Tracking a smear: Obama "snubbed" wounded soldiers because there were no media or "cameras"
Research ››› ››› SIMON MALOY
The claim that Sen. Barack Obama's campaign canceled a visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center because Obama could not bring the media along continued to drive media coverage, even after NBC News' Andrea Mitchell and others declared the allegation to be "false" or without factual basis. Media Matters chronicles the immediate emergence of an echo chamber perpetuating this smear, involving talk radio, conservative blogs, the McCain campaign, and the national media.
On July 24, one of the final days of his week-long overseas trip, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign announced that he would not visit Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where Obama had planned to meet with soldiers wounded from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Obama campaign, the Pentagon had informed them that the visit "would be viewed ... as a campaign event," and "Senator Obama did not want to have a trip to see our wounded warriors perceived as a campaign event." Almost immediately, an echo chamber emerged in which conservative bloggers, journalists, and Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign attacked Obama for "snubbing" U.S. soldiers, claiming that the visit was canceled because the campaign was "not allowed to bring cameras" or media.
These allegations against Obama were almost immediately debunked. NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who accompanied Obama on his overseas trip, reported on the morning of July 25 that Obama met with wounded soldiers in Iraq "without photographers" and that the plan for the Landstuhl visit had been to "leave the press corps on the tarmac." Mitchell and others would revisit the allegation several times, each time declaring it to be "false" or without factual basis. Nevertheless, the claim that Obama canceled the Landstuhl visit because he could not bring the media along continued to drive media coverage.
Media Matters for America chronicles the immediate emergence of an echo chamber perpetuating this smear, involving talk radio, conservative blogs, the McCain campaign, and the national media, despite early and repeated factual refutations.
At 7:42 a.m. ET on July 24, the German magazine Der Spiegel's online "Obama Live Ticker" reported that "Obama has cancelled a planned short visit to the Rammstein and Landstuhl US military bases in the southwest German state of Rhineland-Palatinate." According to Der Spiegel: "The visits were planned for Friday. 'Barack Obama will not be coming to us,' a spokesperson for the US military hospital in Landstuhl announced. 'I don't know why.' Shortly before the same spokeswoman had announced a planned visit by Obama." Accusations by conservative bloggers and Republican officials -- echoed in the media -- that Obama was "snubbing" wounded soldiers or that he placed greater importance on "working out" or "shopping" immediately followed the Der Spiegel report:
- In a July 24 Hot Air entry, posted at 10:50 a.m. ET, citing "Der Spiegel's blog report[ing] on Obama's priorities," blogger Ed Morrissey wrote that "thousands of screaming German fans at the Tiergarten take precedence over visiting Americans serving their country at Ramstein and Landstuhl. Maybe one of the networks following Obama could interview a few of the soldiers about how they perceive that set of priorities from Obama." Morrissey later updated his post to say: "Obama canceled a previously-planned stop to visit thousands of American service personnel, including troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan being treated at Landstuhl, so he could hold a political rally for Germans and go shopping in Berlin." Morrissey's purported source for this claim was a blog entry by ABC News senior national correspondent Jake Tapper that did not mention the cancellation of the troop visit or that Obama planned to go shopping.
- In an 11:38 a.m. post on The Swamp, the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau blog, reporter Jill Zuckman wrote: "A Republican friend of the Swamp helpfully points out that Sen. Barack Obama seems to have time to visit the gym for a workout today, but not to visit the troops during his stay in Germany tomorrow." Zuckman went on to write: "Thanks to a statement from senior adviser Robert Gibbs, the issue seems to be one of ethics and propriety, rather than time." Zuckman quoted Gibbs' statement: "For the second part of his trip, the senator wanted to visit the men and women at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center to express his gratitude for their service and sacrifice. The senator decided out of respect for these servicemen and women that it would be inappropriate to make a stop to visit troops at a U.S. military facility as part of a trip funded by the campaign." Zuckman also quoted the McCain campaign's response: "Barack Obama is wrong. It is never 'inappropriate' to visit our men and women in the military."
- Politico senior political writer Jonathan Martin wrote in a 1:46 p.m. entry to his blog that Republicans were "smartly" attacking Obama over the Der Spiegel report, adding: "The optics here are not good: Obama has time to get in a workout and give a speech to a crowd mostly comprised of Europeans, but can't be bothered to visit American troops wounded in action recovering at a military hospital."
