Talking Points

The Biden administration falls back on an old, ugly tactic to evade tough questions

It was a reasonable question.

On Thursday, State Department spokesman Ned Price went before reporters and announced the United States has evidence that Russia was planning a "false flag" attack by Ukrainians to justify an invasion of Ukraine. Associated Press writer Matt Lee asked the obvious, necessary follow-up question: What's your evidence for that?

Things got testy.

"If you doubt the credibility of the U.S. government, of the British government, of other governments and want to, you know, find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do," Price ultimately said, after a tense back-and-forth. It was a non-responsive answer — and smacked more than a little bit of McCarthy Era red-baiting. You don't trust what we're saying? Maybe you believe the bad guys, huh? 

But this kind of thing is becoming routine in the Biden Administration. Also on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pushed back on a question about civilian casualties in the U.S. raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. The U.S. alleged al-Qurayashi had detonated a bomb that killed the innocents; a reporter again pressed for evidence of the claim. "And ISIS is providing accurate information?" Psaki shot back. This came a few days after she accused Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) of parroting "Russian talking points" by opposing NATO membership for Ukraine.

Let's be clear: When it comes to matters of war and rumors of war, the U.S. government has very little credibility. The tidal wave of misinformation that led to the Iraq War is the most obvious modern example, but it's far from the only one. Just last fall, military leaders called a Kabul drone strike a "righteous" attack on a terrorist — only to later concede a family of 10 had been killed. Former President Donald Trump's rationale for the assassination of an Iranian leader in 2020 ended up looking pretty flimsy, too. This kind of thing happens all the time. No matter which party is running the government, U.S. officials don't get to use the "trust us" arguments on matters of life and death, ever.

It's also an old, ugly tactic to suggest reporters' sympathies and trust might be more aligned with America's rivals and enemies — a trick that's a step removed, at best, from Trump's much-decried attacks on journalists as "enemies of the people." It's easy to lob accusations at critics and questioners rather than answer uncomfortable queries, and it's not better or more defensible when a Democratic administration does it. 

Even in the best of times, politicians and governments will have prickly relationships with the media. That's fine, and even desirable. But red-baiting from high officials is never acceptable. Just answer the damn question.