At yesterday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, tried to mitigate the VA controversy which is increasingly getting traction in the media, with what can only be seen as desperate and ludicrous spin.
In an attempt to credit the administration for taking decisive action, he repeatedly pointed to an American Legion statement that he claimed praised the Department of Veterans Affairs for addressing the leadership problem at the VA.
He said, in answer to ABC’s Jonathan Karl’s questioning, “the American Legion said that the group looks at Petzel’s resignation as a, quote, step towards addressing the leadership problem at the VA. So I think that undercuts the assertion that that is not a meaningful development.”
NBC’s Chuck Todd later said, “you seem very eager to rely on the American Legion’s statement on Dr. Petzel’s resignation, but not on what the American Legion wants with General Shinseki.” (The American Legion has called on Shinseki to step down.)
Carney replied, “we’ve made clear our view on Secretary Shinseki and the services provided and I would refer you to what Secretary Shinseki has said about Dr. Petzel and what the American Legion have said about Dr. Petzel because these questions are asked in large part in response to those who have called for personnel actions….”
When Todd noted that administration’s response looked like “window dressing” because Petzel was leaving, anyway, Carney again referred them to what the American Legion said.
Carney would go on to cite the American Legion nine times during the briefing.
So what did the American Legion actually say?
Jonathan Karl decided to do a little fact-check. It turns out that an official statement put out by the American Legion on Friday said about the exact opposite of what Carney suggested.
“This move by VA is not a corrective action, but a continuation of business as usual,” American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a statement. “Dr. Petzel was already scheduled to retire this year, so his resignation now really won’t make that much of a difference.”
The statement — which can be found on the at the top of the American Legion’s website — goes on to say the real problem is at the top of VA. “Secretary [Eric] Shinseki and Under Secretary [Allison] Hickey remain on the job. They are both part of VA’s leadership problem, and we want them to resign as soon as possible.”
Karl asked the White House about the discrepancy, and was pointed to articles in the Washington Times and USA Today which were also posted on Friday and quoted American Legion officials as calling the resignation a “step towards addressing the leadership problem at the VA.”
Karl tracked down the official quoted, John Raughter, “who acknowledged saying it was a step forward but not much of a step.”
When asked if he was “suggesting that the problems at the VA had been addressed in a significant way”, Raughter replied, “not at all. We feel there is a cultural change that needs to be made.”
So that’s what the White House was hanging their hat on? An out of context quote that totally misrepresents the American Legion actual position on the controversy? That’s what Jay Carney thought would be a good way to persuade reporters that the White House is moving decisively on a problem that has spurred bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill?
The shamefully shabby care at VA facilities across the country have led to at least 40 deaths while veterans waited for treatment. And this is a problem the president was warned a year ago when House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) wrote to the president to bring his attention to the “alarming pattern of serious and significant patient care issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers (VAMCs) across the country.”
Miller called on Obama to take immediate action: “Recent events at the Atlanta, Georgia, VAMC provide a perfect illustration of the management failures, deceptions, and lack of accountability permeating VA’s healthcare system…I believe your direct involvement and leadership is required.”
But this time, with both sides of the aisle up in arms and a media firestorm brewing, they may not get away with employing their usual crisis-management strategies.