- On the July 24 edition of Fox News' Your World, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) said that "one of the things that you try to do at least once when you've been to Afghanistan and Iraq, as I have, and as John [McCain] has many times, is to stop by Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, and visit the hospital there at Landstuhl." Kyl continued: "It is a tremendous experience, but a life-changing experience. And not to be too critical, but I notice that Obama had plenty of time to shoot hoops and do some things like that, get a workout, but he didn't have time to stop by there. And I would have thought that would've been something he would really want to do on this trip."
- On the July 24 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, radio host and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham said: "I think Barack Obama could have gone there and given a very pro-American and very strong speech. I don't think this was it. I think it was a good delivery. He looked great. I think the fact that he didn't go visit the troops at the military bases, and yet figured out how to have enough time to work out in the Ritz Carlton gym -- I think that looks really bad. I don't think that plays well in Ohio. I don't think it plays well in Michigan."
In addition to the statement from Gibbs, quoted above by Zuckman, Obama campaign adviser retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration issued this statement, as reported by ABCNews.com on July 25:
"We learned from the Pentagon last night that the visit would be viewed instead as a campaign event. ... Senator Obama did not want to have a trip to see our wounded warriors perceived as a campaign event when his visit was to show his appreciation for our troops and decided instead not to go."
ABCNews.com also reported Gibbs' subsequent remarks to reporters on the Obama campaign plane:
"The statement that I sent out and the statement that General Gration sent out are consistent in that what General Gration learned from the Pentagon, that the trip to Ramstein and Landstuhl will be viewed as a campaign stop. ... The decision that Senator Obama made with that information was that we would not put our warriors in the position of being involved in a campaign stop. Therefore he made the decision not to make the stop."
"He could go as a United States senator, but it was pretty clear from the guidance that we received from the Pentagon that the trip would be viewed as a campaign stop. ... Given the information that we had received, Senator Obama made the decision that we were not gonna have wounded men and women become involved in a campaign event or what would be perceived as a campaign event."
By July 25, conservatives in the media began claiming that Obama had canceled the visit because there would be no media allowed inside the Landstuhl hospital. In an update to a July 24 entry to NBC News' First Read blog, NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski and Pentagon producer Courtney Kube wrote:
A U.S. military official tells NBC News they were making preparations for Sen. Barack Obama to visit wounded troops at the Landstuhl Medical Center at Ramstein, Germany on Friday, but "for some reason the visit was called off."
One military official who was working on the Obama visit said because political candidates are prohibited from using military installations as campaign backdrops, Obama's representatives were told, "he could only bring two or three of his Senate staff member, no campaign officials or workers." In addition, "Obama could not bring any media. Only military photographers would be permitted to record Obama's visit."
The official said "We didn't know why" the request to visit the wounded troops was withdrawn. "He (Obama) was more than welcome. We were all ready for him."
In a July 25 Hot Air entry posted at 7:21 a.m., Morrissey cited Miklaszewski and Kube's First Read post in claiming that "[w]hen Obama found out he couldn't use the visit as a photo op, he canceled." (First Read made no such allegation -- indeed, the military official quoted in the post claimed not to know why Obama decided not to go through with the visit.) Conservative radio hosts Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh made this same accusation later on June 25. On the July 25 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show, Limbaugh claimed:
LIMBAUGH: By the way, he canceled that -- two appearances yesterday with the troops in Germany, and you know what the excuse now is?
Now, this -- see, this is the kind of thing, to me, this matters. This -- well, yeah, he blamed it on the Pentagon, but see, this is the kind of stuff that matters to me. See, I think -- I think character -- whether somebody's telling you the truth about things -- matters. That way you -- if you size up somebody as a BS artist or as a liar, and you elect them, then you get what you deserve, and you should never express surprise.
Like, I, for one, am not surprised [former Sen. John] Edwards [D-NC] may have done what he did, because I think Edwards has been a charlatan and a phony baloney conman since the minute he got into politics after he left the law. So, none of that Edwards story surprises me. None of what Bill Clinton does surprises me. It did surprise Clinton after the fact that people who ignored who he was, who had supported him -- but you know, even the drive-bys started dumping on Clinton during the Obama-Hillary campaign.
No, what the Obama camp is saying is that they, out of respect for the military, canceled because they thought it would be improper for a paid-for campaign event to go visit the troops. And it would be demeaning to the troops to appear as a campaign event. The Pentagon said you can come, but you can't bring the media circus and you can't bring the cameras. When the Pentagon said you can't bring the cameras, that's when the Obama people said they're not going. Then they try to lay this off on the Pentagon, and -- but the bottom line is, they were not allowed to bring cameras and that's why they canceled it.
