New York Times reporter Peter Baker reported on a meeting between President Obama and online columnists this week. It was supposed to be an off the record meeting, but many of Obama’s comments have nevertheless been surfacing.
The invitees included representatives of new media outlets aimed at younger generations. Jake Horowitz, founder and editor in chief of Mic; Max Fisher, the foreign editor of Vox; and Matt Bai, a columnist for Yahoo! News, were all in attendance. Baker and Gardiner Harris of the NY Times subsequently interviewed those in the room with Obama. All of the sources asked to remain anonymous as the ground rules of the meeting required Obama’s comments to be off-record. The following is what was reportedly said by the president.
According to Baker’s anonymous sources, “Mr. Obama said he now realizes that he was slow to respond to public fears after terrorist attacks in Paris and California, acknowledging that his low-key approach led Americans to worry that he was not doing enough to keep the country safe. He has engaged in a blitz of public events lately to try to convince them otherwise, including a visit on Thursday to the National Counterterrorism Center.”
On Donald Trump, Obama “appeared especially exasperated with Mr. Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslims’ entering the United States. Mr. Obama said that Mr. Trump’s comments on Muslims did not make him an outlier in the presidential field, but instead represented the culmination of many years of a Republican strategy of division and fear mongering.”
On the possibility of more troops being sent to the Middle East, Obama reportedly said that “sending significant ground forces back to the Middle East could conceivably result in the deaths of 100 American soldiers every month.” Obama also believed that “the casualties and costs would rival the worst of the Iraq war. In such a scenario, he said, a renewed commitment could take up to $10 billion a month and leave as many as 500 troops wounded every month in addition to those killed, a toll he deemed not commensurate to the threat … He told the columnists that he envisioned sending significant ground forces to the Middle East only in the case of a catastrophic terrorist attack that disrupted the normal functioning of the United States.”
Erik Wemple of the Washington Post lambasted Baker for leaking the above comments from the off-the-record meeting. In his article, titled, “NYT’s Peter Baker: Destroyer of a cozy Beltway convention,” Wemple stated that Obama is partly to blame as well. Wemple wrote, “If Baker keeps at it, perhaps Obama will do the right thing, and just say these self-interested things on the record, where they belong.”
One Twitter user noticed that Baker and Harris’ article had previously stated, “In his meeting with the columnists, Mr. Obama indicated that he did not seen enough cable television to fully appreciate the anxiety after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino”; but the line had been deleted without explanation, possibly scrubbed by the NY Times editors.
Obama may very well have said something to that effect, as it was echoed by David Ignatius’ article about the closed door meeting. Ignatius wrote: “Obama, not a cable television fan, apparently didn’t realize the state of anxiety.”
What may be even more disturbing was Obama’s supposed comment about what it would take for him to respond militarily. Ignatius wrote: “What would cause Obama to change his mind and treat the war against the Islamic State as an existential crisis requiring a major U.S. military intervention? Probably the trigger would be a big, orchestrated terrorist incident that so frightened the public that it began to prevent the normal functioning of America. At that point, Obama might decide there was no alternative to taking ownership of the Middle East mess with tens of thousands of U.S. troops.”