White House uses Twitter to bully critics

President Obama’s director of progressive media is obsessed with one particular conservative provocateur. Jesse Lee’s duties at the White House include “online response” — and there has been no shortage of responses to one person who routinely communicates with him on Twitter.

Of the 267 tweets written by Lee in just over a month, a stunning 40 of them have been directed at Kevin Eder, a prolific Twitter user with more than 83,000 tweets to his credit. That means 15 percent of Lee’s tweets — from an official White House account no less — have been with Eder.

One such example happened last week in a dispute over the budget.

Eder posted this tweet: “Hmm…it can’t be true that @SenateDems haven’t passed a budget in 790 days and the only plan Obama has is a speech. Right, @jesseclee44?”

To which Lee responded: “@keder @SenateDems Plan is keep negotiating w/ Rs & Ds, not default & trash economy, not voucherize Medicare to fund more tax cuts for rich.”

Lee’s obsession has impressed Eder, even if he’s a bit baffled by the White House’s decision to engage with him so aggressively.
“I like going back and forth with him,” Eder said of Lee. “But if you engage your fiercest critics on new media, you’re doing two things: On the one hand, you’re showing that you take their opinion seriously. That’s good for the non-influencer public to watch what’s happening. But on the other hand, the White House is legitimizing me. And quite literally, I’m a nobody.”

Lee, who is paid $72,500, didn’t respond to a phone call, email message or tweet to talk about his job and this new direction for the White House. Prior to his appointment in May, the White House didn’t have such a position. Neither did any previous administration for that matter.

Before joining the Obama transition team and then the White House in 2009, Lee worked for the Democratic National Committee, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (under the direction of Rahm Emanuel).

His new job coincides with the more aggressive tone adopted in recent months by the White House, highlighted by Obama’s own press conference last week. Targets include journalists, conservatives and, most recently, the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

The Heritage Foundation was on the receiving end last week from both Lee and White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, both of whom maintain official White House accounts on Twitter that are subject to archival under the Presidential Records Act.

The pattern of Lee’s behavior — and the aggressive nature of the White House communications office — hasn’t gone unnoticed by the press.

Veteran reporter Keith Koffler, who writes for White House Dossier, noted recently the “Obama White House has long practiced the tactic of bullying reporters who write stories it doesn’t like.” When Lee first got the job in May, Koffler predicted it would “formalize the strategy and signals that such behavior is likely to escalate as the campaign begins.”

And that’s exactly what has happened. Over the past three months, there has been a high-profile incident involving the White House and journalists on at least three occasions.

• In April, White House officials threatened to exclude The San Francisco Chronicle from press pool coverage of events in the Bay Area after the paper’s senior political reporter, Carla Marinucci, allegedly violated White House rules at an event with Obama. Marinucci filmed protesters heckling Obama, prompting the White House complaint.

• In May, the White House denied The Boston Herald full access to an Obama event in Boston because it had previously run a front-page op-ed by former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA). “I think that raises a fair question about whether the paper is unbiased in its coverage of the President’s visits,” said White House spokesman Matt Lehrich.

• And just last week, White House press secretary Jay Carney called MSNBC to complain about Time senior political analyst Mark Halperin’s unsavory description of Obama. The network swiftly suspended Halperin indefinitely.

Lee uses a similar approach. He’s unafraid to bully and use White House allies to back him up. He has retweeted liberal journalists and bloggers such as Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo and Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones. And when he’s not directly attacking conservatives, he will promote the work of surrogates such as the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, two front groups for the White House.

Lee’s responsibilities used to be handled almost exclusively by the Democratic National Committee (his former employer), but now it’s done on the taxpayers’ dime as well — a point acknowledged by The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein (a self-described friend of Lee).

That’s left some White House veterans wondering about its appropriateness.

“Whatever happened to this being the people’s house?” asked Tony Fratto, former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush and principal deputy press secretary. “Doing outreach to media, yes. A specific subset of ideologically aligned media, I just think it’s bizarre.”

And while this may be the next evolution in White House communications, the narrow focus is unusual, according to Kevin Sullivan, who oversaw the rapid response operation under Bush as White House communications director.

“Rapid response was not a partisan enterprise for us at all. It was fact-based,” Sullivan said. “We used the test: ‘Is this something that was wrong or misleading?’ It had nothing to do with being progressive or conservative.”

Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar, a scholar of White House communications, said the Obama administration is evolving with the changing media landscape. That’s led to an embrace of Twitter for rapid response — a communications tool she believes the Bush White House would’ve used as well.

Obama, in fact, participates in the first-ever Twitter townhall today at the White House.

Those who communicate regularly with Lee dismissed the complaints about his work. Ari Melber, a correspondent for The Nation magazine, said the White House is adapting and Lee’s role as director of progressive media and online response is part of it.

“Positions like these reflect a wider, flatter media that government wants to reach,” Melber said. “What’s interesting about Jesse is that he is there to engage the progressive blogosphere by setting up conference calls and doing outreach, but on Twitter and other platforms, he ends up talking to bloggers and activists who are strongly conservative.”

Eder is certainly the most prominent, but not alone. Brittany Cohan, a self-described “social media geek” at the Republican National Committee, has also caught Lee’s attention. Like Eder, she has more than 81,000 tweets — and no hesitation to challenge the White House.

Lee, meanwhile, has shown little restraint, unafraid to pick fights and attack critics, even if it stretches the bounds of proper decorum and etiquette usually practiced by the White House.

Recent tweets have covered his taste in music (Foo Fighters) and food (Washington’s fish market). His very first tweet he declared: “OK, turning on the White House Twitter machine that they issued me in 3…2…1…” with a photo of a Terminator mask.
“If you’re going to get into these kinds of debates every day, you run the risk of tripping yourself up,” said Fratto, the former Bush aide. “And when you do trip, no one is going to say that was just Jesse Lee. No, it was the White House. So it’s a risk. And as an overall effort, it tends to make the White House look petty.”

Rob Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Sterling Beard, a member of Heritage’s Young Leaders Program, contributed to this report.