On the July 25 broadcast of ABC Radio Network's The Sean Hannity Show, Hannity said:
HANNITY: You know, I've found one other article -- I hadn't known this. I was telling you earlier, you know, the Obama campaign tried to blame the Pentagon. Here he was scheduled -- he wanted to go visit this military hospital. It was on the campaign sheet to go visit the military hospital in Germany. And we find out that the only restrictions the Pentagon wanted to impose was their rule against turning visits by politicians into campaign events.
And, by the way, you know, I know for a fact -- because I talked to these kids when I went to Walter Reed and Bethesda -- that, literally, the president would sneak on over often to go see these kids. You never heard about it. It was never reported. As a matter of fact, I remember I was out there with Ollie North, and they said, "Yeah, the president was just here -- what? -- like, two days ago, or whenever it was." And, you know, so -- and the same thing with Donald Rumsfeld. Donald Rumsfeld used to go over there all the time, but he didn't turn it into a campaign event.
Anyway, so Obama has it on the schedule. The Pentagon says, "Look, you can come, but they're going to impose their rule against turning a visit by a politician into a campaign event." Now, this is what we finally are finding out here. All the Pentagon said is they advised Obama's staff -- yeah, of course, he can visit the hospital and injured personnel in Germany but only in his capacity as a member of Congress -- in other words, without the trappings of a political campaign. Which, by the way, it's unfair to use sick soldiers, injured soldiers fighting for their lives, as a political prop.
And then Obama apparently canceled the visit and went to work out instead. He went to work out because -- and, you know -- and then said it would be inappropriate as part of a trip financed by his campaign. Well, as John McCain said, it's never inappropriate if you're a United States senator to visit a sick soldier. It's never inappropriate. There's not one taxpayer in the country that would have any opposition to this nor is there any rules against this. The only difference is -- the only restriction that was in place -- is that they don't want to have candidates, you know, using the appearance for some type of political benefit. And so -- that wasn't enough. He had to bring along, of course, the entourage and the multiple 10,000 media press secretaries along with him.
So, if you want my take on this -- if you want to remember one thing about this trip -- is that Barack Obama chose to work out rather than see the wounded troops because he couldn't bring [CBS News anchor] Katie Couric, [ABC News anchor] Charlie Gibson, and [NBC News anchor] Brian Williams with him.
As documented by ABC News, on July 25, the McCain campaign emailed to reporters a transcript of Hannity's July 25 comments on Obama and Landstuhl under the headline: "ICYMI: Hannity on Barack Obama's Cancelled Military Visits." According to ABC News' July 27 article, headlined, "Anatomy of an Attack: How McCain Hit Obama," the Hannity transcript was a precursor to an "extraordinarily harsh" attack in a new campaign advertisement:
On Friday, among the blizzard of daily e-mails the ever-vigilant McCain press office sends, was one under the headline "In Case You Missed It: Hannity on Barack Obama's Cancelled Military Visits."
It quoted the conservative Fox News commentator Sean Hannity saying, "If you want my take on this, if you want to remember one thing about this trip, is that Barack Obama chose to work out rather than see the wounded troops because he couldn't bring Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams with him."
The next day, the campaign released a statement from retired Army Lt. Col. Joe Repya blasting Obama.
"Barack Obama had scheduled a visit with wounded American troops who have served with honor and distinction in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he broke that commitment, instead flitting from one European capital to the next," Repya wrote.
In literature, this is known as foreshadowing.
A few hours later, the McCain campaign dropped the bomb in the form of a new television ad entitled "Troops." It featured an extraordinarily harsh attack line: "And now, he made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras. John McCain is always there for our troops. McCain. Country first."
By the time the McCain campaign released the ad on July 26, the story had been covered repeatedly on cable news and other media outlets. In a July 25 blog entry (no longer available online), Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet purported to quote Obama campaign senior strategist David Axelrod saying that the Pentagon "viewed this as a campaign event and therefore they said he should not come." Sweet's entry and the purported Axelrod quote were incorporated into the McCain campaign's July 26 press release on the "Troops" ad. Sweet later updated the entry (see below) and removed the quote.
