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First Thoughts: The White House's PR mess

The White House finds itself in a public relations mess… Even as it argues that the press is seeing the trees (like the IG report) but missing the forest (Obama had no role in IRS controversy)… Issa’s committee knew about the IG report, too?... Senate Judiciary Committee clears immigration bill, which now moves to the Senate floor… NYT: The number of drone strikes declines… WaPo on Petraeus’ role in the Benghazi talking points… Florida shooting connected to Boston bombing… Will Weiner get his second chance?... And Garcetti wins LA mayoral run-off.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

President Barack Obama meets with Myanmar's President Thein Sein in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, May 20, 2013.

*** The White House’s public relations mess: While there is still no evidence connecting the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups directly to the White House or to the president personally, or to his re-election campaign, it doesn’t mean the White House doesn’t have a PR problem on its hands. And this PR mess is largely self-inflicted. For starters, its explanation about when it learned of the inspector general’s IRS investigation keeps changing. “Just a day after telling reporters that chief of staff Denis McDonough and other senior White House staff learned of the situation nearly a month ago, press secretary Jay Carney revealed Tuesday that White House officials had consulted with the Treasury Department on how to make the findings public,” Politico writes. Then we discover that the IRS official Lois Lerner plans to plead the 5th Amendment at today’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Both developments make it SEEM like the White House or the administration has something to hide -- even if the evidence (so far) is that Team Obama wasn’t directly connected to this IRS story. And speaking of a PR mess, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney didn’t help things when he compared a question about HHS’s fundraising to questions about the president’s birth certificate. That’s the way a White House acting as if it’s in a bunker mentality responds to legitimate questions.

*** White House: Press is seeing the trees but missing the forest: All that said, the White House believes reporters are seeing the trees but missing the forest. According to an administration official, its P.R. priorities were 1) demonstrating that the president had NO role in this controversy and 2) demanding accountability and new hires immediately. And this official believes both of those priorities have been met. For the White House, all other questions -- including who knew about the IG report and when they knew it -- are secondary, and it has taken them time to get their facts straight. But that explanation also assumes that the White House’s story won’t continue to change. And that gets at the issue of a credibility problem. And right now, the White House press shop has a credibility problem with many reporters in that press room. And assuming they have nothing to hide, it’s a self-inflicted credibility problem.

*** Issa’s committee knew about the IG report, too? Speaking of the IG report, the inspector general who investigated the IRS’s targeting of conservative-sounding groups testified at the Senate Finance Committee yesterday that Rep. Darrell Issa’s House Oversight Committee also knew about the report back in 2012 and communicated with the IG’s office. So Democrats argue something along the lines of, “Issa’s committee knew about it, too, and didn’t say anything public!!!” But an Issa spokesman tells First Read, “The administration is trying to draw a false a parallel between its own responsibilities and an Oversight Committee that requested the IG audit. This includes a false characterization that the Committee voluntarily waited for [the IG’s office] to complete its investigation. In reality, the committee made extensive efforts to ask [the inspector general] if wrongdoing had been found but was rebuffed on multiple occasions. Administration officials drawing a false parallel have offered no evidence that they made a similar effort to learn all that they could about wrongdoing.” 

*** Senate Judiciary Committee clears immigration bill: Despite everything else happening (IRS, the Oklahoma disaster, etc.), the immigration train keeps moving forward. By a 13-5 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved the sweeping bipartisan immigration-reform legislation, which now heads to the Senate floor. Per NBC’s Carrie Dann, “Three Republicans -- Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Orrin Hatch of Utah -- joined the panel's 10 Democrats to vote in favor of the bill. Flake and Graham are both members of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that originally drafted the 844-page immigration legislation. Hatch's support was won after the Utah lawmaker secured changes to the bill's provisions for the hiring of high-skilled foreign workers.” But there also was some drama, Dann notes. “In an emotional moment shortly before final passage, committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont announced that he would not call for a vote on an amendment that would have recognized the marriages of same-sex spouses in immigration law. Republicans in the bipartisan Gang of Eight said the LGBT measure would have broken apart the fragile coalition crafted by the bill's drafters.” The decision to pull the same-sex amendment only highlights the fact that Leahy wasn’t in charge of his own committee hearing; Chuck Schumer was.  

