They knew that the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture raised serious questions as to whether he had deserted his post. They knew that other soldiers had risked, and reportedly lost, their lives searching for Bergdahl.
They knew that Congress not only had expressed concerns in the past about such an exchange, but also established a 30-day consultation period before prisoners could be released from Gitmo.
Yet they did not consult with anyone in Congress.
And — worst of all in terms of optics — they actually staged a celebratory press conference on the White House lawn, effectively pumping up the media balloon with so much air that it was bound to explode with equal force. As it has.
Why? “How could they be so stupid,” friends ask me.
It’s a hard question because the short answer is absolutely clear: You may agree or disagree with Barack Obama, approve or disapprove of his performance, but when it comes to politics, the one thing you have to admit is that the president and his team are not stupid. They beat today’s 600-pound gorilla, Hillary Clinton, in the primaries. Only two Democrats since FDR have won two terms in office, and Obama is one of them. Even if they were once newcomers to Washington, that is hardly the case anymore. At six years in, Obama and his team understand this game.
So how did they end up playing it so poorly? Even the Democrats in Congress are confused and angry.
Didn’t anyone say in any of the meetings leading up to the announcement, “We’d better get in touch with key members of Congress”? Sure, we all know that Congress leaks like a sieve. I’m not suggesting that they should have done an “all points bulletin” to every member of Congress. But you at least consult with the leadership. You lock in some allies before you begin. You convince them to take the lead with their colleagues. You don’t blindside Dianne Feinstein.
And the press conference on the White House lawn, with the parents, who just “happened” to be in Washington? One of the worst ideas in the world.
Here you have a soldier who may or may not be facing a court-martial, from a unit whose members have been told (and with good reason) not to speak publicly about the incident lest they further endanger Bergdahl’s life, but who certainly will tell their stories upon his release, stories not only of his disappearance (or desertion), but of lives lost trying to find him, and you stage a press conference on the White House lawn, as if Osama bin Laden had just been found and killed.
A day of celebration? That’s what they were calling it.
But what was there to celebrate? I’m not saying Bergdahl deserved to die at enemy hands. Hardly. I’m not convicting him in advance of any trial. Exchanging him as we did might have been our only option. But it was hardly a cause for celebration.
This is not the stuff of political genius. Everything that has happened since that Saturday press conference has been totally predictable, except apparently to the White House.
I wasn’t there, of course, so I can only speculate. But from my experience in politics, one of the hardest things to do is to speak truth to power. Telling a powerful leader something they don’t want to hear is more difficult than you can imagine. Eisenhower’s chief of staff used to tell the story of setting up meetings with the president’s critics and encouraging them to voice their criticism, only to have them enter the Oval Office and tell the president what a great job he was doing.
What a president needs from his team is not blind loyalty, but honesty and courage. He needs people who don’t need their jobs, who don’t need the patina of the White House, who could walk any day. Otherwise, it’s just too hard to say no. If this president doesn’t have people like that around him, he should find them.
Susan Estrich is a law professor in Southern California and managed the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis.