NEW YORK -- In his new book, The Message, MSNBC.com editor Richard Wolffe describes how the Obama White House grew frustrated in 2011 with The New York Times after some negative editorials ran in the paper. President Barack Obama ended up calling Andy Rosenthal, the paper’s editorial page editor, and a couple weeks later Rosenthal and the Times editorial board went to the White House for an off-the-record meeting with the president.
But that wasn’t the last time Obama met with Times editorial board members. On Aug. 29, the president again sat down for an off-the-record discussion with Rosenthal and some members of the editorial board, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Times opinion columnists David Brooks, Gail Collins and Ross Douthat also attended, but editors for the paper's news pages did not.
The meeting came amid the White House’s push for military intervention in Syria, one of the topics discussed that day. The Times editorial board hadn't explicitly come out for or against a strike on Syrian President Bashar Assad before the meeting, and soon after the paper still expressed concerns about the administration taking action without congressional approval and broad international support.
On Aug. 26, The Times editorial board had stressed that the White House should try exhausting diplomatic efforts before striking Syria. The paper noted that while “Assad’s use of chemical weapons surely requires a response of some kind, the arguments against deep American involvement remain as compelling as ever.”
Two days later, The Times editorial board wrote that more answers were needed from the administration on Syria. "Obama has yet to spell out how that response would effectively deter further use of chemical weapons," the paper said.
On the afternoon of Aug. 30, Secretary of State John Kerry made the case that Syria had used chemical weapons, signaling that U.S. retaliation for crossing a "red line" drawn by Obama could be imminent. But the Times still seemed unconvinced that immediate action was the best course.
In an editorial posted online Aug. 30 and in the next day's paper, Times editors wrote that “even in the best of circumstances, military action could go wrong in so many ways; the lack of strong domestic and international support will make it even more difficult.”
The Times also noted that Obama's “approach on Syria now seems wholly at odds with the strong position” he took as a candidate in 2007. Obama had told the Boston Globe at the time that “the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
On the evening of Aug. 30, Obama reportedly decided to seek congressional approval for a strike during a talk with chief of staff Denis McDonough. He announced his decision publicly the following day.
Rosenthal did not respond to requests for comment about the Aug. 29 meeting and a Times spokeswoman declined to discuss the specifics of that gathering or the the 2011 meeting reported by Wolffe.
“We did meet with the Obama White House about two years ago and that meeting was off the record,” a Times spokeswoman said. “We met with them again recently under the same restriction, which we intend to honor.”
Throughout his presidency, Obama has held off-the-record meetings with prominent news anchors, columnists and commentators, including Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein, MSNBC host Ed Schultz and Arianna Huffington, president, chair and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group.
But the Obama White House has long seemed particularly interested in getting its point of view across in the Times, and the president has said he reads all the paper's columnists. In April, a former adviser said the Times is the only paper Obama reads.
In his book, Wolffe describes how after each negative Times editorial, "the president would summon his communications team to discuss the critical coverage." He also included a 2011 anecdote about the White House communications team wondering whether calling Rosenthal through the Times' directory would lead to an announcement over the paper's general PA system. (It wouldn’t.)
The anecdote is surprising given that Rosenthal has spoken in the past about the Obama White House's efforts to reach out to him.
In March 2009, Rosenthal told this reporter that he had already received “more unsolicited offers for participation from the Obama people in 45 days” than during the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency.