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The president of the United States chose not to reveal how he planned to decide on a highly controversial issue to a group of political opponents. This is only news because of what you may have read earlier.

For the past five years, TransCanada has been pushing the government for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a large shunt that would move semi-processed fuel from tar sands deposits in Alberta to the Gulf Coast by way of the rest of America. Because the pipeline would cross the border, it requires permit approval from the State Department.

Green activists quickly seized on that permit — and the Democratic president who would ultimately have to approve it — as an opportunity for political leverage, turning the Keystone XL permit into a key environmental indicator. They began an active campaign in opposition, circling the White House with protestors and committing acts of civil disobedience. Last year, as Obama worked to solidify support before his reelection, he postponed a decision on the permit. Environmentalists claimed temporary victory — knowing that the issue would come up again.

As it has. The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline now ranks with gun control and the details of the federal budget as one of the most contentious issues in Washington. Opponents and supporters are deep within a communications war, analyzing every statement from the White House for any clue on Obama's intent — while simultaneously throwing out plenty of statements of their own.

Which made this BuzzFeed headline on Wednesday afternoon, following a meeting the president held with Republican leaders, particularly surprising:

 

This got a lot of reporters attention because, if true, it would have been a pretty big news break. The article read:

President Barack Obama indicated during his lunch Wednesday afternoon with House Republicans that he would approve the Keystone pipeline, Rep. John Carter told reporters

Obama previously blocked the completion of the pipeline, citing environmental concerns. But Carter and other Republicans present at the meeting said they were told the White House would drop its objection.

That article didn't last long before it was redacted (but not formally corrected):

 

Obama has blocked the completion of the Keystone pipeline, citing environmental concerns, but Rep. John Carter emerged from their lunch said the president indicated he would drop his objection.

The White House moved quickly to reject the notion that the president said anything definitive during the meeting after BuzzFeed first reported Carter's assertion.

Now, it's not clear who made the error here: Carter or BuzzFeed. The BuzzFeed report did not quote Carter at all, so there's a possibility he mischaracterized Obama's remarks. But one CNN reporter suggested that Carter said Obama had "indicated" he would approve the pipeline but stopped short of saying he had. (Staff for Carter were unable to confirm the content of his remarks.) When BuzzFeed got additional comment from other Congressmembers who were present, it became clear that someone's interpretation was wrong.

Obama's original objection actually focused on the rushed timeline for approval imposed by House Republicans in 2011. The group has been champing at the bit for the permit; Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, announced yesterday, includes approval of the pipeline.

It should go without saying, but of course the president wouldn't tip his hand on any decision in that venue, to that group, at this time. Obama is as aware of the potential political leverage from the decision as anyone. Politics is generally a transactional process: deals are negotiated and compromises reached with various carrots and sticks and, occasionally, pipelines.

The politics of the pipeline are simple. Republicans use a delay in approval as a cudgel to suggest that the president doesn't care about jobs, or is against fossil fuel development, or both. Environmentalists see it as a litmus test for the president's commitment to combatting climate change. Which means that the president could use approval or rejection of the permit to make a deal with either group. Allow Keystone as part of a budget package with Republican leaders, for example, or get greens and their Congressional allies to acquiesce to a slower roll-out of carbon emissions rules in exchange for killing the pipeline. That sort of thing.

What makes no sense is giving up his hand unilaterally. It makes no sense that he would say, "here's what I'm doing" before he tries to see what he might get. It makes no sense that he would say that to junior members instead of leadership. And it makes the least sense of all that he would answer one of the preeminent questions of his presidency over an informal conversation among opponents.

That's one reason the original story made no sense at the outset. Here's another. It's possible that the president has already made up his mind on the pipeline. The first people to know whether or not he has will likely be the group with whom he's trying to make a deal. And when news of his decision finally breaks — rest assured, you'll hear it from the White House first.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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