Tommy Vietor was the National Security Council Spokesman for President Obama from 2011 to 2013. Originally an Obama campaign volunteer in the 2004 Senate race, Vietor currently helps run Fenway Strategies, a communications firm in Washington. This winter, Vietor was a fellow at the Institute of Politics, where he led seminars on the relationship between national security and the press. Vietor sat down with The Gate last week to discuss leaks, the problem with Edward Snowden, sending Chris Matthews prank emails, and playing beer pong with David Axelrod.
The Gate: Your job in the White House relied on recognizing, filtering, and addressing what a lot of people call "the conversation." But does participating in "the conversation" undermine communicating with people outside Washington?
Tommy Vietor: I think it’s a constant struggle. People and reporters and people who work in Washington view Washington and the world through the prism of Washington. So for me, the way that often manifested was questions about a revolution in Egypt that had absolutely nothing to do with Washington D.C….but all the reports were, ‘what is Obama doing about it?’ or ‘How are you addressing it?’ And I think it’s a challenge, because that sort of misses the point. It’s also exacerbated by the declining budgets of news organizations that make it hard for them to do international coverage. More broadly to your point, my experience in places like Iowa was they weren’t really concerned about what the new USA Today poll would say. The journalists I would work with cared a lot more about what Barack Obama thought about ethanol, or how he was going to create jobs.
Gate: So is ‘the conversation’ then just basically what someone like Jeff Goldberg is Tweeting at any given time, and then how people are responding to him or her?
Vietor: I think there is an ongoing insider debate on Twitter, but in my experience, and I think Jeff is one of the smartest guys I know and I wouldn’t discount his view, but I do think that there’s a flow of Twitter that’s like a river of just chatter that goes on all day long. And what you realize is that is that if you step away from it for 48 hours, you don’t miss anything, and it doesn’t matter.
Gate: What factors are out of the control of a White House spokesman? Do these limit the ability of a spokesman to shape press coverage?
Vietor: I would say there’s a myth of an all-powerful White House. I think that’s true in the U.S.—there’s sort of a sense that a President can direct policy or make the government do everything he wants. That’s not true. For me, as someone who was a spokesman, there were great days when we had something we’d been working on, whether it was an Afghanistan troop decrease, or recently the talks with Iran—something that’s been happening behind the scenes, and to get to pull back the curtain and really talk to the American people about what the choice that we made was and what the implications were, what things had been considered, and why it matters to them. That was my favorite part of the job. That was when government is at its best, because it’s an obligation to talk to the American people about not just what you decided to do, but why. Most days it was wake up in the morning, read the newspaper, and some exigent event occurred and you react to that. It’s incredibly challenging, and it’s just not under your control.
Gate: How much of the current White House's activity, particularly in the realms of its communications work, hinges on marketing? Is there too much of it?
Vietor: I don’t know that it’s marketing, because marketing is selling a product. Maybe you make the argument that a campaign is marketing, but there are no more campaigns for Barack Obama. A lot of it is a constant tug of war of the serious versus the trivial. The White House is always trying to highlight the serious, and the trivial comes up too often. Certainly you have a point of view: you might think that the Obamacare website was terrible and didn’t work for a while, but the longer scheme of things is whether or not the system works and people get health care and your cancer screening is paid for.
Gate: But when there’s gridlock, don’t you think there’s a tendency for certain policies and legislation to be packaged by spokesmen in order to sell them to Congress or the public?
Vietor: Certainly it’s the case that no policy gets implemented if the American people don’t support it. So I think there’s certainly an effort to tell people that your side, your point of view, is right for them. But to me marketing entails, ‘Michael Jordan wears Nikes,’ whereas the arguments the White House is making are, ‘this tax cut would actually overly benefit the rich, and the one we support would go to a broader set of people and put more money in their pockets.’ It’s more of a metrics-based, policy-based argument.
Gate: How has your method of communication evolved since you first started working for the President in his 2004 Senate campaign?
