Notes from a briefing room press insider…
Chaos in Gibbs-istan: As a skeptical tone continues to rise in the Brady briefing room, Afghanistan ruled the show today as Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was forced repeatedly to bat down the premise that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has earned a POTUS-backed slap on the wrist for breaking the silence on the war’s policy review in a London speech. CNN’s Ed Henry led the charge, with RG more than once accusing him of “many caveats in your question” as he quoted McChrystal; RG, in a common podium defense, said he didn’t know whether POTUS had seen the “Chaos-istan” comment and, in response to whether the speech was appropriate, that he wasn’t in charge of scheduling for each member of the military, later repeating that POTUS is “comfortable with the way the process is and how it’s moving forward.” He chastised reporters: “I get that the Washington game is to do the back and forth,” to which Henry promptly cried: “It’s not a Washington game!” RG called the 25-minute POTUS-McChrystal one-on-one onboard AF1 in Copenhagen “a constructive meeting … not about what’s going on on cable television.” In response to whether NSA Jim Jones was rebuking McChrystal in his comments on the Sunday shows: “Far be it for me to parse the words of a four-star general.”
But What if We’re Thirsty?: POTUS is set to brief Congressional leaders tomorrow on the Afghan review process, which RG says is intended to “walk them through where we are” and “solicit their views.” In the wake of the deadly weekend attack in Afghanistan, he noted that the strategy on the table is to move from such outposts and focus more on the population centers. ABC Radio’s Ann Compton followed up to ask why that strategy had not been implemented if it had in fact been agreed upon “several months ago,” as RG said. She was referred to the five-sided building. As for the hush-hush Af-Pak meetings (a five-part series, so far), RG forewarned that “it isn’t about the number of meetings” and that the fifth meeting might not immediately precede a POTUS announcement. When CBS’s Chip Reid employed the old RG baseball analogy technique to ask what inning it is for the Afghan assessment, RG replied: “You haven’t even gone for your first beer yet.”
Made for TV: Calling it “quite clear” that “I don’t think we have the option to leave” Afghanistan while noting that there remains a lack of clarity in election results there, RG prompted several questions about what that meant for being forced to cooperate with corrupt leadership, as is widely assumed of President Hamid Karzai’s government. A series of vague statements signaled that RG might have to polish the talking points on this question as he answered: “You have to ensure as we dedicate more resources that you have that type of partner” (a not-so-corrupt one); we have to “take steps to make sure your partner is ready, able, and willing to assist”; “We are clearly going to have to take actions to ensure that everybody is working collectively to get this right”; and “we will work to ensure that they do,” that it’s “the least we can do” for servicemen and -women. In a Sorkin-style “West Wing” end of the briefing, reporters weren’t done with questions on this topic and shouted at RG as he made a brisk exit.
BTW, on Healthcare: Echoing a long-time Helen Thomas narrative, AP’s Ben Feller used his lead-off questioning to ask whether POTUS was still pushing for a public option. When RG replied with the familiar line that the WH expected a “strong piece of legislation” with “choice and competition,” Thomas interrupted: “Why don’t you answer the question?” Amused by her tenacity, RG countered: “I’ve answered it each time…” while conceding that it was not to her satisfaction.