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Did McCain’s Campaign Just Confirm Andrea Mitchell’s Reporting?

The Politico has the text of a vitriolic letter in which the McCain campaign takes Andrea Mitchell and NBC to task for “giving voice to unsubstantiated, partisan claims in order to undercut John McCain”.

However, rather than being refuted, Mitchell’s claims would appear to have been confirmed by the McCain campaign in this letter.

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These are Mitchell’s comments as cited in McCain’s letter:

Mitchell: “The Obama people must feel that he didn’t do quite as well as they might have wanted to in that context, because what they are putting out privately is that McCain may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama. He seemed so well-prepared.” (NBC’s “Meet The Press,” 8/17/08)

There are two specific claims here — neither of which, by the way, were Mitchell’s, but instead reported as the speculations of the Obama campaign. Firstly, that “McCain may not have been in the cone of silence”. Secondly, that McCain “may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama”. Let’s take these one at a time.

“McCain may not have been in the cone of silence”.

This seems to be contradicted by the letter itself. Davis writes that “The fact is that during Senator Obama’s segment at Saddleback last night, Senator McCain was in a motorcade to the event and then held in a green room with no broadcast feed.”

McCain may have been in the “cone of silence” once he entered the green room (or he may not have been, as I’ll describe below). However, this would not cover the first half-hour of Obama’s interview, during which time McCain was in transit. What about being in a vehicle, or being surrounded by Secret Service personnel, places one within the “cone of silence”? Nothing, of course, which is why Rick Warren was taken by surprise today when he was asked why McCain had been in transit to the event rather than at the facility:

“[McCain] may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama.”

McCain absolutely may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama. Davis tells us that McCain was in a motor vehicle during the first portion of Obama’s interview. In a motor vehicle, one may use the radio, a cellphone, a Blackberry, Bluetooth Wireless, a Slingbox, and perhaps a satellite TV feed. Whether McCain actually used any of those devices, we have no idea. But he absolutely had the ability to use them, which is all that Mitchell had reported.

Also, note Davis’s oddly-specific language to describe the situation in the green room. He says that the green room lacked a “broadcast feed”. However, it presumably had cellphone and Internet access. If you want to get really technical, it perhaps also could have had a CCTV feed, which might be distinguished from a “broadcast feed”.

This is an exceptionally bizarre response by the McCain campaign. Note, once more, that the McCain campaign has not refuted the substance of the reports. In fact, they seem to have confirmed substantial portions of them. But they are attempting to distract from the situation by saying that neither the media nor the Obama campaign has the standing to ask the question.

I don’t really understand what the McCain campaign is trying to accomplish. Putting out a letter like this would seem to increase the amount of scrutiny on the issue. There are much better times to play the “blame the media” card, i.e., when the facts are more on their side.

Do the McCain folks figure that this is a relatively minor, he-said, she-said story, and therefore using it to eat up oxygen from some other, more impactful story that might break tomorrow? Say an Obama VP choice?

Or are they acknowledging that this is a big deal and already full-on into damage control mode? I can’t imagine what additional details there really are to be reported in this story. The two exceptions would be if they think Warren is going to say something damaging on Larry King tomorrow, or if there is circumstantial evidence to contradict their timeline — say, that the hotel that McCain was staying at before the forum was very close to the Saddleback Church, and would not require a half-hour in transit? I don’t mention these things because I think they’re particularly likely … but since it’s very easy to maintain plausible deniability in this instance (“we had our cellphones off”), why not simply deny the story?

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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