The White House grudgingly acknowledged on Wednesday that boycotting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to protest Moscow’s sheltering of NSA leaker Edward Snowden would be a bad idea.
It’s not (or at least not just) a silly, media-stoked Beltway debate. The U.S. has been trying to escalate pressure on Russia to turn over Snowden, who faces felony charges tied to his disclosure of how the government collects the telephone and Internet records of millions of Americans.
Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has urged President Barack Obama to consider boycotting the upcoming games in response.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner slapped the idea down sharply. But he doesn't speak for the president. So what did White House press secretary Jay Carney have to say?
“Our view is that we’re continuing to work with the Russian government and other nations on this matter, and we hope to see Mr. Snowden return to the United States,” Carney replied to the first of maybe five or six questions about a possible boycott.
But what about Graham’s suggestion?
“I’m not going to engage in speculation about that, and the Olympics are a long way off,” Carney said. “We believe that we have a strong case and we have made that case to Russia.”
He added, “We don’t want this matter to do harm to our bilateral relations. We have a very important and broad relationship with Russia that encompasses a great many areas of cooperation, as well as some areas of disagreement. ... This does not need to—and should not—do any harm to those relations.”
OK, so an Olympics boycott is not on the table?
“I didn’t suggest it was,” said Carney, who also had not suggested it wasn’t. “I think speculation about, you know, what might happen if it's not resolved is certainly not helpful.”
The U.S. last shunned the games in 1980 in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year, one reporter noted. Surely the Snowden affair doesn’t rise to that level?
“I would refer you to the senator who, you know, sort of threw out that suggestion,” Carney said. “We’re focused on trying to resolve this matter in a way that is in the interest of the United States and in the interest of U.S.-Russian relations.” (Note: Carney was still not explicitly saying that an Olympics boycott would be a bad idea, much less ruling one out.)
A few questions later, another reporter followed up on the Olympics issue.
“You guys aren’t jumping to a superficial headline, are you?” Carney asked with a slight grin.
Can we conclude that the president thinks it would be a bad idea to boycott the Olympics?
“Come on,” Carney said. “A lawmaker put it out there. We’re not focused on that.”
So it’s a bad idea, right, the reporter asked.
“Yeah,” Carney said, finally. “But it’s not one that is an issue right now, because we’re engaged with the Russians and other governments in helping bring about a positive resolution to this matter."