Ben Rhodes might have a “mind meld” with President Obama, but he is causing headaches for the White House.
Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, managed in a recent New York Times Magazine profile to undercut the president’s message on the Iran nuclear agreement while angering the Washington press corps and foreign policy establishment.
The broad backlash triggered by the piece rippled throughout the nation’s capital and caused the White House to go into damage control mode.
In a blog post late Sunday, Rhodes wrote that the public relations campaign he ran to sell the Iran deal was meant “to push out facts” and not “spin” the public and members of Congress.
He wrote that the White House and its allies “believed deeply in the case that we were making,” that the deal represented the best chance at cutting off Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon while avoiding war.
The longtime Obama aide was responding to criticism to his comments in the profile, which was published online last Thursday.
In the profile, Rhodes said he “created an echo chamber” of support for the deal by spoon-feeding talking points to friendly think tanks and experts.
Rhodes, who is 38 and holds a master of fine arts in creative writing, derided the press corps as too naive to cover world events.
He said the average reporter the White House talks to “is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” suggesting that allowed him to easily manipulate media coverage of U.S. foreign policy.
“They literally know nothing,” he said.
The piece was clearly a source of frustration for the White House, which is looking to burnish Obama’s foreign policy record during his final year in office.
His comments provided fresh ammunition to Obama’s political opponents who say the White House deceived the public about the Iran deal, a major second-term achievement for the president.
“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Obama administration essentially misled the American people on the Iran deal — or at least misled itself,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.) wrote in an op-ed Monday.
Republican lawmakers say Iran got the better end of the deal, citing Tehran’s continued destabilizing activities — including test launches of ballistic missiles — and the temporary nature of some limitations on its nuclear program.
Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden falters in pledge to strengthen US alliances 20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home MORE (R-Ariz.) said in a statement that Rhodes's comments “exposed how the White House manipulated and, in some cases, manufactured facts to sell the reckless Iran nuclear deal to the American people.”
The profile also casts Rhodes, who started as a speechwriter on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, as having become deeply cynical about large swaths of Washington after seven-plus years in the White House.
Rhodes sought to mend fences with the press in his Medium post, writing that media outlets he worked with “vetted that deal as extensively as any other foreign policy initiative of the presidency” and that his team was forced to answer “countless questions about every element of the deal.”
But a number of journalists named in the piece were furious about how they were described by author David Samuels: as having “helped retail the administration’s narrative” about the deal.
“This is an unsupported, defamatory allegation that somehow slipped into The New York Times Magazine by a guy, it should be pointed out, who has had a grudge against me for several years,” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg told The Huffington Post.
Goldberg absolved Rhodes of responsibility for how he came across in the piece, and instead blamed Samuels. “Of course not,” Rhodes told Goldberg when asked if he told Samuels the writer was handpicked to "retail" the administration’s message on Iran.
“I told him I don’t think I ever convinced you that it was a good deal,” Rhodes said, according to a piece Goldberg published online.
Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen said she was seeking a correction from the magazine for “misleading and inaccurate assertions made about me.”
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Times Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein defended the descriptions used by Samuels but acknowledged to Golberg and Rozen they should have been offered a chance to respond.
Many foreign policy watchers were irked by Samuels’s handling of the piece, but they saved their greatest frustrations for Rhodes.
Rhodes lashed out at the Washington foreign policy establishment, calling it the “Blob,” according to Samuels. In Rhodes's view, the “Blob” is full of “Iraq War-promoters” and those who “whine incessantly” about the U.S.'s posture in the Middle East and Europe, the author wrote.
The aide lumped former Obama administration officials, including former Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE, in that group — an unhelpful comment for a White House that hopes Clinton succeeds Obama next year.
Thomas Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning military correspondent who said he voted for Obama twice, wrote last week that Rhodes “comes off like a real a--“ in ridiculing the media and foreign policy experts.
“Fact check: Obama’s hasn’t been an original foreign policy as much as it has been a politicized foreign policy,” Ricks wrote in Foreign Policy. “And this Rhodes guy reminds me of the Kennedy smart guys who helped get us into the Vietnam War.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest initially dismissed the backlash over the piece on Friday as “sour grapes” from opponents of the deal.
But he was forced to explain Rhodes’s comments in greater detail Monday after being peppered with questions from reporters.
Earnest told reporters the Medium post ”was not something that was written at the request of the president,” adding that he has not spoken to Obama about the piece and is not sure if he had read it.
The spokesman said Rhodes was spurred to write the post to counter “an attempt by opponents of the Iran deal to suggest that somehow the effort to protect the deal was based solely on spin.”
Earnest said no administration official lied about the agreement and said he's never heard Rhodes use the term "Blob" to describe a group that includes Clinton or anyone else.
But after having several conversations with Rhodes about his comments, Earnest said the aide's description of reporters was “not how it was intended.”
“Based on that reaction, I am confident he would say it differently if given a chance,” he said.