Politics

White House: Press Didn’t Start Asking About Drones Until Jon Stewart Did

Dan Pfeiffer pounds the press corps.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

WASHINGTON — The mainstream media wasn’t interested in drones until Jon Stewart brought them up in an interview with President Obama, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said Wednesday.

In an interview with Politico’s Mike Allen before an audience in downtown D.C., Pfeiffer pushed back on criticisms that the White House communications team has eschewed traditional outlets in favor of sitting Obama down for softball interviews with late night hosts and entertainment outlets.

“There are very few outlets right now that have so many viewers that just in an of itself that is just a great use of 45 min of the president’s time. And so that’s how we think about it,” Pfeiffer said. “And you never know — there’s no such thing as a softball interview because it could turn out to be softball when you don’t know that going in.”

He used the hot-button issue of drones as an example.

“There was a reporter who was hectoring Jay [Carney] in the briefing, saying in the in the middle of when the drone issue became very hot, saying ‘why did the president only talk about this on the ‘Daily Show’?’ And Jay’s answer was the president did interviews with the anchors of ABC, NBC, CBS, Meet The Press and the question wasn’t asked,” Pfieffer said. “And so there’s no safe interview and like I said we’re going to do interviews with everyone from Jon Stewart, 60 Minutes to, you know, Bill Simmons’ podcast and everything in between.”

The exchange Pfieffer mentioned came during a Feb. 7 press gaggle on Air Force One. Carney was asked about Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden’s push for more public info on drones.

From the official transcript of the Feb. 7 gaggle:

Q Senator Wyden says that the President told him last night that he’s going to launch an extensive public discussion about how the government can or cannot target Americans. Can you explain what a public discussion about such a sensitive security topic would like?

MR. CARNEY: Well, that discussion has already been underway, as I’ve noted in recent days, because the President believes these are weighty matters and that the questions about how we move forward in our counterterrorism efforts are so important, and the need to build a legal structure that guides those efforts, that survives and — in place beyond this administration.

Because of his interest in this, senior administration officials — among them the Attorney General, John Brennan, counsel from the Defense Department and others — have given public remarks about this issue that have been part of the very conversation, the discussion in public that the President believes needs to be had. And that will continue. So I think that’s what Senator Wyden was referring to.

Q So will he now personally be involved in that? I mean, will he be personally talking publicly about this?

MR. CARNEY: Well, as you know, on October 18th, 2012, the President told an interviewer that “One of the things that we’ve got to do” — and I’m quoting him — “is put a legal architecture in place and we need congressional help to do that to make sure that not only am I reined in, but any President is reined in, in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making.” He says — he goes on to say, “Now there are some tradeoffs. I mean, there are times when there are bad folks somewhere on the other side of the world and you’ve got to make a call and it’s not optimal. But when you look at our track record, what we’ve been able to do is say we ended the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’ve gone after al Qaeda and its leadership.” This was in response to a question from an interviewer.

So he has talked about this publicly. I’m sure he will talk about it publicly in the future.

Q Is the “Daily Show” a proper platform for a foreign policy discussion like that?

MR. CARNEY: When the President is asked a question, he answers it. And I think it is worth going back to the interviews that the President gave during the campaign, and I think you would note that that interview was more substantive than many others.

UPDATE: Pfeiffer says he was trying to point out that substantive, tough questions come from all corners these days, so a stop at The Daily Show shouldn’t be seen as the White House looking for softballs. He tweeted with BuzzFeed DC Bureau Chief John Stanton after this story was published:

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