White House’s false sequester claims prompt media pushback

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

The White House’s media management team will be in the public spotlight this week following a series of days in which it leveraged the media to distribute what turned out to be misleading or false information.

President Barack Obama told reporters that Capitol Hill workers were facing pay cuts as a result of the looming budget sequester. Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited the same cause when he incorrectly claimed that a school district was already laying off teachers. And White House spokesman Jay Carney understated by a factor of 10 the number of illegal immigrants administration officials released in a bid to lower the cost of housing inmates in immigration detention facilities.

Those statements came as the White House sought to create public anger about Republicans’ refusal to vote for additional new tax revenues as part of a last-minute budget deal to forestall the sequester, which will force mandatory across-the-board cuts across much of the federal budget.

But the release of more than 2,000 illegal immigrants set off a wave of public anger, partly because of coverage by upstart media outlets that have not been allied with the White House.

Carney tried to downplay the emerging scandal, saying Feb. 27 that the release “was a decision made by career officials at ICE, without any input from the White House … this step affected a few hundred detainees, as you know, out of the over 30,000 currently in ICE detention.”

But in a March 1 report, the Associated Press determined Carney was wrong. The number was 2,000, said the AP, and the administration planned to release another 3,000.

“Government documents show that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement released roughly 1,000 illegal immigrants from its jails around the U.S. each week since at least Feb. 15,” in states such as Arizona, California, Georgia and Texas, said the AP report.

In late February, “the agency held an average daily population of 30,733 in its jails [and] the internal budget documents reviewed by the AP show the Obama administration had intended to reduce those figures to 25,748 by March 31,” said the report.

Carney’s claim followed a Feb. 25 briefing by Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano, who suggested that the sequester cuts — which amount to roughly 1 percent of federal spending in 2013 — might force the release of illegal immigrants.

“Look, we’re doing our very best to minimize the impacts of sequester.  But there’s only so much I can do,” she said during a briefing in the White House press room. “I’m supposed to have 34,000 detention beds for immigration.  How do I pay for those?”

Carney’s claim that the release decision was made by career officials at the DHS is also unconfirmed.

Napolitano’s announcement Friday that her chief of staff would resign also undermined that claim. No reason was announced for the departure of her aide, Noah Kroloff, who had worked for her for eight years.

The series of false claims from the White House has spurred critical reporting from older establishment media outlets, which usually provides favorable coverage for Obama.

The Washington Post debunked Duncan’s pink-slip claim, for example.

By Friday, reporters were skeptical to the point of asking Obama tough questions during the unscheduled press conference where he made the pay-cut claim. The President shrugged off the questions, however, and mollified reporters with a jokes and flattery.

“What more do you think I should do?  Okay, I just wanted to clarify.  (Laughter.)  Because if people have a suggestion … this is a room full of smart folks,” he said, according to the White House transcript.

But shortly after the press conference, reporters debunked Obama’s claim that sequester-related cuts were causing Capitol Hill pay cute, marking the second false claim in one week.

Republican leaders and spokesman tried to highlight the administration’s deceptions.

The AP‘s revelation “makes it less and less possible for lawmakers to have productive negotiations with the White House over a comprehensive immigration bill,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions.

Rory Cooper, the press secretary for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, also jumped in. “Obama Admin released 2,000+ criminals awaiting deportation last week. More than previous reports,” he said in a midnight tweet.

For several weeks GOP officials have been successfully debunking claims by Obama and his aides about the sequester. On Sunday, for example, Obama’s top economic aide, Gene Sperling, admitted that the White House had first suggested the sequester idea during budget talks in 2011.

That admission came after officials had spent weeks claiming that the sequester was a GOP proposal. Obama made the same claim during a TV debate during the 2012 campaign.

But Sperling defended Obama’s claim by saying that the president had sought a very different type of sequester. Obama’s sequester, he said, would have raised taxes — not cut spending — if no budget deal were reached.

“I think the president was overall right in that the idea of an across-the-board, all-spending cut was the idea of Republicans. But, yes, we put forward the design of how to do that,” he said during an interview on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

But Sperling used the television appearance to repeat Obama’s claim that Republican leaders had endorsed his plan to raise tax revenues by closing tax loopholes.

House Speaker John Boehner, “who you just interviewed, was willing to suggest, put on the table, $1 trillion in revenues for deficit reduction as long as it came from reform that focused on closing loopholes and deductions,” Sperling claimed during th TV interview.

Boehner and his aides have repeatedly said the GOP’s loophole-closing plan was intended to spur the economy — and tax revenues — by making the tax laws more rational, and was not intended to increase the government’s share of the economy. (RELATED: GOP aides refute Obama’s claim of GOP support for tax increases)

“Closing tax loopholes, lowering rates for all Americans will help our economy grow,” said a Sunday tweet from Boehner’s office.

GOP activists say false claims and tough partisan language from Obama and his aides have undermined the prospects for legislate compromises before the 2014 election.

“WH poisoning well is mind boggling. Building coalitions needed, not more campaign,” said a March 3 tweet from Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the GOP caucus in the Senate.

But the GOP is also interpreting the White House’s approach as a carefully chosen campaign-trail tactic for the 2014 midterm election.

By pushing for major changes on taxes, guns, immigration, education and low-wage pay, Obama’s aides are pushing for legislative victories that would divide and demoralize the GOP’s supporters — or political controversies that will spur an unprecedented wave of women and Hispanics voters in the 2014 elections — say GOP legislators and staffers.

The media’s new skepticism toward the White House was touched off by a Feb. 22 article in which veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward charged that Obama had “moved the goalposts” by demanding new tax increases to offset the spending cuts set by a 2011 budget deal he endorsed.

“When the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts … [Even though] he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more … that was not the deal he made,” Woodward wrote.

Prior to publishing that article, Woodward spoke by phone with Sperling, who vociferously criticized his pending story.

The resulting media coverage of the Woodward vs. Sperling dispute obscured the Post reporter’s charge about Obama’s goal post-moving.

But it prompted several reporters to challenge Carney and other White House officials during the week that followed, and spurred subsequent media skepticism toward what turned out to be false statements from Obama, Duncan and Carney.

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