WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama quietly attended a fundraising event for the allied super PAC Priorities USA less than a month before the 2012 election, despite a campaign pledge to stay away from such functions, a new book reveals.
In February 2012, the Obama campaign gave its blessing to the creation of the super PAC, saying that while the president opposed the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to such outside political spending, he couldn't allow himself to be outspent by his conservative opposition.
But the campaign attempted to assuage concerns among Democrats and campaign finance reform advocates by promising that Obama would not solicit donations on behalf of the super PAC.
"While campaign officials may be appearing at events to amplify our message, these folks won't be soliciting contributions for Priorities USA," Obama Campaign Manager Jim Messina wrote in a blog post at the time. "I should also note that the President, Vice President, and First Lady will not be a part of this effort; their political activity will remain focused on the President's campaign."
But according to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann' Double Down, a copy of which was obtained by The Huffington Post before its release, Obama and former President Bill Clinton attended a Priorities USA event on Oct. 7, held at the $35 million estate of DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg in Beverly Hills.
Although attendees did not appear to donate money at the event itself, Katzenberg used the joint appearance to raise funds for Priorities USA (p. 429):
Obama and Clinton arrived there that Sunday afternoon, October 7, for lunch with Katzenberg and a handful of the rich and famous. Though the White House publicly described the event only as a "thank you" for a "small group of donors," it was, in fact, a Priorities USA function -- the sort of shindig that Obama had sworn never to attend.
Katzenberg pitched the lunch to invitees as a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- what he called "unobtainium." He recommended that they donate $1 million to Priorities, and bagged three checks in that amount just the Friday before. He pledged to keep his guests' presence secret.
Asked for a response during his press briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney asked for more time to get to the bottom of the story. Later that day, White House spokesman Eric Schultz emailed The Huffington Post the following comment: “As was widely reported at the time, President Clinton joined President Obama at a thank you event for the campaign’s supporters.”
There were, indeed, reports at the time of Obama mingling with wealthy donors at an event and joking about his poor performance in the debate held several days prior. Those reports framed the gathering as a thank you event for donors, not a fundraising affair for Priorities USA. According to the pool report from that day, Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied the event was a fundraiser and said a pool reporter would not be allowed to attend:
On the nature of the event with Bill Clinton, which is not a fundraiser: Psaki said it’s for high-dollar donors who have maxed out around other events before. “It’s a thank you event for a small group of donors.” Because it's a small group, it is very informal and that's why pool will not be allowed in. She declined to name those who would be attending.
The statement from Schultz does not deny that there was a fundraising element to the event in question, and a request for comment from Priorities USA was not immediately returned.
When the Obama campaign announced its reversal on super PACs, there was a concern that the temptation to raise money through them would be too great for the president and his team to ignore. On Monday, campaign finance reform advocates voiced their disappointment with the new revelation.
"There was absolutely no reason for President Obama to reportedly break his pledge not to support Priorities USA," said Progressives United Executive Director Cole Leystra. "As our founder said last year, Democrats' embrace of the dirty politics of Citizens United is a dance with the devil. We know from the soft money era what happens when both parties play the game of unlimited money: Wall Street writes its own rules, corporations call the shots, and working families lose."