant for “salty language,” and while he denounced the “chickenshit” comment, Earnest did not shy away from highlighting the Obama administration’s differences with Netanyahu over settlement activity. What’s more, when CNN’s Jim Acosta gave Earnest a shot at denying the comment, Earnest actually pretty much vouched for Goldberg’s sources:
ACOSTA: Getting back to the comment that rhymes with “chickenspit,” have you been able to determine whether or not the comment was even made?
EARNEST: I have not, Jim. I don’t say that to question the reporting of somebody like Mr. Goldberg, who obviously is a very well-respected journalist here in Washington, he is somebody that has a lot of sources inside the administration. So I didn’t come here seeking to undermine his reporting.
Through all of the many questions on Chickenshitgate™, Earnest stressed the close, important relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu, and our two countries, but also conspicuously allowed the daylight between them shine through.
Aside from that striking bit of public diplomacy, there was another subplot running through the questioning on this quote, as several reporters asked if there would be an investigation and/or a firing over the language used. Reuters’ Roberta Rampton wins the prize for actually using the word “chickenshit” in her question:
“Is the White House committed to finding out who made these comments, the ‘chickenshit’ comment, and punishing that person.”
As Earnest pointed out in his response (short answer: no), the main reason this comment is getting so much attention is because it is “colorful,” and Rampton framed her question in the context of the Twitter mole that the White House fired awhile back, but these questions are, essentially, asking for the White House to investigate and punish a reporter’s source. Apparently, investigating people like Stephen Jin-Woo Kim (who appears to have compromised a US intelligence source within the North Korean government) is a “War on Whistleblowers,” but if you call someone “chickenshit” to a reporter, fire away.