What Should Presidents Know?

There are presidents who lied about what they didn’t know, presidents who knew too much minutiae, and there are things that a president really shouldn’t know.

President Barack Obama makes remarks during a ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 29, 2013, 7:30 a.m.

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The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee dis­misses him as “the bystand­er pres­id­ent,” mock­ing the White House’s de­clar­a­tion that Pres­id­ent Obama knew noth­ing about the NSA bug­ging of for­eign lead­ers be­fore the story hit the news. They eagerly point to pre­vi­ous in­stances over the past five years when the pres­id­ent pub­licly con­ten­ded he was in the dark about ac­tions taken un­der him in the gov­ern­ment.

In his time in of­fice, the events that the pres­id­ent con­ten­ded he did not know about in ad­vance are wide-ran­ging, from in­ter­na­tion­al spy­ing to do­mest­ic in­tim­id­a­tion, from em­bassy se­cur­ity over­seas to off-note state­ments in­side the White House. The pat­tern began even be­fore he took of­fice. In the 2008 cam­paign, can­did­ate Obama was in the awk­ward po­s­i­tion of hav­ing to deny he ever heard any in­cen­di­ary rhet­or­ic from his pas­tor, the Rev. Jeremi­ah Wright, even though the tapes sug­ges­ted this was not an in­fre­quent habit of Wright’s. As pres­id­ent, he has pleaded ig­nor­ance of Ag­ri­cul­ture Sec­ret­ary Tom Vil­sack’s hasty fir­ing of em­ploy­ee Shir­ley Sher­rod, of the sub­poen­as of re­port­ers’ phone re­cords, of warn­ings from Libya about se­cur­ity in Benghazi and, now, of the over­seas bug­ging.

No an­swers are likely to sat­is­fy his crit­ics. His­tor­i­ans are still ar­guing about what Frank­lin D. Roosevelt knew about the Holo­caust and how much War­ren G. Hard­ing knew about the Teapot Dome scan­dal and what Bill Clin­ton knew about the fir­ings of the White House Travel Of­fice.

Obama, of course, wouldn’t be the first pres­id­ent to be sur­prised by what his un­der­lings are do­ing. Nor, if Re­pub­lic­ans are right, would he be the first to be pro­tec­ted by aides who isol­ated him from con­tro­versy.

There are pres­id­ents in the past who lied about what they didn’t know ““ Richard Nix­on’s tapes from 1973 are filled with in­stances when he re­hearsed aides to testi­fy that he did not know about hush money, prom­ised par­dons or took part in the Wa­ter­gate coverup. There are pres­id­ents whose man­age­ment style kept them in the dark on many de­tails of gov­ernance ““ Ron­ald Re­agan once didn’t re­cog­nize a mem­ber of his own cab­in­et, call­ing him “Mr. May­or.”

There are pres­id­ents who knew too much minu­ti­ae and lost track of the big pic­ture ““ Jimmy Carter fam­ously kept track of who was per­mit­ted to use the White House ten­nis courts and Lyn­don John­son per­son­ally se­lec­ted tar­gets in Vi­et­nam. And there are pres­id­ents whose ig­nor­ance was genu­ine with ma­jor con­sequences ““ War­ren Hard­ing in Decem­ber 1921 didn’t know what his own dip­lo­mats were say­ing in del­ic­ate talks in the Con­fer­ence for the Lim­it­a­tion of Arma­ments and spoke off-script to re­port­ers, spark­ing in­ter­na­tion­al re­per­cus­sions, a near-break in re­la­tions with Ja­pan, and a flurry of cor­rec­tions.

There have been, as well, pres­id­ents whose mas­tery of their own ad­min­is­tra­tions was em­in­ently im­press­ive, as when Frank­lin Roosevelt con­duc­ted his own budget brief­ings, something later emu­lated by Ger­ald Ford. That kind of mas­tery was easi­er, ad­mit­tedly, when the gov­ern­ment was smal­ler. One de­fense of Obama by his sup­port­ers is that no pres­id­ent can pos­sibly know everything be­ing done in his name in today’s Wash­ing­ton. “Part of be­ing pres­id­ent,” said former pres­id­en­tial aide Dav­id Axel­rod last week, “is there’s so much be­neath you that you can’t know be­cause the gov­ern­ment is so vast.”

And there are things that a pres­id­ent really shouldn’t know. Cer­tainly, an im­port­ant les­son of Wa­ter­gate is that the Justice De­part­ment should nev­er share pro­sec­utori­al de­cisions with a pres­id­ent. White House Press Sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney made this point in May when crit­ics asked why the pres­id­ent did not know about the Justice De­part­ment sub­poen­as of As­so­ci­ated Press phone re­cords. “Ima­gine what re­port­ers would be say­ing… if the pres­id­ent of the United States and the folks in the White House were be­ing in­formed of and en­gaged in on a crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to a leak that pre­sum­ably, be­cause it’s a leak of clas­si­fied in­form­a­tion, has to do with a leak that em­an­ated from some­where with­in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment? That would be viewed as ab­so­lutely in­ap­pro­pri­ate and in past his­tory of pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions, bey­ond in­ap­pro­pri­ate,” Car­ney told MS­N­BC. “It is en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate that we are not in­formed of the pro­gress or the meth­ods used by fed­er­al pro­sec­utors in crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tions.”

But today, with European al­lies fum­ing and the White House scram­bling to both in­su­late the pres­id­ent and re­pair the frayed trans-At­lantic ties, Wash­ing­ton is turn­ing again to the en­dur­ing ques­tion first posed dra­mat­ic­ally and re­peatedly by Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Howard Baker in the Wa­ter­gate hear­ings: “What did the pres­id­ent know and when did he know it?” The Obama White House’s prob­lem is that they don’t yet have an an­swer for the co­rol­lary ques­tion giv­en voice by the Wash­ing­ton Post’s Dana Mil­bank: “How could he not know his spies were bug­ging the Ger­man chan­cel­lor?”

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