From NBC/NJ's Aswini Anburajan
COLUMBUS, Miss. -- Attempting to re-write history on her positions on NAFTA is something that Barack Obama has accused Hillary Clinton of doing in recent weeks. But in Mississippi Monday, Obama found himself re-weaving the tale of his own recent past in connection with the unpopular trade deal.
After telling the crowd that Clinton was confronted by Tim Russert with making numerous statements in support of NAFTA at a recent MSNBC debate, Obama then attempted to pass off the meeting between a senior economic advisor, Austan Gooslbee, and members of the Canadian Embassy as nothing more than a goodwill mission that underscored Obama's commitment to renegotiating NAFTA.
"We've got one of my economic advisors, he goes and visits a Canadian Embassy and they're asking him questions and he says, 'Well Senator Obama isn't planning to repeal NAFTA, but he wants to amend it to make it stronger for U.S. workers.'"
Obama went on to say that Canadian Embassy put an inaccurate spin on the meeting and the Clintons took advantage of it.
"The Canadian Embassy writes it up as, 'Well, maybe Obama is not as tough on NAFTA as you might think,' and the Clintons start waving this and saying, 'See. Actually he's the one.'" Well no, this was not my policy. This was theirs," Obama said of the Clintons.
That's not quite how the story goes. Goolsbee, a professor at the University of Chicago in addition to being an adviser, didn't exactly go and visit a Canadian Embassy like he was on a tour of his own. He was invited by Canadian diplomats to the consulate in Chicago Feb. 8 to discuss trade with Canadian diplomats.
Gooslbee, per the campaign, attended the meeting as a representative of the University of Chicago, they say, rather than as a representative of the Obama campaign. However, Canadian officials released a statement saying it was habitual for them to reach out to those involved in presidential campaigns and report on those meetings to interested parties within their government.
In fact, Ian Brodie, chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told reporters Feb. 26 that a member of the Clinton campaign called the embassy to say Canada should take her campaign position on NAFTA "with a grain of salt." Both the Clinton campaign and the Canadian government, though, deny that a representative from the Clinton campaign met with any representative from Canada.
What is known is that Goolsbee did meet with Canadians, courtesy of a memo leaked to the Associated Press, and he met with them as a representative of the Obama campaign. Though the campaign contends no such request went through the campaign, and that they did not know beforehand of Goolsbee's intention to meet with the Canadians.
At issue, however, is the language of the leaked memo, written by Canadian diplomats and distributed to members of the government, including this paraphrased paragraph characterizing the meeting:
"Noting anxiety among many U.S. domestic audiences about the U.S. economic outlook, Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign. He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."
In an interview with the Associated Press, Goolsbee contested, in particular that phrase in the last line of that graph describing Obama's campaign position as "more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."
Obama foreign policy adviser Susan Rice said on MSNBC that neither Goolsbee nor any member of the Obama campaign had met with Canadian officials. Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe also denied to reporters that Goolsbee had met with officials. Plouffe explained that he did not know and then on a later call with reporters -- after the AP memo was leaked -- said that Goolsbee had showed Canadian officials around the University of Chicago and was having a conversation there in the capacity of a university professor. It was later revealed that day that Goolsbee met with officials at the consulate.
Goolsbee, interviewed by both ABC News and the New York Observer, before the memo was leaked, acknowledged a meeting had taken place but refused to comment on the substance of it.
A week later when Associated Press reported on the memo, Obama told the press corps that he provided "the information that [he] had at the time."
The denials, including to the original story broken by Canadian Television that an Obama official had made a call to the Canadian embassy, were technically accurate, since the substance of the meeting was what was in dispute and there was no apparent call to an embassy but a meeting.
Politico reported the campaign was aware Goolsbee had met with Canadian officials after the reports first broke on Canadian TV.
Canadian officials, after the story was widely reported in the American press, released a statement saying, "[T]here was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect. The people of the United States are in the process of choosing a new President and are fortunate to have strong and impressive candidates from both political parties. Canada will not interfere in this electoral process. We look forward, however, to working with the choice of the American people in further building an unparalleled relationship with a close friend and partner."
But the denials and then later revelations raised questions about the campaign's commitment to transparency and forthrightness. It also allowed the Clinton campaign to wield a two-pronged offensive against Obama -- on both his opposition to NAFTA and his commitment to being a forthright politician -- in the closing days before the Ohio primary.
To date questions about the details of the Goolsbee meeting have yet to be answered, including why Goolsbee went, when and what he told the campaign of the meeting before senior members spoke to the press.