Earnest: Obama Didn’t Bar Officials From Paris Protest

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

White House spokesman Josh Earnest repeatedly insisted that the president wasn’t responsible for the high-profile decision to not send any senior official to the huge Jan. 11 protest against the recent jihadi massacres in Paris.

“This is not a decision that was made by the president,” Earnest told reporters, even as he insisted the decision was a mistake and was made by unnamed senior White House staff.

Earnest was so eager to distance President Barack Obama from the White House decision that he claimed he had not talked about the demonstration with his boss. “I have not spoken to the president about this specific matter. … I didn’t talk to him about his personal regret” about not attending, Earnest said.

However, Obama’s failure to send any senior official to the short-notice demonstration may reflect his political priorities.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has tried to shift the public’s focus away from the jihadi threat toward his domestic priorities.

He also also repeatedly praised Islam and Muslims, and criticized criticism of Islam. “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” he told a worldwide TV audience during a September 2012 speech at the United Nations.

“As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam,” he declared in a 2009 speech in Cairo. “It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar [seminary] — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment,” he claimed.

To reduce the focus on jihadis, Obama has even renamed the threat as general, non-specific issue of “violent extremism,” and has repeatedly said jihadis have no connection with Islam. “Those who have studied and practiced this religion would tell you — Islam is a peaceful religion … [Violent acts are] entirely inconsistent with the basic principles of that peaceful religion,” Earnest said Jan. 12.

The Paris demonstration was intended as a display of unity and to protest the jihadis’ murders of 14 people and three police officers at a satirical magazine, a Jewish deli and in the street. Eight left-wing journalists and four Jews were murdered by the three jihadis, two of whom were born and raised in France, where roughly 10 percent of the population of 65 million are Muslims.

Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris during the demonstration, but declined to attend the event, which was attended by the presidents or prime ministers of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel and many other countries. The most senior U.S. official at the event was the little-known U.S. ambassador to France.

On Monday, Earnest tried to shift the focus from the president’s decisions, back to his senior staffers.

“I’m not suggesting that anybody bears responsibility of this outside the White House. … We here at the White House should have made a different decision,” he said about his peers, including Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s top communications aide, and Ben Rhodes, a senior national security public relations aide.

“It is fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there,” Earnest said.

The president would have liked to attend, Earnest suggested. “Had the circumstances been a little bit different, I think the president himself would have liked to have had the opportunity to be there,” he said.

But Earnest declined to say what the president and the attorney general were doing while the protest event was taking place. “I did not prepare for a question based on what the president was actually doing yesterday. … I am not aware of the details of the attorney general’s schedule for yesterday,” he said.

The vice president was at his home, Earnest admitted.

Earnest repeatedly refused to explain the why officials refused to send any top-level official to the Paris demonstration, or even to a smaller protest held in Washington D.C.

“I’m not going to sort of unpack the planning and logistics that go into these kinds of decisions,” he said.

“I’m just not going to be in a position to sort of unpack the scheduling planning discussions that we have here,” he repeated.

“I’m not going to be in a position to sort of unpack the logistical and scheduling conversations that have taken place here at the White House over the last several days. … What I can do is acknowledge to you that we should have sent somebody with a higher profile,” Earnest said.

Follow Neil on Twitter