As Media Matters noted, on the July 25 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash characterized Obama's decision not to go to Landstuhl as a "stumble," even though, earlier that day, her colleagues Bill Schneider and Gloria Borger had agreed that Obama was in a no-win situation. In his report on the July 25 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, Schneider specifically credited "bloggers" who "immediately picked up on the canceled visit to the military hospital in Germany," airing a screenshot of Morrissey's June 24 Hot Air post.
Indeed, it was during the initial coverage of the story that Mitchell debunked the idea that the Obama campaign canceled the trip because, as Limbaugh put it, "they were not allowed to bring cameras." On the July 25 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Mitchell specifically reported that Obama had never intended to bring the media to the hospital and had visited wounded soldiers in Iraq just days before without the media in tow:
MITCHELL: The background on the military flap is that they had clearly planned a trip to Ramstein, they were planning to visit the injured troops, and then the Pentagon explained they couldn't go as part of a political trip. The Obama campaign thought that they could go, leave the press corps on the tarmac, and then take off with military escort and make this one last visit, as he did, by the way, in Iraq. He visited a casualty unit in the Green Zone without photographers as part of the congressional delegation. But the military said that the rules are that he could only go as part of a previously arranged congressional delegation to Ramstein.
Clearly, people in the campaign are really angry. They had wanted this to be the final stop on the trip here in Germany, and to do it without the press corps, just to do it on his own. But the objections of the military were that he is now being staffed by campaign aides, not by his Senate staff, which -- who were the people who, of course, were with him when he went with [Sen. Chuck] Hagel [R-NE] and [Sen.] Jack Reed [D-RI] in Iraq. So, you know, the anger here is pretty intense at the Pentagon: They feel that the military are, you know, drawing some lines -- they're not saying this publicly, of course -- but drawing lines that they might not have drawn for other people. He was planning to just go by himself, not with cameras, not with any entourage, as he had done in Walter Reed in the past in Washington, as he did in Iraq, Joe.
After the ad was released, however, news outlets began uncritically airing or republishing its claim that Obama's campaign canceled the Landstuhl visit because the Pentagon would not allow the media to accompany him, even though Mitchell, traveling with Obama at the time, had already demonstrated that the claim was untrue. The July 27 broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America aired that portion of the ad, and neither anchor Kate Snow nor ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos noted that the accusation was false. Rather, Stephanopoulos reinforced the notion that the absence of cameras contributed to Obama's decision:
SNOW: This new ad that we say -- John McCain wasting no time at all. Let's take a listen to him. He's blasting Barack Obama already.
ANNOUNCER [video clip]: He made time to go to the gym but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras.
STEPHANOPOULOS: That was John McCain taking advantage of what may have been the only real misstep for Barack Obama on this entire trip, Kate, and that was in his trip to Landstuhl, Germany. His staff was told by the Pentagon that this might be considered a political trip, especially if cameras went in, if the campaign staff went in. So, Obama made the judgment not to go in and meet with the soldiers, even though he's done it many times before in places like Walter Reed. It was probably a mistake and John McCain really did step right in, as you see with that ad, played on Saturday Night Live last night and many other swing states today, to try to lock in this idea that, somehow, Senator Obama was insensitive to the troops.
Later, on the July 27 broadcast of ABC's This Week, Stephanopoulos interviewed McCain and asked about the "flap about Senator Obama's decision in Germany not to visit the troops at Landstuhl." Stephanopoulos did not ask McCain about the ad or its false accusation even though McCain responded, in part, to Stephanopoulos' questioning by saying:
McCAIN: I've visited the hospital, but the important thing is that if I had been told by the Pentagon that I couldn't visit those troops, and I was there and wanted to be there, I guarantee you there would have been a seismic event. And so, I believe he had the opportunity to go without the media, and I'll let the facts speak for themselves.
Stephanopoulos did not challenge McCain by noting that the absence of "the media" was reportedly never at issue regarding Obama's decision not to visit Landstuhl.
The July 27 broadcast of CBS' Face the Nation aired the McCain ad in its entirety. Rather than noting the ad's false attack, host Bob Schieffer asked Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI): "[A]re you ever allowed to take cameras when you go in to visit the wounded troops? I thought that was sort of the general rule that everybody knew about." Schieffer went on to ask Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), who was part of the congressional delegation on the Middle Eastern leg of Obama's trip, if the ad was "appropriate." Hagel responded: "I do not think it was appropriate."