Vietor: I was very lucky that I got involved when I did. I got to know him, and I got to know his family and the staff, and I had deep relationships with people in the White House that gave me a lot of leeway, because they got to know me over time and watch me grow into the job, and they trusted my judgment and instinct on things. That was incredibly empowering for me, because then I could be as candid as I thought humanly possible with reporters, or make decisions a little more nimbly and get back to people quickly.
Gate: Have you changed as a spokesman?
Vietor: I think that the first time you click send on a statement from your Blackberry that goes to six or seven thousand people on the White House press list, [then] instantly pops up on a cable news show—that’s a terrifying and awe-inspiring moment…Over time you become a little more accustomed to that…whereas in the beginning I would read and reread something fifteen times because I was just so terrified there would be some sort of typo or mistake.
Gate: How do you navigate the language of sensitive information in a way that makes sure you don’t mess up?
Vietor: There are definitely some things I know that I just cannot talk about. It’s easier for me to just draw a firm line in the sand and say, ‘I know why you’re interested in that; I’m just not going to talk about it.’ And that can be true for classified information or something that I was told in confidence. I think that today a lot of the controversy around the Bob Gates book boils down to the fact that the President needs to be able to say things in confidence to his team in the decision-making process, and his team needs to be able to give him advice without worrying how it might look in a headline. That’s true for his office of legal advisors; it’s true for all of his advisors. If we strip away that ability for a president to give candid advice, then people are just going to varnish their views and sand them down and offer things that might look great in Bob Gates’ book, as opposed to being hard truths. I think that’s a huge problem.
Gate: But since you’re a human being with your own judgments and opinions, were you ever conflicted about some of the statements or approaches you had to take as a government spokesman?
Vietor: I didn’t think about it that way. Certainly I have my own opinion, and I shared it often, but people weren’t calling me to get my opinion; they were calling to get the President’s opinion. That was the job.
Gate: How does the culture in Washington allow journalists and public officials to meet and discuss sensitive information so informally?
Vietor: I think that there are so many people who have access to information or little bits of information that it ends up getting out. I think there are so many different points of view on a given subject that you never know why someone discloses something. Maybe they’re working the refs and they want to influence a policy debate, or maybe they’re bragging and they want to show how important they are, or maybe it’s totally accidental. There are definitely times when you know something and you have to just pause and say ‘how do I know that? Did I read that in the newspaper, or was this in an intel?’ I do think that there is a balance between transparency and the need to keep secrets that is constantly evolving and changing. Right now we’ve swung way too far toward a sense that it’s OK to disclose most things in the wake of Snowden, and that’s disconcerting.
Gate: But what if a New York Times reporter invites a security official like you or someone else out to dinner? What happens there? Why would there be an avenue for that kind of communication and such vulnerability on the part of public officials?
Vietor: I think you should be grown up enough that you can go to dinner with somebody and not disclose information. Your obligation extends for 24 hours of the day, and if you can’t keep it together over a cheeseburger, you’ve got bigger problems. So I don’t know if that’s really a problem. The broader rend is post-9/11, there was an important effort to broadly disseminate information because the CIA and FBI didn’t share important things that might have helped them unravel the plot. Eventually things get into so many hands that you lose control of it, and I think that’s a bigger problem.
Gate: What was the most challenging time of your tenure at the White House?
Vietor: I think the Benghazi attack was the hardest, on many levels. 1) It was a tragedy, and four people died. It was a horrific event that should never happen again. 2) It was politicized, and events that are by definition the ‘fog of war’ are incredibly difficult to sort out—not only specifically what happened, but then we started getting into the motives involved, and until we invent a mind reading machine, that’s impossible. But most of all it bothered me because there was this vitriolic effort to attack people like Susan Rice, who by any account had nothing to do with what happened that night, and just spoke about it afterwards. To see someone like that get attacked is unfair, and it was horrible to watch.
