Oops? President Barack Obama's re-election campaign washed its hands Wednesday of an independent group's vicious (and misleading) ad effectively blaming Mitt Romney for the death of a laid-off steelworker's wife from cancer. Campaign officials flatly denied any knowledge of the facts in the case—but it turns out the widower told the same story on an Obama campaign conference call in mid-May. (The Obama campaign responded late in the day: See update below).
"We have nothing, no involvement, with any ads that are done by Priorities USA. We don't have any knowledge of the story of the family," Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday.
The ad features Joe Soptic, who lost his job and his health benefits after Romney's Bain Capital closed the GST Steel plant in Kansas City, Mo., in 2001. Soptic later told CNN that his wife had health insurance through her own employer from that point to 2002 or 2003, when she left that job because of an injury—a detail that undermines the ad's heartbreaking narrative.
"I don't know the facts about when Mr. Soptic's wife got sick, or the facts about his health insurance," deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told CNN on Wednesday.
But there's a problem. As Politico first reported, Soptic told essentially the same story in a May 14, 2012, conference call hosted by the Obama campaign. Here's what he said then, according to a partial recording of the call passed along by a Republican official:
After we lost our jobs, we found out that we were going to lose our health insurance, and that our pensions hadn't been funded like Bain promised they would be. I was lucky to find another job as a custodian in a local school district. They gave me some health insurance, but I couldn't afford to buy it for my wife. A little while later she was diagnosed with lung cancer. I had to put her in a county hospital because she didn't have health care, and when the cancer took her away, all I got was an enormous bill. That put a lot of stress on me: I thought I'd be paying it off until I died myself. That probably wouldn't have happened if Bain kept its promise and I was allowed to keep our health insurance.
"It's upsetting what Mitt Romney and his partners did to us," he added.
The revelation drew an immediate rebuke from Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams, who said Obama and his campaign "are willing to say and do anything to hide the president's disappointing record."
"But they're not entitled to repeatedly mislead voters," he said.
The Obama campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But aides earlier had sought to shift the conversation away from the independent ad to the Romney campaign's misleading attack on Obama's record on welfare, essentially labeling the discussion over the Priorities ad a distraction.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, speaking to reporters alongside Psaki, blasted "the categorically false and blatantly dishonest advertisement from the Romney campaign—not a third-party group—from the Romney campaign with regards to the president's policy on welfare reform."
"While we're talking about this ad, which we all know we had no involvement in, Mitt Romney's team is running a dishonest ad, an ad that is a big, bold-faced lie that even President Clinton has said was disappointing and inaccurate," Psaki agreed.
"And that's an ad that they should be held accountable for and on the facts, because right now they're out there running it across the country as if this is a true policy when in fact it's not," she said. "So that's a conversation we feel like we should be having."
UPDATE, 5:51 pm: Reached for comment, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt reiterated that the campaign "didn't produce" the ad and tried to shift the attention to Democratic criticisms of Romney's business record.
"Joe Soptic suffered when he lost his job in the aftermath of the GST Steel plant closing, and no one is denying that he discussed that when he appeared in a campaign advertisement and on a conference call," LaBolt said by email.
"The important point here is that Mitt Romney's campaign is based solely on his experience as a corporate buyout specialist, and while he has been quick to claim he created jobs, he refuses to accept responsibility for the jobs that were lost and workers that were impacted," the spokesman said.