White House briefing of AIPAC activists ends in communication breakdown

Got questions about the Iran nuclear deal? Too bad, if you were an AIPAC activist at a briefing this week with top Obama administration officials.
July 31, 2015

Got questions about the Iran nuclear deal? Too bad, if you were an AIPAC activist at a briefing this week with top Obama administration officials.

At the briefing Wednesday, Howard Kohr, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee director, stopped his activists from asking questions. The question is why? And what does the leak of the story mean?

Did the Obama administration bigfoot AIPAC and muscle into the pro-Israel group’s lobbying session only to disingenuously complain when administration officials ran out of their allotted time? Or was AIPAC not sufficiently accommodating when administration officials asked to make their case to pro-Israel activists?

Here’s what happened, as confirmed by four people close to the top Obama officials who spoke anonymously, as well as an AIPAC spokesman, who spoke on the record.

AIPAC flew between 600 and 700 activists in this week from around the country to lobby against the sanctions-relief-for-nuclear-restrictions deal reached July 14 between the major powers and Iran.

AIPAC opposes the deal, saying it endangers Israel and U.S. interests, and wants Congress to exercise its power to kill the deal within two months – by the end of September or thereabouts.

Hence the fly-in, just before Congress’ August break.

President Barack Obama, who backs the deal, got wind of the fly-in and asked his staff to offer to give the AIPAC activists a briefing on the deal from the administration’s perspective.

It was all very last-minute, AIPAC said, but the pro-Israel lobby budgeted half an hour Wednesday morning for the officials.

At 8 a.m., the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough; the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, who led the Iran talks, and Adam Szubin, the director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces sanctions, were set to speak at a hotel to the activists.

The three gave presentations, splitting the 30 minutes between them, and then asked for questions. Kohr stepped in and said no questions.

This is where the accounts of the Obama administration officials differ from AIPAC’s version of events.

The officials said they were told there would be no questions when they scheduled the meeting, but called for them anyway, and were shut down.

AIPAC said the officials could have taken as many questions as they liked within the allotted 30 minutes, but chose not to and ran out of time.

Here’s the administration account, relayed to me by a source close to all three speakers, who asked to remain anonymous.

“The administration asked to come meet with the AIPAC members in town to talk to members of Congress, which AIPAC agreed to, but the audience was told that the administration officials would not be allowed to take audience questions,” the source said.

“White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and acting Under Secretary of Treasury Adam Szubin addressed the 600-plus AIPAC members in town this week. They were only given 30 minutes to speak where they made the case for this deal, and all three offered the audience the opportunity to ask questions given how important this topic is. But the AIPAC moderator ended the session before they could take any.”

On the other hand, AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann told me the format was entirely up to the speakers – they could have launched straight into questions if they chose to.

“It is absolutely not true that administration officials were denied an opportunity to take questions and answers at our event,” Wittman told me in an email.

“At the last minute, the administration requested to address our seven hundred activists who were in Washington to lobby against the flawed Iran nuclear deal. We granted their request and afforded them thirty minutes to make their case in any way they chose. In fact, we actually suggested that they take questions from the audience. Instead, the administration sent three officials and used more than their allotted time with their remarks rather than devoting any of their time for questions.”

So who’s right? It’s hard to say. But sometimes the fact that a side, in this case, supporters of the deal, is trying to get out a story is more important than the story.

Administration officials are worried that their message is not getting through unfiltered to the Jewish community. The officials badly wanted to banter with the activists.

The frustration explains Obama’s angry tone last night when he asked liberal activists to speak more loudly than an AIPAC-affiliated group dumping millions into anti-deal TV ads.

It also explains why Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, gave a private briefing this morning to top Jewish organizational leaders.

Don’t expect the briefings to stop.

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