Teamsters Prez to Obama: ‘End the Mystery’ on NAFTA Meeting

Apr 8, 2008 9:56am

ABC News’ David Wright and Sunlen Miller Report: On an Obama campaign conference call today, the president of the powerful Teamsters union disputed Sen. Hillary Clinton’s, D-N.Y., assertion that both Democratic presidential campaigns had rogue advisers on the issue of free trade but that her campaign dealt with the issue more effectively than Sen. Barack Obama’s did.

Teamsters General President James Hoffa Jr., an Obama supporter, was asked to respond to Clinton’s attempt today to draw a connection between her former chief strategist Mark Penn’s recent meeting with Columbian diplomats where he discussed lobbying efforts to secure a free trade deal that Clinton opposes and a disputed meeting earlier this year between Obama’s senior economic adviser Austan Goolsbee and Canadian diplomats over NAFTA

In that meeting, which the Obama campaign initially denied ever took place, Goolsbee reportedly told the Canadians that Obama’s tough rhetoric on NAFTA was mere political posturing.  After Canadian officials leaked a key memo that called into question the Obama campaign’s repeated denials, the campaign acknowledged the meeting but denied Goolsbee ever said any such thing.

"I haven’t met Goolsbee, but evidently he’s the top economic adviser," said Hoffa, in response to a question from ABC News.  "I think he should basically come up and say what he believes and what he believes he’s going to be advising Barack Obama about. And Barack Obama should do the same thing. Let’s end this mystery about what happened."

Hoffa added that he doesn’t think Obama is going to distance himself from Goolsbee "but he should certainly clarify whatever happened at that meeting," Hoffa said.

"We agree," wrote Clinton spokesman Phil Singer in an email. "Sen. Obama and his campaign have routinely dodged questions about the multiple stories they’ve told with regard to l’affaire Goolsbee. Sen. Obama should come clean about why his top economic adviser told the Canadians to dismiss his NAFTA criticism as political rhetoric before he has his campaign launch attacks."

On the Obama call, another Obama supporter Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-Ind., quickly chimed in immediately following Hoffa, asserting the Obama campaign had no need to revisit the Goolsbee situation.

"I’m pretty sure it was clarified at the time," Dvorak said. "Goolsbee and the Canadians both, at the time, denied that the conversation took place the way it was characterized. So I’m not sure there was as much there as there is with the Mark Penn situation."

For his part, Hoffa too dismissed Clinton’s suggestion that the Goolsbee and Penn matters are equivalent, noting that Penn was a paid adviser who stood to profit from his lobbying efforts on behalf of Colombia.  Goolsbee, he asserted, was an unpaid adviser to the Obama campaign.

"There’s no comparison," he said. "But, you know, I’ve asked Barack Obama about this. He says I’m committed to this issue."

Goolsbee’s meeting with officials at the Canadian consulate in Chicago — and the Obama campaign’s less than forthright handling of it in the week preceding the Texas and Ohio primaries — may well have hurt Obama in those crucial contests.  But Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist, remains Obama’s most trusted adviser on economic issues, although he has had a lower public profile in the campaign ever since the controversy.

Penn was Clinton’s chief campaign strategist until he was stripped of that title this weekend.  He continues to hold an advisory role in the campaign – involved in daily conference calls and polling – but other campaign staffers have now been promoted to handle strategy.

Hoffa’s demand for further clarification on the Goolsbee matter was obviously not the headline the Obama campaign was hoping for from the conference call.

In a subsequent call held moments after the Hoffa call signed off, deputy Obama campaign manager Steve Hildebrand said, "I don’t think that President Hoffa was aware that the campaign already clarified what occurred. He did send out a clarification a few minutes ago and if you didn’t get it you can ask President Hoffa’s office to give that to you."

Hildebrand went on to say: "Mark Penn was working for the Colombian government, Austen Goolsbee was not, he had one meeting. So that’s been clarified now, I don’t think it’s an issue that is even closely aligned, Sen. Clinton’s campaign can continue to push around what they want, but the facts are the facts."

UPDATE: Following the conference call, the Obama campaign distributed a statement from Hoffa.

"To clear up any misunderstanding about my statements, the Obama campaign and Austan Goolsbee have already clarified Professor Goolsbee’s meeting with representatives from the Canadian government, and as confirmed by the Canadian government, Sen. Obama’s position on NAFTA has not changed. As I said on a conference call with reporters earlier today, Sen. Clinton has a credibility problem with the working men and women across this country on the issue of trade. This problem is only underscored by Mark Penn’s continued role in her campaign."

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