The PJ Tatler

Was the White House Press Question About Augusta a Plant?

Through press secretary Jay Carney, President Obama weighed in on the membership rules of a private golf club on Thursday. The Augusta National Golf Club is hosting the Masters golf tournament this week, as it has done for decades. Augusta is a male-only club.

During Thursday’s press briefing, a reporter asked Carney whether the president believes Augusta should admit women as members. The reporter who asked the question is Matt Spetalnick, of Reuters. His question about Augusta came very early in the briefing, and out of the blue, with no set up. Spetalnick was the second reporter allowed to ask questions of Carney on Thursday, the first being the Associate Press’ White House correspondent. Keeping in mind that the president had been dealing with virtually non-stop questions about his attack on the Supreme Court since Monday, the AP reporter asked these questions to lead off the press questioning, after Carney had opened the briefing with remarks about a jobs bill in Congress:

Q Thanks, Jay. Do you think that will be the last bipartisan jobs bill of the year?

The question allowed Carney space to criticize Republicans. The AP reporter followed up:

Q So what would you say would be realistic? What would be next?

Both of these soft questions allowed Carney to move the White House’s preferred message on jobs, a day ahead of what has turned out to be a lackluster report on the economy. Carney answered, then turned to Spetalnick, who asked:

Q A couple questions. First of all, on Iran. Iraq is offering to host the talks next week between Iran and the P5-plus-1. They’re acting on an Iranian request to change the venue from Istanbul, following friction with Turkey. Of course, Secretary of State has said Turkey is the venue. Can you weigh in on where the U.S. —

It’s a foreign policy question, but again, nothing about the hottest story of the week, which was the president’s remarks about the Supreme Court. These questions and answers took the briefing through its first six or seven minutes, time that allowed Carney to move the president’s messages with no challenge at all from the press.

Carney answers the Iran question with vague talk of working with international partners to isolate Iran and so forth, doing his best to not make any news on the subject, and after he finishes, Spetalnick drops the question about Augusta.

Q One other question. Today is the opening round of the Augusta Masters, and the question of whether the all-male Augusta National Golf Club should admit women refuses to go away. Of course, tomorrow is — the White House is hosting a conference on women and the economy. What’s the White House stand on this? Should the Augusta National Club admit women to become members, especially now that you’ve got the CEO of a longstanding sponsor of the Masters, IBM, is a woman, and her predecessors have all been admitted?

The question comes out of nowhere, but Carney is ready with an answer that is guaranteed to make news on one of the major memes that the White House is pushing: That it really really cares about women.

MR. CARNEY: Well, the President’s answer to this question is yes. He believes — his personal opinion is that women should be admitted.

Q Do you think we’ll be hearing him stating that before Friday?

MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t know that — I happened to have a discussion with him about this, so I know that that’s his answer. But it’s obviously up to the club to decide. But his personal opinion is that women should be admitted to the club.

That brief exchange quickly generated headlines that the president believes Augusta should admit women, and the question itself pushed the White House’s conference on women, being held today, into the news. Carney was obviously ready for the Augusta question — he says that he “happened to have a discussion with the president about it,” so he knows what the president thinks. How much time does Carney typically get with the president of the United States each day? Do they typically converse about the membership rules of a private golf club?

You can watch the exchange on C-SPAN’s stream, here, and see for yourself. The first ten minutes of the briefing entirely avoided any negative questions; the AP reporter, Spetalnick and CNN’s Jessica Yellin all asked questions that seem designed to move White House messages, until Yellin asks about the meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood around the 10-minute mark. Watch Carney’s body language when he calls on Spetalnick, and when he answers the Augusta question. The exchange does appear to have been one that both the reporter and Carney anticipated having. It looks like a set-up to me. Watch Carney’s hostility rise up as soon as Fox News Channel’s Ed Henry starts asking uncomfortable questions about that women’s conference, and about the president’s Supreme Court comments. He was ready for that exchange too, but in a very different way.

The economy is anemic, gas prices are skyrocketing, and it seems that we learn about some new betrayal or failure on the administration’s part every other day. This bad week for President Obama has followed a very bad week for him, as the president was caught promising something on missile defense to the Russians and ObamaCare faced scrutiny in the Supreme Court, and the president followed all of that up with his ill-informed and unwise attack on the Supreme Court. The Tuesday walk back only made the situation worse. A truly adversarial press would have made this story front and center. The Augusta question gave the White House an early lifeline, a chance to bring up its ridiculous “war on women” gambit from another angle and move the women’s conference story, which no one was talking about, into the public conversation ahead of the stories that the nation is talking about, but which don’t favor the president. That women’s conference, by the way, comes on a day when yet another weak jobs report hit the streets.

I can’t prove conclusively that Matt Spetalnick’s question about Augusta was a plant, but it was an awfully convenient question for the administration to push an election-year message that has been pushing since January. My gut tells me that both of the first two reporters allowed to ask questions Thursday were asking questions that the White House planted.