SCHIEFFER: Well, let me -- just in line with what you said, the McCain campaign came out with a new ad, because Senator Obama chose not to visit those troops in the hospital --
SCHIEFFER: -- in Germany. Let's take a look at this.
[begin video clip]
ANNOUNCER: Barack Obama never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan. He hadn't been to Iraq in years. He voted against funding our troops, and now, he made time to go to the gym but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras. John McCain is always there for our troops. McCain: country first.
McCAIN: I'm John McCain and I approve this message.
[end video clip]
SCHIEFFER: Senator [Jack] Reed [D-RI], now, you've done a lot of these trips. They call them CODELs, congressional delegations. Go -- are you ever allowed to take cameras when you go in to visit the wounded troops? I thought that was sort of the general rule that everybody knew about.
REED: I don't think Senator Obama would have done that. Senator Hagel, Senator Obama, and I visited the combat support hospital in Baghdad to thank those nurses, those doctors, to see patients that were there, to bring a bit of greetings from home and profound thanks. That should be in the ad that Senator McCain is running. I think Senator Obama made a very wise choice. If it's any suggestion that a visit to a military hospital would be political, he made the wise choice not to go.
But when we were in Baghdad, we made a point, at the end of a very exhausting day, to go in and see these magnificent young Americans and those doctors and nurses that give such tremendous care without a lot of fanfare, just to say thanks. He did it -- the same thing. We went -- we didn't stay in Kabul, we went to Jalalabad to see the soldiers of the 173rd. We stopped in Basra to see our soldiers down there. We went into Anbar Province to see soldiers there. That is a completely distorted and I think inappropriate advertisement.
HAGEL: Let me add to that. As you know, Bob, the congressional delegation that you refer to ended when we parted in Jordan. At that point, it was a political trip for Senator Obama. I think it would have been inappropriate for him, and certainly he would have been criticized by the McCain people and the press -- and probably should have been -- if on a political trip in Europe, paid for by political funds, not the taxpayers, to go essentially, then, and be accused of using our wounded men and women as props for his campaign.
I think the judgment there -- and I don't know the facts, by the way, I know what I've just read, and no one's asked me about it other than what you just asked about -- but I think it's -- it would be totally inappropriate for him, on a campaign trip, to go to a military hospital and use those soldiers as props. And I -- so, I think, he probably, based on what I know, he did the right thing. We saw troops everywhere we went on the congressional delegation. We went out of our way to see those troops. We wanted to see those troops. And that's part of our job to see those troops, by the way, and listen to those troops, Bob. And we did.
SCHIEFFER: Do you think that ad was appropriate?
HAGEL: I do not think it was appropriate.
SCHIEFFER: You do not.
HAGEL: I do not.
In its July 27 front-page story on Obama's overseas trip, The Washington Post simply reported:
The trip went smoothly save for one flap with the Pentagon over a planned visit by Obama to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Pentagon officials raised concerns about campaign aspects of the visit, and Obama's team scrubbed it, then tried to explain what they had been told that forced them to back away.
Looking for an opening, McCain accused Obama in a new ad of "going to the gym" while in Germany instead of visiting the wounded troops, and of doing so because the hospitals would not let television cameras film the event.
McCain said in an interview to be aired Sunday morning on ABC's "This Week" program that "if I had been told by the Pentagon that I couldn't visit those troops, and I was there and wanted to be there, I guarantee you, there would have been a seismic event," according to the Associated Press.
Even MSNBC, which had played host to Mitchell's initial debunking of this smear, aired the McCain ad at least twice on June 27, without noting Mitchell's reporting. On July 28, Fox News correspondent Molly Henneberg took it a step further, falsely claiming that it was the Obama campaign that "said that the Pentagon said they couldn't go without media cameras."
In a July 28 Talking Points Memo post, media critic Greg Sargent noted that CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the AP had all posted online reports on the McCain ad, "[b]ut not a single one of these reports told you that the ad is false." Sargent wrote:
McCain's ad makes a stark assertion about the reason the trip was canceled: "Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."
But there is no evidence whatsoever supporting this assertion. It's false. That isn't the reason the trip was canceled. Shouldn't that be explicitly noted in stories about this?
Appearing on the July 28 broadcast of The Sean Hannity Show, McCain himself repeated the attack on Obama:
HANNITY: Senator, you and your campaign released a new TV ad, we'll show it tonight on Hannity & Colmes. By the way, your friend [Florida] Governor [Charlie] Crist is going to be on with us tonight, but about Senator Obama making time to go to the gym but canceling a visit with wounded troops. Quote, "seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."
