Goldfarb struggles to preserve his disintegrating White House base threat story

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

In a December 16 post, Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb defended the accuracy of his report that the White House is "threatening to close" Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base "to extort" Sen. Ben Nelson's vote on health care reform -- denied by both the White House and Nelson's office -- by pointing to a request by 20 Republican senators for a congressional investigation of his report. But a Nebraska newspaper reported on December 17 that Nelson's fellow Nebraska senator, Mike Johanns, said he signed on to the request even though he doesn't believe Goldfarb's story is true and Goldfarb's blog post follows his retraction of his prior claim that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had personally issued such a "threat."

Goldfarb cites senators' call for investigation to bolster story -- but one of those senators says he doesn't believe it

Goldfarb uses "presumably well sourced" senators' call for investigation to prop up story. From Goldfarb's December 16 post:

Twenty Republican senators have requested that the Senate Armed Services Committee launch an investigation into reports that the Obama White House threatened to close Nebraska's Offutt Air Force base unless Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson fell into line on health care. Those reports first appeared on this blog. In the letter to Senators [Carl] Levin and [John] McCain, the committee chairman and ranking member, the 20 ask that "a hearing be held as to whether the BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] process has been compromised."

Meanwhile, both Nelson and the White House strenuously deny the allegation. A statement from White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer asserts "This rumor is absolutely false, as the people spreading it well know. This is nothing but a cynical, crass political game that is designed to maintain the status quo. Let's be clear: the people spreading these falsehoods think nothing is wrong with a system under which families and businesses continue to bear the brunt of skyrocketing costs, insurance companies are allowed to discriminate and drop at will, and thousands of Americans lose their coverage every single day."

They protest a little too much. I do not know this story is "absolutely false." To the contrary, I'm confident it's true. Twenty senators are now calling for an investigation, and each is presumably pretty well sourced in the Senate. If the charges are "absolutely false," maybe the White House will encourage Senate Democrats to call this Republican bluff. I won't hold my breath.

Nelson's fellow Nebraska senator reportedly says he supports investigation even though he doesn't believe story. In a December 17 article, the Omaha World-Herald reported:

Sen. Mike Johanns and 19 other Republican senators Wednesday called for a hearing into reports that the Obama administration used the future of Offutt Air Force Base as bargaining chip in the health care debate.

[...]

Even Johanns himself said he doesn't believe the rumors.

"When Senator Nelson says it didn't happen, I trust Senator Nelson. I have no reason not to trust him," Johanns said.

It is true that Nelson is one of the last Democratic holdouts on the health care bill and that he has been in ongoing discussions with the White House. Conservative pundits have cited anonymous sources saying that the White House threatened to close Offutt, home of U.S. Strategic Command, if Nelson did not support the bill.

Johanns said the rumors have reached a level where people in Nebraska are wondering if they're valid.

"It's kind of taken on a life of its own and I think that is very unfortunate," Johanns said. "So, my hope is that the White House will respond and say 'This is not how we make these kinds of decisions.'"

[...]

But Johanns said the White House needs to work directly with senators.

"The White House can work with us and say 'Look, folks, this did not happen. We're happy to appear before whatever committee,'" Johanns said. "I think that really does put this to rest."

Goldfarb's "presumably well-sourced" senators cited "media reports," not personal knowledge, in calling for investigation. In their December 16 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking member John McCain (R-AZ), the senators stated that "various media reports have stated that the Obama administration would put Offitt AFB in southeastern Nebraska on a future BRAC list because of a vote on healthcare reform." They did not cite any personal knowledge that those reports were accurate.

Goldfarb previously retracted claim that Emanuel issued the purported "threat"

On Weekly Standard blog, Goldfarb does not identify who in the White House issued the purported "threat." In his December 15 Weekly Standard blog post, Goldfarb did not specifically state who in the White House had purportedly issued the threat, or to whom it had been issued. Goldfarb cited a single anonymous "Senate aide," whom he did not identify by party and offered no explanation as to how this aide would be privy to such information. From Goldfarb's post:

According to a Senate aide, the White House is now threatening to put Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base on the BRAC list if Nelson doesn't fall into line.

Offutt Air Force Base employs some 10,000 military and federal employees in Southeastern Nebraska. As our source put it, this is a "naked effort by Rahm Emanuel and the White House to extort Nelson's vote." They are "threatening to close a base vital to national security for what?" asked the Senate staffer.

Indeed, Offutt is the headquarters for US Strategic Command, the successor to Strategic Air Command, and not by accident. STRATCOM was located in the middle of the country for strategic reasons. Its closure would be a massive blow to the economy of the state of Nebraska, but it would also be another example of this administration playing politics with our national security.

On Beck's radio show, Goldfarb says "Rahm Emanuel delivered a message" that Offutt would be closed if Nelson opposed health care. On the December 16 edition of Glenn Beck's radio show, Goldfarb stated: "As I understand it, Rahm Emanuel delivered a message to the Senate leadership that if Nelson did not get behind this, Offutt Air Force base would find itself on the next round of BRAC closures." He also said: "I have 100 percent confidence in my source on this, and, of course, the Nelson people have every reason to deny it." Goldfarb went on to say that "at the end of the day, the United States cannot survive without this base, so what they're basically threatening is to destroy the economic livelihood of a wide swath of Nebraska."

On Beck's Fox News show, Goldfarb retracts claim that Emanuel made threat, but says "we know for certain" that the "White House put in a call." On the December 16 edition of his Fox News program, Beck asked Goldfarb if he had "changed the story," because "now, the story is that it's just the -- someone in the White House" who issued the purported threat, not Emanuel. Goldfarb replied:

GOLDFARB: Look, what happened was, I got a call yesterday, and a source of mine at the Senate told me that Ben Nelson's office had gotten a call threatening to put Offutt Air Force Base on the BRAC list if he did not play ball on this vote.

Subsequently, that -- I put that up quickly. He told me, "Look, this is obviously a naked play by Rahm Emanuel." And that was the exact quote I had in the story. And as interest in this story continued, I went back to my source and I got more details. And the one thing we know for certain is that the White House put in a call.

Nelson's office, White House have denied rumor

Nelson spokesman: "The rumor is not true." On December 15, the Omaha World-Herald quoted Nelson spokesman Jake Thompson saying, "The rumor is not true. ... This misinformation is coming from inside-the-Beltway partisans who only want to derail health care reform."

Pfeiffer: "[T]hese rumors are completely baseless and false." From a December 15 blog post by White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer:

Proving that they will leave no stone unturned in their efforts to undermine health reform, some blogs opposing reform are now trafficking an absurd rumor that Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base is being threatened over Senator Ben Nelson's vote on the Senate reform bill.

To be perfectly clear: these rumors are completely baseless and false.

Thanks for your time.

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Michael Goldfarb
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