White House press secretary Jay Carney received a stiff rebuke at Monday’s press briefing after trying to spin the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, Veterans Affairs undersecretary for health, as proof of the administration’s accountability for the escalating scandal over veterans’ waiting lists.
The spat began when ABC’s Jonathan Karl began questioning Carney about VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
“If this mess regarding wait times isn’t cleaned up soon, are General Shinseki’s days numbered as VA secretary?” Karl asked Carney.
Carney pivoted to stress the president’s support for the VA before responding, “What the president wants is for the review and the investigation to be completed and for action to be taken to address any problems that are identified by the review and the investigation and for individuals to be held accountable if that is appropriate.”
Karl then asked, “Are you suggesting regarding Dr. Petzel that he was forced to resign because of this controversy?”
“He did resign,” Carney responded. “He was identified as somebody that the American Legion thought should be held responsible, and I would point you to what the American Legion said.”
Karl forcefully rebutted Carney’s point, waving a press release from the VA.
“How can you suggest that his resignation comes as accountability when the VA put out a press release on Sept. 20 saying he was leaving? It’s almost eight months ago,” Karl said. “I don’t care what the American Legion has to say; I’m asking what you have to say.”
“Well, I would point you to the American Legion, which obviously has deep interest in this matter and has been reported on significantly by your network and others in terms of what they have said about this issue and note that they look at Mr. Petzel, Dr. Petzel’s resignation as quote ‘a step towards addressing the leadership problem at the VA,’” Carney responded. “I’ll leave it at that. Those are the words that they say.”
Things got more uncomfortable for Carney when MSNBC’s Chuck Todd followed up on Karl’s questioning.
Todd: “You seem very eager to rely upon the American Legion’s statement about the resignation of Dr. Petzel, not on what the American Legion wants with General Shinseki.”
Carney: “We’ve made clear our view on Secretary Shinseki and the service he has provided. I would refer you to what Secretary Shinseki has said about Dr. Petzel and what the American Legion has said about Dr. Petzel, because these questions are asked in large part in response to those who have called for personnel actions in response to some of these allegations.”
Todd: “Why shouldn’t we view this as window dressing — sort of politically advantageous — because you know he is already leaving, so you are taking action.”
Carney: “You can view it any way you like. I would refer you to what the American Legion has said, and I would simply say as I said earlier, that the secretary, and the president eagerly await the results of the individual investigation.”
Todd: “If you’re eagerly awaiting the results of the investigation, that’s where this sort of feels like where we’re chasing our tails. You want this to be seen as taking immediate action but over here you want ‘Oh, woah, woah, woah, we gotta wait for an investigation.’”
Carney: “Chuck, I would suggest to you that I was answering a question, I’m not like proactively pushing this out.”
Todd: “Nobody pushed him [Dr. Petzel] out? This is not a firing?”
Carney: “The VA has addressed this, so I would refer you to the VA.”
Todd: “But should we characterize this as a firing or not?”
Carney: “Chuck, you guys have got to make some editorial decisions on your own. I am simply referring you to what the VA said and what the American Legion said.”