January 13th, 2011
03:13 PM ET
7 years ago

Cold War returns to White House for a day

Washington (CNN) - It was what diplomats might call a "frank exchange of views" Thursday as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs got into a Cold War-style tiff with a Russian reporter about whether American freedoms go too far and may have led to the tragic shooting in Tucson.

In one of the most surreal moments I have ever seen in nearly seven years covering the beat, Andrei Sitov of the Itar-Tass News Agency pressed Gibbs at his daily briefing about whether "the quote, unquote 'freedom' of a deranged mind to react in a violent way is also American" like the freedom of speech and the right to assembly.

Gibbs, clearly ticked off by what appeared to some reporters in the briefing room to be a lecture by the Russian reporter just days after the horrific massacre in Tucson, bluntly declared that the tragedy was caused by the "deranged actions of a madman."

The outgoing press secretary then abruptly ended the news conference, which had the whiff of a tense Cold War exchange.

All that was missing was a shoe being pounded on a table in the White House briefing room.
The tense exchange began with Sitov, whose news agency is state-controlled, saying that he wanted to offer "condolences to all the Americans, especially obviously to the victims."

But then he added of the tragedy, "It does not seem all that incomprehensible, at least from the outside. It's the reverse side of freedom. Unless you want restrictions, unless you want a bigger role for the government…"

Other journalists were snapping their heads around to look quizzically at Sitov because they could not believe that the reporter was saying this while emotions are still so raw over the shooting. Gibbs jumped in to try and deflect the tension by saying diplomatically "there's an investigation that's going on" and nobody should get ahead of that.

But Sitov started interrupting, so Gibbs decided to go full steam ahead and push back emotionally.

"Hold on, let me - let me take my time back just for a second," Gibbs said. "I think there's an investigation that's going to go on. I think there are - I think as it goes on, we will learn more and more about what happened. I think as the president was clear last night, we may never know fully why or how. We may never have an understanding of why, as the president said, in the dark recesses of someone's mind, a violent person's mind, do actions like this spring forward. I don't want to surmise or think in the future of what some of that might be."

Gibbs added that it's important to also understand that the meet-and-greet session that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, was holding last Saturday where she and others were shot was "the exercise of some very important, very foundational freedoms to this country: the freedom of speech; the freedom to assemble; the freedom to petition your government; democracy or a form of self-government that is of, by and for the people - all of - all very quintessential American values" that are well known.

Sitov said he agreed with that characterization but persisted with his original line of thought.

"This is America, the democracy, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom to petition your government," he said. "Many people outside would also say - and the quote, unquote 'freedom' of a deranged mind to react in a violent way is also American. How do you respond to that?"

Gibbs seemed startled by the last part and asked Sitov to repeat it, so the Russian journalist said again, "The quote, unquote 'freedom' of the deranged mind to respect - to react violently to that, it is also American."

"No, it's not," said Gibbs. "No, no, I would disagree vehemently with that. There are - there is nothing in the values of our country, there's nothing on the many laws on our books that would provide for somebody to impugn and impede on the very freedoms that you began with by exercising the actions that that individual took on that day. That is not American."

Gibbs' voice grew emotional as he added, "We had people that died. We had people whose lives will be changed forever because of the deranged actions of a madman. Those are not American. Those are not in keeping with the important bedrock values by which this country was founded and by which its citizens live each and every day of their lives in hopes of something better for those that are here."

The press secretary then ended the briefing before the exchange could go any further.
Sitov told CNN later in a telephone interview that he meant no disrespect to the victims or their families.

The "first thing I want to say is we understand this is a terrible tragedy and we offer our condolences to the American people and especially the victims of this random act of violence," he said, speaking as if he was speaking on behalf of all Russians. "In no way do we condone the actions of the deranged madman who did this."

"Now that we said all that," Sitov added, "I also believe that what happened is a terrible price that the United States pays for the freedoms and liberties that Americans enjoy. This country unfortunately again suffered through several presidents being attacked. President Kennedy was killed. President Reagan was wounded by a deranged person."

Sitov said Americans do not seem to want to face the fact that there needs to be stricter gun control measures if another tragedy is to be avoided.

"So my point is that there is the good side of the freedoms and liberties and rights," he said. "But there is the reverse side and if the government wanted to prevent such tragedies, as they say, one avenue is obvious. One avenue is to restrict the freedom to bear arms."

Sitov added, "But politically this seems to be impossible so people do not even talk to this. I am just an observer. I am not saying to Americans what they should and shouldn't do. It is your country. You should do what you want."

Asked if he is advocating that Americans embrace communism, Sitov said, "The last thing I want to say is what Americans should and shouldn't do. What I'm saying is if Americans want this right to bear arms they need to be ready to face the consequences. And this is the consequences."

But Dimitri Simes, a native of Russia who now runs The Nixon Center here in the United States, noted that Russia is facing its own problems with firearms in many of its major cities.

"This question is a little difficult to take seriously, coming from a Russian journalist," Simes said. "I think he clearly wanted to make a political point."

–CNN's Kate Bolduan contributed to this report

Filed under: Robert Gibbs • White House
soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Bubba Six Pack

    We know freedom is not free, we just don't like to talk about the costs.

    January 13, 2011 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  2. Ben Ben

    Hey commie, at least in AMERICA we have more freedoms then you commies have under Putin.

    January 13, 2011 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  3. Darcie Callahan

    There is no shortage of violence in countries where freedom is oppressed. There is no shortage of deranged madmen, either.