Gate: What single foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration are you most proud of?
Vietor: There are a number of things. We almost forget at this point how horrible the Iraq War was for this country, for the troops who served there. The fact that the President kept his promise to end that war—it was an enormous achievement. Slightly less sexy: he came in and promised to try and reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the hands of countries, or nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists, and he’s done an effective job of implementing that. More anecdotally, one of the last foreign trips I went on was to Burma, and to watch a country go from decades-long military dictatorship to allowing Aung San Suu Kyi out of jail, having a U.S. President visit—that was an unbelievable transformation that could have broader implications for the entire region.
Gate: In what ways was there a marked shift in the White House from the intellectual sparring that took place with figures like Rahm and Larry Summers in the first few years of President Obama’s presidency to a kind of team player environment that seems to have been cultivated in the past few years?
Vietor: I think there’s always a team player attitude, because it doesn’t matter how fancy your title is; you’re the President’s staff, and our job is to provide him advice and guidance and your best opinion, and then when he makes a decision to implement that decision. And people should speak out and voice their concerns, say whatever they think needs to be said if a bad decision is being made. But at the end of the day, the Commander-in-Chief is the one who was on the ballot and the one who was elected by the American people.
Gate: But do you think there was a serious change in the types of personalities or expertise the President liked to keep around him? This is fairly common criticism of the closer advisers he has around him these days.
Vietor: I don’t think so. I think he’s always tried to hire the smartest people he could find, but also the people he’s trusted.
Gate: So we’ve heard through the grapevine that there were some pretty good email-related pranks that occurred in the White House during your tenure. Can you elaborate a bit?
Vietor: Oh, we would send prank emails all the time.
Gate: Can you give us a favorite or two?
Vietor: [Laughs] What are we allowed to publish in The Gate?
Gate: Oh, we’re allowed to print anything. You can swear, too.
Vietor: [Laughs] OK, so one time a guy who I will not name got on my office computer, and he changed a setting on my computer so that when I typed ‘the,’ it replaced it with ‘bag of assholes.’ I was just doing what I do, typing away, talking to somebody, watching TV, reading the newspaper, and probably juggling, and I send an email, and I got a note back from a guy who was sort of a button-down staffer, and he said, “I have no idea what this means.” And I look at the email, and there in the middle of the sentence it just says ‘bag of assholes.’ So I turn to [Jon] Favreau [President Obama’s Director of Speechwriting] and this guy Carlos Monje [Special Assistant to the President], and I was like, ‘You guys, somehow as I was talking I typed ‘bag of assholes’ instead of ‘the,’’ and it turned out that this kid had pulled off one of the most brilliant pranks I’ve seen.
Another good example was one time we got on Favreau’s computer and sent a note to Chris Matthews [the host of MSNBC’s Hardball] that just said, “Hey man, nice hardballin’ last night.” And Favreau was really pissed off, but Matthews was really flattered and mentioned him on the show the next day.
Gate: You’ve also been in some beer-related controversies before, so can you tell us about the merits of flip cup?
Vietor: Versus beer pong? They’re both great games.
Gate: What differences do you see that really distinguish the games?
Vietor: I think flip cup is faster moving, and you can incorporate more people. It’s more inclusive, a little more egalitarian. I think beer pong is clearly more a game of skill and one that gets a little more competitive.
Gate: Do you have any specific career highlights?
Vietor: [Laughs] Not that I can remember, although I clearly have a lowlight.
Gate: Can you go on about that?
Vietor: [Laughs, shakes head]
Gate: If you had to play flip cup with a senior White House staffer from your time in the White House, who would it be? Preferably someone who wouldn’t typically play—someone you’d have to force into a game.
Vietor: Oh, this is tough. The person I just can’t possibly imagine playing is Larry Summers. I’m pretty sure Axelrod played beer pong at my house in Chicago on the ‘08 campaign…though with the mustache back then, you wouldn’t want to share that cup.