White House escalates war of words with U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Jon Ward Contributor
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The war of words between the Obama White House and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over campaign spending is escalating: The Chamber vowed Tuesday night to “ramp up” its involvement in the election and the administration Wednesday insisted that it and other conservative groups reveal their donors.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had little patience for questions Wednesday morning about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s position that disclosure of their donors would expose them to harassment, such as protests by labor unions at the homes of health insurance executives.

ABC News’ Jake Tapper read a few portions of his interview with the Chamber’s top lobbyist, R. Bruce Josten, detailing why they did not want to disclose their donors.

Gibbs, conducting an off-camera briefing with reporters in the West Wing, stood next to the press room podium and listened. When Tapper finished, Gibbs said simply: “So the answer is no?”

“Well the answer is no, because they don’t want to subject their donors to, in their view, harassment and intimidation from allies of the administration,” Tapper said.

“They had me at no,” Gibbs replied. “If they want to end this argument, open their books. This isn’t just the Chamber. American Crossroads. American Groups for Blue Skies, Mom and Apple Pie. There are all these great groups out there, that we now know they’re doubling down on even more money in this election to influence its outcome.”

Gibbs was referring to reports out Wednesday morning that groups like Crossroads are part of a new $50 million spending initiative in House races designed to maximize Republican gains on Nov. 2.

“This is simple. Just open up the books, every one of these groups. Show people who your donors are,” he said.

Chamber Chief Executive Tom Donohue was defiant in a letter to the group’s board of directors that was released to the press Tuesday night.

“It’s sad to watch the White House stoop to these depths to try to salvage an election. That’s clearly what this is all about … They hope that by demonizing those who oppose their failed policies, they can fire up their dispirited and disappointed base and silence our voice,” Donohue said. “Nor will the Chamber be silenced. In fact, for the next three weeks leading up to Election Day you will see us ramp up efforts to educate voters about the positions of candidates of both parties who are committed to free enterprise and economic growth.”

“We will not be deterred from full and vigorous participation in the political process. And, we will continue to successfully protect the rights and privacy of our members as they exercise their Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association in supporting the Chamber’s programs and activities,” Donohue said.

The high-profile spat between the White House and the Chamber is the latest in what has been a combative relationship for much of Obama’s presidency, and will do nothing to repair Obama’s reputation among many as an anti-business president. Obama has shown some sensitivity to this perception in the past, but any concern about it now seems to be collateral damage as pressure mounts less than three weeks before midterm elections that many expect to be a harsh repudiation of the president’s policies.

“The White House attacks reinforce a perception that Mr. Obama is antibusiness at a time when job creation is the issue that will decide this election,” Karl Rove, a former top adviser to President George W. Bush who is an informal adviser and fundraiser for American Crossroads, wrote.

During the press gaggle with Gibbs, Tapper also read Josten’s argument that non-disclosure of financial donors can protect free speech.

“Forcing people to comply with disclosure rules in order to exercise their First Amendment, ultimately results in people remaining silent or uninvolved with little or no benefit to the public because it squelches speech,” Jostens said.

“The seminal Supreme Court case, I would remind your listeners, was NAACP vs. the state of Alabama, in 1953 I believe, when certain people wanted to know who the white Americans that were promoting integration in this country over segregation and out those people to harass them. The Supreme Court decided then. Hell no was the answer.”

Gibbs smiled.

“That’s an intern in some law review who’s pulled a snappy response for continuing to hide behind the shroud of anonymity and equating it somehow with Jim crow and Segregation, which – you have to hand it to them – is certainly extending the argument beyond any reasonable bounds,” he said.

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