    January 13, 2011 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  4. Freedom of Speech in the USA

    Hmmmm... a reporter from a state-run newspaper in a country that is authoritarian and nearly mob-run asking US about 'freedom'??? Just what the heck does this fool even know about 'freedom'?! Being allowed in this country is his first exposure to it. Maybe Gibbs should have said in response, " you know, in your country you would be hauled off and never be hard from again for asking that question".

    January 13, 2011 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  5. Wha da?

    my question is: what is Russian journalist doing in the WH?....although it seems like a question Glen Beck would ask in his conspiratorial Fox "news" program!

    January 13, 2011 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  6. Tim

    I'm not sure what was surreal about it. The "reporter" was simply tweaking us and implying that the Russian system is better. Big deal.

    January 13, 2011 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  7. Mr Democrat

    Of course the Ruskies want to disarm America. Just like before. Aaaa comrade?

    January 13, 2011 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  8. Justblue2

    Well Said Gibbs.

    January 13, 2011 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  9. Sniffit

    "Those are not in keeping with the important bedrock values by which this country was founded and by which its citizens live each and every day of their lives in hopes of something better for those that are here."

    And yet, somehow, we've been told that we're not supposed to discuss the FACT that oplitical discourse in this country over the past 2 years has EXPLICITLY linked the two with verbiage like "second amendment remedies" and "if votes don't work, bullets will"...all while the "news" media whitewashes it with morally relativistic false equivalencies and tries to stunt the conversation BECAUSE OF ITS OWN COMPLICITY IN THE RHETORIC GETTING THAT OUT OF CONTROL. Who uncritically, without question gave the nutjobs their soapboxes and helped them broadcast their metaphorical revolutionary blather, sensationalizing it all beyond anythign reasonable and repeating it for them ad nauseum because it helped sell advertising? Hmmmm? Who was that I wonder?

    THAT is the part of the discussion that's getting ignored, and it's because, well, guess who controls the narrative...

    January 13, 2011 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  10. Boisepoet

    Guess they aren't teaching the younger generation in Russia about Stalin. They had a deranged madman running their whole country for almost 30 years. Does that mean despotism is a uniquely Russian value?

    January 13, 2011 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  11. Steve Santerre

    America has clearly forgotten how it was founded. It was through violence that it pushed the British back, and even today, the American government applies violence as a means of oppressing other nations (which they believe they have something to go gain from plundering). Although American society has changed throughout the last few centuries (in good and bad ways), the vast majority of the American populace are slaves to the imperialistic and consumerist system which will eventually crumble before them. Wake up America! The terms liberal and conservatives are simply there to cause you to quarrel and the media twists words around as to manipulate you and to render you incapable of thinking critically and independently.

    January 13, 2011 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  12. Liberal4Obama

    Well done Gibbs !!

    January 13, 2011 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  13. Reddog

    I have a question for Comrade Sitov: Would you say that the millions of Russian citizens killed, or sent to Siberia, by your beloved Stalin represent Russia as a country or the acts of a mad man?

    January 13, 2011 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  14. Tony in Maine

    I guess it's okay if the hit is in a Moscow hotel and ordered by a government official annoyed with the reporter that got offed. So much more civilized that way, you know

    January 13, 2011 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  15. turtlecat

    Sitov is correct about one thing – if you want an unfettered right to bear arms for your citizenry, then you should expect this kind of thing every so often. The law was followed by everyone involved up until that lunatic started pulling the trigger. So 2nd amendment nuts, this ones on you.

    January 13, 2011 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  16. Wha da?

    this was the Russian dude Palin was seeing when she sits in her porch....she probably sent him to the WH to ask that dumb question!

    January 13, 2011 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  17. MSheehy

    OMG, Mr. Sitov was just pointing out that we are a nation obsessed with having a gun. We cluck, cluck about a dreganged madman being responsible for this, neverminding that we armed him with a weapon of mass destruciton and we are going to do absolutely nothing about it.

    January 13, 2011 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  18. Dumbasrocks [R]s

    The Russian has a point. He just doesn't have the timing, social skills, language skills and couth to get it accross properly. Sort of reminds me of our own homegrown [R]s.

    January 13, 2011 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  19. il douchy

    this guy's rant doesn't even make sense. even if he is contending the same argument that we have here in the States for gun control, it has nothing to do with our freedoms on the whole. he comes off Communist – and irrelevant to our foundation – by generalizing about American liberties in that manner.

    January 13, 2011 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  20. Wire Palladin, S. F.

    As for communism, G-Lenin Beck has already embraced some of the writings of Chairman Mao, and his followers are OK with it.

    January 13, 2011 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  21. Leslie D'Amico

    This should be a wake up call to all Americans, the cold war is not over, the russians are the enemy...

    January 13, 2011 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  22. Phil in KC

    The Russian reporter had a point to make regarding gun control – a point made by some Americans – but he went about it all wrong. His verbiage was wrong and his timing was very wrong. Plus – if an American citizen makes that observation (i.e., about gun control), then it is part of the public discourse. But – an 'outsider' making that same observation sounds like criticism of our country – something he obviously did not grasp.

    January 13, 2011 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  23. beowulf2

    I would say to this Russian journalist that with Freedom comes responsibility. Some people uphold that responsibility, others do not. We will not give up our freedoms and rights because a few do not uphold their responsibility.

    January 13, 2011 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  24. Esin

    I think people react to what he said because he is a Russian, more than to what he said. I actually think the same way, as long as we do not have more gun control, we will have to face that there is this face, reverse side of the freedoms we cherish.

    January 13, 2011 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  25. Who Cares?

    Hey Clown... You know what makes America. The fact that you were able to disrespect the dead with a microphone and still be free to walk the streets.

    January 13, 2011 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
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