McCAIN: Well, the story is, as I understand it, and I'd be glad to hear his explanation, is that he was scheduled to visit our gravely wounded at Landstuhl -- as you know, that's where they're taken from the battlefield for immediate care -- and then, when able, thank God the people are there, they're transferred to Walter Reed and Bethesda and other military hospitals. So, he was scheduled to be there. They said that the Pentagon and the people there at the hospital said he couldn't bring his campaign people and cameras, and so, he canceled. I guarantee you, I've been to Landstuhl by the way, and I guarantee you, if I'd have showed up there and they'd have said you can't come in just by yourself and with your -- maybe a Senate -- one of your staff, I'd have gone nuts, my friend. I would have called the Secretary of Defense and said, "Secretary Gates, I want to visit these people." Instead, apparently, Senator Obama decided to go to the gym at the Ritz.
As noted above, NBC's Andrea Mitchell addressed the Landstuhl visit on the July 25 Morning Joe, specifically noting that Obama had not intended to take the press corps to Landstuhl with him. Mitchell and other media figures subsequently revisited the claim, noting that the McCain ad was "false" or lacking in evidence.
In a July 26 entry to his ABC News Political Punch blog, Tapper wrote:
McCain's ad asserts that Obama "made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."
The McCain campaign provides no evidence for the assertion that being told he couldn't bring media had anything to do with the trip's cancellation.
Time national political correspondent Karen Tumulty linked to Tapper's blog post in a July 26 entry to Time.com's Swampland blog, noting that the military had confirmed to her that the media and Obama's campaign staff were originally scheduled to remain at the airport and not accompany Obama to Landstuhl:
Jake Tapper notes the ad also claims that Obama cancelled the trip because he was told he couldn't bring the media. There is absolutely no evidence for that one. The campaign insists that the plan had been to leave us at the airport, and the military has confirmed that arrangements were being made to hold media and staff there at a passenger terminal.
As I have heard the campaign's explanations for this decision over the past few days, as well as the attacks, I am convinced that it comes down to something that campaign strategist Robert Gibbs told reporters on the plane: When the campaign learned of the Pentagon's concerns (Wednesday night), they realized that, however they structured the hospital visit, they were going to come in for criticism.
On the 11 a.m. ET hour of the July 28 edition of MSNBC Live, anchor Tamron Hall noted that Mitchell had reported that "there was never a plan for Obama to take the press to see the wounded troops," and asked Newsweek senior White House correspondent Richard Wolffe to provide a "reality check" on the McCain ad:
HALL: Richard, let's start off with you. I think you well know the details by now, that Andrea Mitchell is reporting that there was never a plan for Obama to take the press to see the wounded troops. In fact, Republican Chuck Hagel, who was there with Mr. Obama, says Obama made the right decision here. The reality check of this ad here -- is it accurate?
WOLFFE: No. There are a number of things that are either twisted and a number of other things that are just not true. The idea that he hasn't held a hearing on Afghanistan, for instance -- well, he was running the European subcommittee, and it was only a tangential relationship with Afghanistan. Of course, he just went to Iraq, so that's the second piece of it. But when it came down to the central charge about visiting the troops, he clearly planned to go and there was, at best we can tell, a dispute with the department of defense about who he could go in with. Not talking about the campaign plane or campaign press, the press corps that follows him on the campaign.
WOLFFE: We're really talking about which handful of advisers could go in with him. So this wasn't about him wanting to see the troops or wanting to go to the gym. It was about the technicalities, the rules about who he could travel with into that base and it didn't work out.
Later that day, on the 1 p.m. edition of MSNBC Live, Mitchell addressed the McCain ad, saying that the ad's claim "literally is not true" and that "it just seems inexplicable that this whole thing has become such an issue":
MITCHELL: Now, as someone supporting John McCain, I've got to ask you about this new McCain ad. The McCain ad says, literally, that he could've gone, you know, that he did other things -- Obama did other things. He could've visited the troops but not with cameras. That literally is not true. Let me play a bit of Robert Gibbs, the spokesman for Barack Obama reacting to that McCain ad today.
GIBBS [video clip]: John McCain is an honorable man, but increasingly running a very dishonorable campaign. Chuck Hagel is right that the ad is simply inappropriate, and it's just simply beneath -- it's beneath the John McCain that we thought we knew.
