Mark Knoller Confronts WH's Earnest On "Transparency;" Earnest Cites "Heisenberg Principle"

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CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller confronts White House press secretary Josh Earnest on the White House's "unprecedented level of transparency" when it comes to high-profile fundraisers and Q&A sessions between donors and President Obama. Knoller's colleague at CBS News, Major Garrett, also quizzes Earnest on releasing the numbers on how much money is reimbursed for the use of Air Force One for campaign events.

"Why doesn't that transparency extend to the Q&A sessions with the donors which would be a great interest to all of us?" Knoller asked.

"The goal of those Q&A sessions is to foster a more candid and open dialogue where you have donors who are expressing their views," Earnest said.

Earnest also pointed to the Heisenberg principle to explain why the White House doesn't allow reporters to fully cover high-dollar fundraisers.

"The Heisenberg principle," Earnest said. "That the fact of someone observing something necessarily changes what is actually being observed. And I think that's at play in a dynamic like this when you have a relatively small group of individuals who are seeking to have a conversation with the president of the United States."

(Editor's note: Earnest was referring to the Hawthorne effect, not the Heisenberg principle. The Heisenberg principle addresses uncertainty in quantum mechanics.)

"So you're offering the Heisenberg principle defense to why we can't cover that Q&A session?" Knoller responded.

"Well, it's relatively creative, wouldn't you think?" Earnest responded, laughing.

"But what if we weren't there and you released the transcript of it?" Knoller wondered. "That would call off all your concerns about the Heisenberg principle."

"I think that would be a different way for your to observe the interaction in a way that would still have a material impact on that kind of conversation. So, okay," Earnest said.

At this point Major Garrett jumped in to grill Earnest on not disclosing costs for political travel.

"Since we’re in the mood to acknowledge things, will you just acknowledge what we all suspect here, which you’re not going to tell us, what Ed has asked, what my colleague Mark Knoller has asked you about for six years, which is the separation of costs for political travel. You’re not going to release those numbers; you’re not going to answer that question, right?" Garrett asked.

"I don’t have an answer to that," Earnest replied.

"Will you just acknowledge that?" Garrett asked once again.

"There is a level of transparency that is already included in the system that the Obama administration and the Democratic committees that are ultimately responsible for paying for some of these cots. It is reported publicly. What I will acknowledge is this: It is not the level of transparency that you seek. But there is transparency there, built into the system," Earnest answered.

"So you’re not going to answer the direct question we put to you?" Garrett asked once more.

"I do not anticipate that we will, no," Earnest finally answered.

MARK KNOLLER, CBS NEWS: Josh, I wanted to follow up on something you said yesterday when you spoke about an unprecedented level of transparency.

JOSH EARNEST: We would grant that it actually is an unprecedented level of transparency to ensure that reporters like yourself are admitted to fundraisers that the president convenes in private homes, right?

KNOLLER: Why doesn't that transparency extend to the Q&A sessions --

EARNEST: Not even a yes out of that. Not even an acknowledgement before he asks the question. For somebody so interested in transparency, I would anticipate that you would acknowledge --

KNOLLER: I acknowledge. I stipulate your statement. EARNEST: Thank you for humoring me.

KNOLLER: Why doesn't that transparency extend to the Q&A sessions with the donors which would be a great interest to all of us?

EARNEST: Right. The -- what we strive to do in those kind of settings, Mark, is to balance the desire -- and it's a legitimate one -- of the press corps to hear the president's pitch to donors about why they should support Democratic political committees by in large. There is of course a legitimate interest there. And I think those who have been close observers of that process have found that the pitch that the president delivers in those more intimate settings is more consistent with the pitch the president delivers in bigger settings, like campaign rallies or in fundraisers that have a much larger -- that take place at much larger gatherings.

The goal of those Q&A sessions is to foster a more candid and open dialogue where you have donors who are expressing their views and the nature of -- in some ways we have, I think it's the Heightenberg [sic] principle?

REPORTER: Heisenberg principle.

EARNEST: Heisenberg principle. Thank you for the correction.

The Heisenberg principle. That the fact of someone observing something necessarily changes what is actually being observed. And I think that's at play in a dynamic like this when you have a relatively small group of individuals who are seeking to have a conversation with the president of the United States. So, what we have done is we have structured this in a way that tries to balance your understandable interest in the pitch that the president makes to donors with the ability of donors to have a frank and candid conversation with the president of the United States in a relatively private setting.

KNOLLER: So you're offering the Heisenberg principle defense to why we can't cover that Q&A session?

EARNEST: Well, it's relatively creative, wouldn't you think?

KNOLLER: Yeah, but that would go to everything we cover any day.

EARNEST: It does which is why we try to balance them. I think that if you're in a setting where the president is speaking as he did in Maryland over the weekend to 8,000 people it would be hard for me to make the case that letting 12 additional people observe that speech would necessarily change the interaction. But I think the dynamic is different when we're talking about a smaller group of individuals, a couple of dozen, that increasing the number of people who are participating in that session does necessarily change the interaction.

KNOLLER: But what if we weren't there and you released the transcript of it? That would call off all your concerns about the Heisenberg principle.

EARNEST: I think that would be a different way for your to observe the interaction in a way that would still have a material impact on that kind of conversation. So, okay.

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MAJOR GARRETT, CBS NEWS: Since we’re in the mood to acknowledge things, will you just acknowledge what we all suspect here, which you’re not going to tell us, what Ed has asked, what my colleague Mark Knoller has asked you about for six years, which is the separation of costs for political travel. You’re not going to release those numbers; you’re not going to answer that question, right?

JOSH EARNEST: I don’t have an answer to that.

GARRETT: Will you just acknowledge that?

EARNEST: Much like previous administrations haven’t --

GARRETT: Just acknowledge that you’re not going to do it. So we don’t have to go through this charade anymore, we know you’re not going to do it, so just say you’re not going to do it.

EARNEST: Well, that is a, there are numbers associated with these costs that are reported to the FEC. Right? So there is a level of transparency.

GARRETT: Not too many of them and there is no way to know what they’re for and what proportion they are of the larger whole.

EARNEST: So there is a level of transparency that is already included in the system that the Obama administration and the Democratic committees that are ultimately responsible for paying for some of these cots. It is reported publicly. What I will acknowledge is this: It is not the level of transparency that you seek. But there is transparency there, built into the system.

GARRETT: So you’re not going to answer the direct question we put to you?

EARNEST: I do not anticipate that we will, no.

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