*** NYT: The number of drone strikes decline: A day before Obama’s speech on national security at the National Defense University, the New York Times reports that the number of drone strikes overseas has declined. “Strikes in Pakistan peaked in 2010 and have fallen sharply since then; their pace in Yemen has slowed to half of last year’s rate; and no strike has been reported in Somalia for more than a year.” We expect that the president will discuss the drone wars, as well the Guatanamo Bay prison. But it would also be a smart place for Obama to discuss and either defend, denounce, or explain the Justice Department tough actions against national-security leaks, which seem to have infringed on press freedoms. If he fails to use tomorrow’s speech to deal with the press’ growing anger about the targeting of individual journalists, it could be a missed opportunity.

*** On Petraeus’ role in the Benghazi talking points: We’ve told you that the fight over the Benghazi talking points seemed to be more bureaucratic politics than electoral politics. And this Washington Post article seems to further confirm that. “A close reading of recently released government e-mails that were sent during the editing process, and interviews with senior officials from several government agencies, reveal [former CIA head David] Petraeus’s early role and ambitions in going well beyond the committee’s request, apparently to produce a set of talking points favorable to his image and his agency. The information Petraeus ordered up when he returned to his Langley office that morning included far more than the minimalist version that [Rep.] Ruppersberger had requested. It included early classified intelligence assessments of who might be responsible for the attack and an account of prior CIA warnings — information that put Petraeus at odds with the State Department, the FBI and senior officials within his own agency.” 

*** Florida shooting connected to Boston bombing: Don’t be surprised if this story grabs a lot more attention later today. “An FBI agent was involved in a fatal shooting in Orlando early Wednesday that a local TV station says may have ties to the Boston Marathon bombings,” USA Today writes. “FBI officials have confirmed that a man died while one of its agents was "conducting official duties," the Orlando Sentinelreports, but would not elaborate. WESH-TV [an NBC affiliate] identifies the victim as 27-year-old Ibragim Todashev.” NBC’s Richard Esposito reports that the shooting IS connected to Boston bombing case. “It is connected in that the person shot is linked to Tsarnaev and has associates who are extremists overseas. They were interviewing him regarding his connections to Tsarnaev. He had been interviewed before. He started out cooperative. Flipped out. Went to attack agent. Then was shot.”

*** Will Weiner get his second chance? Anthony Weiner has released a slick two-minute video announcing his bid for New York mayor. "Look, I made some big mistakes, and I know I let a lot of people down,” he says in the video, which also features his wife Huma Abedin and young son. “But I've also learned some tough lessons. I'm running for mayor because I’ve been fighting for the middle class and those struggling my entire life. And I hope I get a second chance to work for you." Later in the video, wife Huma adds, “We love this city, and no one will work harder to make it better than Anthony.” While we still have our doubts that Weiner becomes NYC’s next mayor, his presence in the race likely means that front-runner Christine Quinn would face a run-off -- one in which she could struggle.

*** Garcetti to become LA’s next mayor: And in Los Angeles’ mayoral run-off, City Councilman Eric Garcetti defeated City Comptroller Wendy Greuel by eight percentage points, 54%-46%, succeeding outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The Los Angeles Times: “Garcetti will be the first elected Jewish mayor of the city. At 42, he will also be the youngest in more than a century. He is scheduled to take office July 1.” More: “At $33 million, the mayoral campaign was the most expensive in city history. The flood of money and advertising from those groups largely went toward tearing down the two contenders, alienating many Angelenos who hadn't already been left cold.”

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