MITCHELL: Now, the point is that Obama had no intention of bringing any cameras with him. I was there. I can vouch for that, so, why put up an ad that says that that's the reason that he didn't visit the troops. They claim the reason they didn't go was they were concerned that it would seem too political since that was the political leg of his journey.
SEN. RICHARD BURR [R-NC]: Well Andrea, I -- I am also the ranking member of the Veteran's Affairs Committee. I visit our wounded troops frequently. I've never been denied access to them, and I -- I believe if I were, it would be a national issue. And I think that's what John McCain stated, that no commander would have made that rule without a fight. And I'm not sure what happened on the ground in Germany, but clearly, this was designed to be a political trip and the context of it might have scared the military, but I'm sure that if Barack Obama had wanted to visit those soldiers, he could have visited those soldiers. But not with the entourage he had.
MITCHELL: Well he wasn't planning to bring an entourage and he certainly visited the soldiers only four or five days earlier when he was in Iraq, and he visited them in Walter Reed again without any notice and without any entourage -- so it just seems inexplicable that this whole thing has become such an issue, but clearly, the McCain campaign wants this to be an issue; wants to paint him as someone who is unfeeling about the troops.
Two hours later, on the 3 p.m. edition of the program, correspondent David Shuster "clarif[ied]" NBC's reporting on the issue, noting that there is "no evidence" to support the McCain ad's attack:
SHUSTER: Again, just to clarify, NBC's reporting on this is that Barack Obama was scheduled to meet with the wounded troops, and then, at a certain point, he was told that he could not bring any of his campaign advisers, he would only have to bring Senate advisers, who were no longer with him. And at a certain point, Obama decided, "OK, well, in that case, I'm not going to go," although Obama did visit with wounded troops in Iraq. Again, there's no evidence, at least as far as our reporting is concerned, that Obama canceled it because the Pentagon told him he would not be allowed to bring cameras.
Mitchell again took on the McCain ad on the July 28 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, saying that "the press was never going to go. The entourage was never going to go," and that "the McCain commercial on this subject is completely wrong, factually wrong":
MITCHELL: And the other thing is, did he make a bad call in deciding not to go to Ramstein? He had every right to go to Ramstein --
MIKE BARNICLE (guest host): To visit the --
MITCHELL: -- to visit the troops in Landstuhl. He had already been to visit the troops in Iraq without cameras, without an entourage. And he got, I think -- his people, rather, got so backed off by warnings from the Pentagon, now, please be careful, and don't bring your military aide, because he's now a political aide. The Pentagon was way too aggressive probably in that.
And they got so nervous, oh, well, this is going to look political, and they were damned if they did or damned if they didn't. They --
HOWARD FINEMAN (Newsweek senior Washington correspondent): Obama had --
MITCHELL: Let me just finish one -- just one point.
FINEMAN: I'm sorry.
MITCHELL: There was never any intention -- let me be absolutely clear about this. The press was never going to go. The entourage was never going to go. There was never an intention to make this political.
But by tacking it on to the tail end of a political -- the political leg of the trip, they opened themselves up, they feared, to the criticism. And, if they had gone, they would have been criticized. And not going, they were criticized.
And the McCain commercial on this subject is completely wrong --
BARNICLE: Well, well --
MITCHELL -- factually wrong.
BARNICLE: Let -- let's watch the commercial. And tell us where it's wrong. Here's -- here's the new John McCain ad about this topic.
NARRATOR [video clip]: He voted against funding our troops. And, now, he made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops. It seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras.
BARNICLE: Well, that wasn't the entire ad. It was enough to give you an idea of it.
Here's Chuck Hagel, senator from Nebraska, his take -- he's a Republican -- on that John McCain ad.
[begin video clip]
SCHIEFFER: Do you think that ad was appropriate?
HAGEL: I do not think it was appropriate.
SCHIEFFER: You do not?
HAGEL: I do not.
[end video clip]
MITCHELL: Well, first of all, the picture, the image that they use of him playing basketball is with the troops shot by a -- an Army cameraman. That was DOD footage that the -- the Pentagon shot of him in Kuwait shooting hoops -- and a three-pointer, I might add.
MITCHELL: So --
MITCHELL: -- when he went to see the injured troops in the Green Zone, he did not bring a camera. There was no Pentagon camera. He did not even confirm to those of us covering by -- covering that he had gone. I had to find out that he had gone through other sources, military sources.
