The dominant news narrative on Monday was, by far, the absence of President Obama and/or any other senior member of his administration at Sunday’s unity march in France, which was attended by world leaders from 50 nations. Those attendees even included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as a nationwide attendance of millions. The United States was represented, in the march, by U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley.
At the top of Monday’s White House briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest cut right to the chase, explaining that while sending President Obama or Vice President Biden would have been impractical, the White House agreed that someone with a higher profile should have been sent:
If that explanation sounds familiar, it’s the same one Ronald Reagan used for abandoning Jesus.
Earnest also declined to give details on the decision-making process, except to say that “this was not a decision that was made by the president,” and through seven or eight other versions of the same question, reiterated that while it wasn’t feasible for the president to go, the administration should have sent someone with a higher profile than the ambassador. CNN’s Jim Acosta even tried the patented “shop,” trying to get Earnest to argue with Secretary of State John Kerry in absentia:
Earnest was later asked what the president was doing on Sunday, and replied that he hadn’t asked. There’s absolutely zero chance that Earnest wasn’t aware of what the president’s activities were on Sunday, but really, what answer would ever have been good enough?
It is worth noting that, at one point, Earnest appeared ready to engage some of the criticism, which broke down into two general categories, the first being partisan political opportunism. Many Republicans, like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), insisted that the president himself should have dropped everything and flown to France to march with about two million people with less notice than it would take to plan an appearance on The Colbert Report.
Others, like CNN’s Jake Tapper, were more reasonably dismayed that the United States couldn’t muster anyone to attend the rally with a higher profile than Ambassador Hartley, not even Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in Paris doing Sunday show interviews at the time of the rally. It is the latter criticism that the White House generally agrees with, but toward the beginning of the briefing, Earnest appeared to be spoiling for a fight on the former, before thinking better of it.
After Earnest had already admitted the White House should have sent someone else, Reuters’ Steve Holland asked him to respond directly to criticism. The exchange played a little bit like the Joe Pesci “funny how?” scene in Goodfellas:
Steve Holland: There’s been plenty of criticism about this, Is this criticism fair?
Josh Earnest: Well, criticism from who?
Holland: It was a wide variety of…
Earnest: Anybody that comes to mind?
Holland: Well, Ted Cruz, um, …
Earnest: Ted Cruz.
Holland: Jake Tapper…
Earnest: Jake Tapper did have some criticism, I saw that too…
Holland: Marco Rubio…
Earnest begged off in the end, opting instead to repeat that the White House agrees they should have sent someone with a higher profile than Amb. Hartley, but it was as close as I’ve seen Earnest come to going off-script, and going off on someone.
Tapper’s criticism, which included slams on Freedom Fry Republicans too, was entirely reasonable, and I’d even call the decision not to send Obama or Biden a coin-flip, a judgment call that’s reasonable either way. That’s not the point. The point is that a truly historical bit of history occurred on Sunday, a real opportunity for deep, persistent divisions to heal a little bit, and our press has made it about anything but that beautiful moment, and that is truly a shame.