Your lips are moving again

The White House is indignant about Charles Krauthammer’s assertion that President Obama, in his first days in office, sent back a bust of Winston Churchill lent by the British government.

Here’s the White House “fact check”:

Lately, there’s been a rumor swirling around about the current location of the bust of Winston Churchill. Some have claimed that President Obama removed the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office and sent it back to the British Embassy.

Now, normally we wouldn’t address a rumor that’s so patently false, but just this morning the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer repeated this ridiculous claim in his column. He said President Obama “started his Presidency by returning to the British Embassy the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office.”

This is 100% false. The bust still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room.

News outlets have debunked this claim time and again. First, back in 2010 the National Journal reported that “the Churchill bust was relocated to a prominent spot in the residence to make room for Abraham Lincoln, a figure from whom the first African-American occupant of the Oval Office might well draw inspiration in difficult times.” And just in case anyone forgot, just last year the AP reported that President Obama “replaced the Oval Office fixture with a bust of one of his American heroes, President Abraham Lincoln, and moved the Churchill bust to the White House residence.”

In case these news reports are not enough for Mr. Krauthammer and others, here’s a picture of the President showing off the Churchill bust to Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the White House residence in 2010.


Hopefully this clears things up a bit and prevents folks from making this ridiculous claim again.

(Emphasis mine.)

This denial struck Jake Tapper as strange, since the “rumors” that Obama had returned the bust were well-founded. A spokesman for the British Embassy said in 2009:

The bust of Sir Winston Churchill by Sir Jacob Epstein was uniquely lent to a foreign head of state, President George W Bush, from the Government Art Collection in the wake of 9/11 as a signal of the strong transatlantic relationship.

It was lent for the first term of office of President Bush. When the President was elected for his second and final term, the loan was extended until January 2009.

The new President has decided not to continue this loan and the bust has now been returned. It is on display at the Ambassador’s Residence.

So what gives? Tapper learned that there were actually two busts of Churchill. One was given to the White House during the Johnson administration; the other was lent during the Bush administration. The former has been in the residence all along (it was not moved there); the second was in the Oval Office and has been returned.

So the “ridiculous”, “ridiculous”, “100% false”, “patently false”, “debunked” “rumor” that Obama returned the bust is entirely true. It’s the White House’s statement that the bust was moved to the residence that is patently false.

ASIDE: An AP “Fact Check” column from last year reporting that Mike Huckabee “failed to note” the Obama moved the bust to the resident was also false. Nice fact checking. The National Journal story the White House cites is behind a paywall, so I can’t check what it actually says.

The nuance to catch here isn’t just that the White House was wrong, but the level of disdain and mockery they employed in their false debunking.

The White House later issued an update (presumably after Tapper’s reporting):

Since my post on the fact that the bust of Winston Churchill has remained on display in the White House, despite assertions to the contrary, I have received a bunch of questions — so let me provide some additional info.

[He confirms every particular reported by Tapper.]

On January 20, 2009 — Inauguration Day — all of the art lent specifically for President Bush’s Oval Office was removed by the curator’s office, as is common practice at the end of every presidency. The original Churchill bust remained on display in the residence. The idea put forward by Charles Krauthammer and others that President Obama returned the Churchill bust or refused to display the bust because of antipathy towards the British is completely false and an urban legend that continues to circulate to this day.

Note here the complete lack of any embarrassment for the false statements in the original post. Nor has the White House corrected any of those false statements other than by adding a contradictory update to the end. Nor is the existence of an update even noted at the top of the post.

Worse still, they maintain that Krauhammer was somehow wrong (“completely false”, circulating an “urban legend”), despite the niggling detail that he was right.

The only disputable fact is the reason that the bust was returned. The White House claims that the return of the art is standard practice. Perhaps, but one has to suspect that the British government would have been happy to let Obama keep the bust as a symbol of the transatlantic relationship, had Obama been willing to do so.

In fact, we needn’t speculate. Recall the British statement:

The new President has decided not to continue this loan and the bust has now been returned.

To sum up: The White House statement, which accused Krauthammer of being wrong at least eight times, is false in every particular, while Krauthammer is right.

POSTSCRIPT: The Krauthammer column is well-worth reading, by the way. It recounts several instances of this administration’s disdain for our allies, most of which are much more substantial than the bust issue.

UPDATE: The British embassy re-confirms, and Krauthammer fires back. The White House has yet to apologize.

UPDATE: Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, apologizes. They still haven’t corrected their erroneous post, though. And they still maintain that it wasn’t their choice to return the bust.

There’s still something left to remark on though. Pfeiffer says:

A better understanding of the facts on my part and a couple of deep breaths at the outset would have prevented this situation.

Well, okay. Alternatively, one might employ a general rule of thumb that when the British government makes an official statement, one oughtn’t call it “ridiculous” without checking first. Failing to do so might give people the impression that you don’t respect our most important ally.

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