National Journal

There was a surprise word of the day at the White House on Tuesday. It was "unfettered," a relative stranger to most briefings by press secretary Jay Carney. But it was challenged for the top spot by that most hardy perennial, the simple word "if."

Because words from an official White House spokesman matter — and because this White House is under siege from its critics and an aggressive press corps — it especially matters what words Carney falls back on when trying to explain away scandals, inconsistencies, or political attacks. So "unfettered" and "if" paint a pretty powerful picture of how the Obama administration is going to keep counterattacking in the face of reports that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups and the Justice Department targeted reporters at the Associated Press to find out who leaked classified information.

Carney was pressed from the very first question to explain why the president shouldn't take responsibility for the IRS, AP, and Benghazi actions of his administration. Fourteen times, Carney pledged the president's fealty to the notion of reporters being unfettered — free of government restraints — when reporting on the government and undertaking investigative journalism. And, in that same first answer, the press secretary stressed that the president's outrage over the IRS disclosures is conditional. It is present, he said, only "if the reports about the activities of IRS personnel prove to be true."

That answer set the stage for the entire briefing. It lasted 59 minutes and featured 94 additional questions. But the tone was set with the first question. The topics of controversy dominated. Only five questions strayed off the theme — three on Pakistan, one each on Turkey and Syria.

Carney, under slightly less brutal attack than he endured Friday when Benghazi e-mails and IRS actions were fresher news, was unflappable. His story lines were not to be shaken. Benghazi, moved for this briefing a little more in the background than it was Friday, remained in the White House view "a political sideshow" (twice) and a "political circus" (once). The only new twist was singling out House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for blame for the politicization of the tragic deaths of four Americans at the hands of extremists. "The speaker of the House is reported to be obsessed with Benghazi and the political benefits of this pursuit," Carney said.

Most of the questions dealt with the IRS and the government snooping on personal calls by AP reporters. Time and again, reporters pressed Carney on why the president was insisting on waiting to see what investigators find went on inside the IRS. But just as often, Carney fell back on "if" — if the investigators confirm the early reports, "if the reporting is true on this," and "if it, in fact, took place." The intent was clear: Cast the president as a man who doesn't act without the facts.

On AP, Carney fell back on another favored word, eight times calling it "inappropriate" for any president to involve himself in an ongoing Justice Department investigation. "Imagine the story on Fox if that were to happen," he marveled at one point, allowing himself a chuckle. But, mainly, he insisted that the president is simply seeking the proper "balance" between guarding the nation's secrets and allowing a free press to work "unfettered." The intent is to portray the president as a champion of the First Amendment who is struggling to keep the nation's secrets secure.

For the press, the word of the day remained — as it usually is — "skeptical." As CNN's Jessica Yellin told Carney in the preface to her questions, "You have to understand and hear how it sounds like the administration might be hiding something." True to form, Carney, registering a mild protest at her assertion, used lots of "ifs" and "unfettereds" in his response.

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