The White House knew the decision to swap Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five imprisoned Taliban members would be controversial and never expected it “to be a good news story,” communications director Jen Palmieri said Thursday.
Palmieri framed Obama’s decision to exchange prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Bergdahl as an obligation, and said the White House wasn’t surprised it created a firestorm.
Palmieri’s comments follow stories in The Hill and other media outlets that the extent of the criticism about the deal, particularly related to Bergdahl personally, had surprised the administration.
But Palmieri on Thursday said the White House knew lawmakers would object “based on past conversations,” she said.
The White House had floated the idea of a prisoner swap to members of Congress more than two years ago, and lawmakers have said it was greeted with almost unanimous opposition.
Palmieri also said the administration knew the swap would draw attention to allegations that Bergdahl deliberately walked away from his camp before being seized by the Taliban.
“We knew that there was information in the public domain, some people who were critical of Sgt. Bergdahl, critical, we think, unfairly and because we don't know what happened,” Palmieri said.
“So it is not something that we expected to be a good news story,” she continued. “It was something that the president as commander in chief was obliged to do, and he explained to the American people why he took those actions.”
The administration's handling of the Bergdahl swap suggests that officials may not have always anticipated it would be such a liability.
In an appearance that has been ridiculed by Republicans, national security adviser Susan Rice argued Bergdahl served “with honor and distinction” on ABC's “This Week” on Sunday.
And on Wednesday, the White House said it remained confident that the deal would ultimately be viewed as good policy.
“I think the principle of leaving no man behind will ultimately win out,” a senior White House official said.
The decision to place Obama alongside Bergdahl's parents in a Rose Garden ceremony on Saturday — a symbolic gesture that hardened his association with the freed soldier — also appeared to amplify politically damaging elements of the story for the White House.
Obama defended that move during a press conference earlier Thursday, arguing it illustrated the decision was above politics.
“I think it was important for people to understand that this is not some abstraction. This is not a political football,” Obama said. “You have a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land, who they hadn't seen in five years and weren't sure whether they'd ever see again.”
Obama said he made “no apologies” for the decision or its rollout, and said he was “never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington.”
“That's par for the course,” Obama said.
The administration attempted during a classified briefing Wednesday to mollify concern from members of Congress upset they had not been consulted about the operation. But Republicans and some centrist Democrats said the administration's explanation was not sufficient.
On Thursday, Palmieri said the administration was “trying to balance the desire and need to keep this protect this mission, to keep it safe and secure with informing our partners in Congress of actions that we're taking.”
“The military said it was our last best chance. And we took it. And the president doesn't make any apologies for it,” she added.
But members of Congress remain outraged. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Wednesday floated the idea that lawmakers could impeach Obama if he transferred more Guantanamo detainees without consulting Congress with sufficient notice. Palmieri said that threat would not change Obama's calculus on future foreign policy decisions.