Did John McCain cheat by cribbing questions in advance at the rightwing megachurch forum Saturday night?
McCain operative Nicole Wallace vehemently denied claims that McCain heard Barack Obama being questioned, even though McCain was not sequestered in a “cone of silence,” as Rick Warren, the multimillionaire evangelist and moderator of the forum, had asserted to the live audience.
What’s bizarre here is that Wallace cited McCain’s status as POW 40 years ago as evidence that he did not cheat Saturday night:
â€œThe insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous,â€ Ms. Wallace said. [Emphasis added.]
Here’s how Warren described the “rules” he established for the forum in his introductory remarks to the audience Saturday night:
RICK WARREN, PASTOR, SADDLEBACK CHURCH: Now, what I decided is to allow for proper comparison, I’m going to ask identical questions to each of these candidates. So you can compare apples to apples. Now, Senator Obama is going to go first. We flipped a coin, and we have safely placed Senator McCain in a cone of silence.
During his session, Obama gave what post-game analysts have called “thoughtful” and “nuanced” answers, which is a coded way to say he overthought the questions and his answers were too wordy.
However, when it was McCain’s turn, he gave very short answers — you know, like bumperstickers — and often interrupted Warren to start answering before the question was complete.
Was McCain in the “cone of silence” while Obama was questioned? According to Rick Warren, in an interview on CNN on Sunday, he was not:
SANCHEZ: Let me ask you about this. Last night I heard you say that McCain would be in a cone of silence. Then half-hour into the event I hear our guys here at our political desk announce McCain has just arrived at the worship center. I’m thinking, hey, if he just arrived at the worship center, he couldn’t have been in the cone of silence. Right?
WARREN: Well, that’s true. He was in a cone of — a secret service motorcade. That’s exactly for sure.
SANCHEZ: But … “We flipped a coin,” you said, “and we have safely placed Senator McCain in a cone of silence.” That’s what you said. Did you think at the time — when you said that, did you think he was in the cone of silence — did you think he was in the building?
WARREN: Actually, yes, I did. There was actually a question I got to Senator Obama in advance that I didn’t get to Senator McCain because he wasn’t there. I actually wrote down on a piece of paper the very first question, because I wanted them both to be relaxed. I said here’s the very first question. I gave it to both of them. But I also told Senator Obama, since there was one question where I was going to ask for a commitment, it was a commitment later about would you allow a president’s emergency plan for orphans.
I thought if I was going to ask for a public commitment, I ought to let him know in advance. I got to tell Barack Obama that in advance. I did not get to tell John McCain that in advance. It caught him by surprise, I’m sure.
SANCHEZ: Just out of fairness. Look, this is CNN, we try to be as exact as we possibly can. I just wanted it on the record. Of course, there will be people out there who will say, well, if he wasn’t there, like a half-hour before the event started, what would have stopped him from watching an event that was on all three channels, on the radio, there’s Blackberries, the Internet. There’s everything else. I guess you don’t know and I don’t know whether he had the questions or not.
WARREN: You know what? In the first place, we asked them. We flat- out asked him, did you hear any of the debate — I mean any of the discussion. And I trust the integrity of both John McCain and Barack Obama that they said they would abide by the rules. They knew the rules way in advance, that I would not give them the questions. I did tell them all of the themes, and went through all of the themes, said here’s the kind of question, the themes that I’m going to deal with. I’m going to probably throw out a question about the economy. I’m going to probably throw out a question about climate change, which by the way I never got to, and a number of other issues.
But I would not give them the wording of what specifically — like for instance, it is one thing to say I may ask a question about the courts. It is another thing to say, which of the existing Supreme Court would you not appoint.
SANCHEZ: Well, yes. Let’s be fair, we called Senator McCain’s office and they said that, no, we did not listen; we did not know. So what you’re saying is part of that, we’re just going to have to go on the honor system. We certainly respect that.
But the McCain campaign is going after NBC — not CNN, where Warren himself said McCain did not follow the rules — for daring to report that McCain had an opportunity to cheat.
[The McCain] campaign is objecting to a statement by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell on “Meet the Press” questioning whether McCain might have gotten a heads-up on some of the questions that were asked of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who was the first candidate to be interviewed Saturday night by Pastor Rick Warren at a presidential forum on faith…
Mitchell reported that some “Obama people” were suggesting “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.”
A McCain aide said that is not the case: “Senator McCain was in a motorcade led by the United States Secret Service and held in a green room with no broadcast feed.”
Of course, it was not the responsibility of the Secret Service to ensure that McCain did not cheat on the debate rules. And while there may not have been a “live feed” in the green room where McCain was “held,” there were any number of other ways McCain could have been fed the questions — by staffers monitoring the forum via Blackberry or laptops, for example.
The McCain campaign is in a bind. Under different circumstance, Steve Schmidt, McCain’s campaign manager and a Karl Rove acolyte, might attempt to suggest “Pastor Rick” Warren was clueless or being untruthful when he said McCain was not in the cone of silence. But calling a popular evangelical leader a liar is out of the question. So what do they do? They play the POW card.
It smacks of desperation.
But there’s an even bigger risk for McCain here. If he continues to use his POW status as a shield against criticism, he could embolden conservative critics like former Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) and former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), to bring up their unsubstantiated claims that McCain was a “Songbird,” who collaborated with the communists and spoke out against the United States while he was held by the Vietnamese.