White House’s false sequester claims prompt media pushback

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.