-- The fallout over the New York Times profile on of one of President Obama’s top foreign policy advisers is showing no signs of abating, with some Republicans on Capitol Hill calling for the adviser to be fired for “tarnishing the Office of the President” and holding a hearing on whether the administration sought to mislead the American people on the Iran nuclear deal.
The political showdown was prompted by the publishing of a controversial profile piece on top White House adviser Ben Rhodes that raised questions about whether the White House employed certain communications tactics to mislead lawmakers and the media in selling the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Here are some of the highlights of the latest standoff between the White House and congressional Republicans.
Who Is Ben Rhodes?
Rhodes serves as Deputy National Security Advisor to the president and is a longtime aide to the president, with a focus on matters of foreign policy messaging. He played a leading role in shaping the White House’s communications strategy on the Iran deal.
Why the Controversy?
The current controversy began after the publishing of a lengthy New York Times article earlier this month on Rhodes' role in the Iran nuclear agreement.
In the profile, Rhodes admitted to creating an “echo chamber” by which the administration hand-picked experts to champion the deal and feed those perspectives to the public via social media and as media sources to reinforce the messaging that was favorable to the administration’s positioning.
“We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes is quoted as saying in the article. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Rhodes also spoke disparagingly about the media, quipping to the Times that average reporter that the White House encounters is “27 years old, and ... they literally know nothing.” His assistant, Ned Price, told the Times there were journalists whom he said could be relied upon to regurgitate White House talking points, calling them “force multipliers.”
The profile also details the shaping of the “story” on the Iran deal and a narrative that it was achieved after the 2013 Iranian election that saw the rise of Hassan Rouhani and a “moderate” faction inside the regime. While the Times says that “the president’s statement was technically accurate -- there had in fact been two years of formal negotiations leading up to the signing" of the nuclear deal, it also notes that timeline was “actively misleading,” with the most meaningful negotiations occurring in 2012, before the rise of the “moderate camp.”
“The idea that there was a new reality in Iran was politically useful to the Obama administration,” Times reporter David Samuels writes.
Since the profile was published, leading Republicans in Congress have expressed outrage over its revelations, accusing the White House of intentionally misleading the American public on the Iran agreement.
Sens. John Cornyn, Mark Kirk and John Barrasso have gone so far as to call for the president to dismiss Rhodes "before he further tarnishes the Office of the President.” In their letter to the president, they also accuse Rhodes of speaking with “alarming contempt for members of the news media whom he apparently sought to manipulate in his ‘echo chamber.’”
While there’s virtually no chance that the White House will heed the unsolicited advice of Republican lawmakers who’ve called for Rhodes' resignation, the House Oversight Committee, led by Republican Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, is now investigating whether the administration sought to intentionally mislead the public on the Iran deal.
Chaffetz invited Rhodes to testify before the committee in a hearing on the matter on Capitol Hill today.
The White House dragged its feet in responding to the request for Rhodes to testify, painting the request as nothing more than political posturing, and only formally declined the invitation on Monday, with White House counsel Neil Eggleston writing Chaffetz to say that the request for Rhodes to testify “threatens the independence and autonomy of the President, as well as his ability to receive candid advice and counsel in the discharge of his constitutional duties.”
In the hearing today, Chaffetz criticized Rhodes' absence as a missed opportunity to bring greater transparency to the Iran deal and mocked the presidential adviser for being available to talk to reporters “in his echo chamber” but not Congress.
“There’s still a shroud of secrecy, and I think this is a very viable thing to look at,” Chaffetz said. “Mr. Rhodes was in a unique position to offer this perspective given his heavy duty work on this. ... What is mystifying to me is how readily available he made himself available to the media but only select media, those in his echo chamber.”
Rhodes was asked today whether he has any regrets regarding the Times profile.
“I will not Monday morning quarterback every article that I’ve been a party to,” Rhodes said during an event hosted by the Center for New American Security. “When things like this happen, and that’s a part of what happens in Washington, the people who know me know what I care about and know how I approach issues and know what motivates me in this job.”