I mean, the fact is that he was never planning to take the press corps. The press corps was going to be on the tarmac, locked up on the airplane while he went off by himself.
The only issue was whether he could bring a political aide, who was a retired military -- retired Air Force general.
A July 28 FactCheck.org analysis of the ad concluded that it "falsely insinuates that Obama canceled his visit because 'the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras.' " According to the analysis:
McCain's facts are literally true, but his insinuation -- that the visit was canceled because of the press ban or the desire for gym time -- is false. In fact, Obama visited wounded troops earlier -- without cameras or press -- both in the U.S. and Iraq. And his gym workouts are a daily routine.
On July 29, Sweet wrote that her July 25 blog post had become "grist for Republicans to attack Obama" and that the Republican National Committee had falsely claimed Obama senior strategist David Axelrod "said that the Pentagon told the campaign Obama should not come to the base." According to Sweet:
Contrary to what the Republican National Committee stated in one of their missives, Obama senior strategist David Axelrod never said that the Pentagon told the campaign Obama should not come to the base. The GOP, citing my blog post, wrote in one of their releases, "Obama Senior Strategist David Axelrod Said The Pentagon Told The Campaign That Barack Obama "Should Not Come."
The headline on my original post were my words -- not Axelrod's. That headline "Pentagon tells Obama not to visit U.S. troops at German base because it would be too political" was my take.
I revised the headline a few hours later because it was wrong. The Pentagon never told Obama not to come. The issue was whether Obama campaign military advisor Scott Gration, a retired Air Force General, could accompany Obama. I also rewrote a paragraph to eliminate an Axelrod quote that I misunderstood.
The new headline on my post read "Pentagon tells Obama aide a visit to U.S. base in Germany would be seen as political." I thought that new headline and revised paragraph solved the problem; usually there is just one URL for a blog post. But due to a server glitch at the Sun-Times, both the original and updated versions existed on the Internet. The Republicans have been linking to the original post and not the updated version.
A July 30 front-page Washington Post article on the McCain ad reported: "For four days, Sen. John McCain and his allies have accused Sen. Barack Obama of snubbing wounded soldiers by canceling a visit to a military hospital because he could not take reporters with him, despite no evidence that the charge is true." According to the Post:
The essence of McCain's allegation is that Obama planned to take a media entourage, including television cameras, to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany during his week-long foreign trip, and that he canceled the visit when he learned he could not do so. "I know that, according to reports, that he wanted to bring media people and cameras and his campaign staffers," McCain said Monday night on CNN's "Larry King Live."
The Obama campaign has denied that was the reason he called off the visit. In fact, there is no evidence that he planned to take anyone to the American hospital other than a military adviser, whose status as a campaign staff member sparked last-minute concern among Pentagon officials that the visit would be an improper political event.
"Absolutely, unequivocally wrong," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an e-mail after McCain's comments to Larry King.
Despite serious and repeated queries about the charge over several days, McCain and his allies continued yesterday to question Obama's patriotism by focusing attention on the canceled hospital visit.
Even the McCain campaign's staff blogger Michael Goldfarb contradicted the ad's claim that Obama canceled the visit because "the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras." Goldfarb wrote in a July 30 entry to "The McCain Report":
It does now seem that Barack Obama snubbed the troops for reasons other than a lack of photo-op potential, but the initial reports were less clear. The early explanations from the Obama campaign were vague and contradictory, with David Axelrod blaming the Pentagon (Lynn Sweet now says she misreported and misunderstood Axelrod's statement, though she provides no further context for the quote that might change the meaning), Robert Gibbs saying Obama himself felt the trip would be inappropriate, and Scott Gration saying the Pentagon had discouraged the visit by dubbing it "a campaign event."
While the botched troop visit might have been the stuff of an attack ad in any case, since it was the only significant slip-up in an otherwise well-staged trip, McCain's new ad dovetailed with the latest viral e-mail aimed at Obama, a widely circulated -- though later recanted -- missive from a Utah National Guard officer stationed in Afghanistan, Joseph Porter, who wrote that Obama "blew ... off" and "shunned" soldiers during his visit there.
"He was just here to make a showing for the Americans back home," Porter wrote, though press reports contradicted some of the details provided in his e-mail. "It was almost that he was scared to be around those that provide the freedom for him and our great country."
Obama responded with high-minded disappointment to McCain's new round of attacks, and his traveling companions in the Middle East, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, condemned them.