May 1st, 2009
07:44 PM ET
14 years ago

Behind the scenes maneuvering for Obama surprise

(CNN) - President Obama shocked the White House Press Corps Friday afternoon when he crashed the daily briefing to announce Justice David Souter's retirement.

The surprise appearance took a little maneuvering and a lot of discipline from administration staff not to leak.

According to administration officials, President Obama was waiting for Justice Souter's letter to arrive to officially notify him of the retirement. But the letter didn't show up in time for Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to announce the news in his afternoon briefing. So Gibbs, after delaying the briefing for about 30 minutes, began his afternoon exchange with reporters anyway. He said he had no official confirmation that any Supreme Court Justice intended to step down. Then he went on to take reporters’ questions.

But during the briefing, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said Souter's letter arrived at the White House. The president received the letter in the Oval Office, and immediately called Justice Souter to congratulate him. Then the president headed to the briefing room to tell reporters himself that he had spoken with the Justice and was working toward nominating his replacement. His appearance was met with shock and laughter following a day in which White House staff remained mum and sometimes coy about reports of Souter's imminent retirement.
It appeared that Obama's arrival even caught his press secretary off guard.

When the president jumped behind the podium, Gibbs headed in the wrong direction as he tried to exit the stage, stepping toward a bank of cameras before doing an about face and walking around the president to get out of way.

After Mr. Obama's announcement, Gibbs was asked if he knew the president was coming: "No. We would've put a fancy seal up and everything," he said.

It turns out Gibbs didn't know for sure, but was warned it could happen. Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said several in the press office were given a head's up that if Souter's letter arrived during the briefing the president could make an appearance.

Burton, who was sitting in the briefing, said he got a message on his BlackBerry from a co-worker inside, tipping him off that Obama was indeed coming.

Filed under: David Souter • Popular Posts • President Obama
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Michael

    I'll admit it... I'm pretty much a fan of 'almost' everything Obama (even though I really would have liked Hillary to be sitting in the Oval Office; but really, what's up with Gibbs?? He's like Laural & Hardy all wrapped up in one. This has to be one of the lamest decisions of Obama.

    May 1, 2009 08:03 pm at 8:03 pm |
  2. Pat CA

    I just love "maneuvered surprises" - don't you? Kinda takes "surprise" our of "suprise," eh?

    May 1, 2009 08:06 pm at 8:06 pm |
  3. Emanuel

    What? You mean to tell me that Gibbs does not wear an earpiece?

    May 1, 2009 08:20 pm at 8:20 pm |
  4. M

    I soooooooo love our President!!!!!

    May 1, 2009 08:30 pm at 8:30 pm |
  5. Doug

    What a refreshing change from the previous Administration! President Obama manages to keep so many balls in the air at the same time and yet has the time to pull a practical joke on Robert Gibbs and give the Press Corps a fun surprise.

    Next time I want to see if he can dribble a basketball at the same time.

    May 1, 2009 08:30 pm at 8:30 pm |
  6. Greg, PA

    I always love impromptu visits by presidents. I enjoyed the questions as he was leaving, particularly when the one voice said "come back..." and trailed off.

    May 1, 2009 08:44 pm at 8:44 pm |
  7. Pam

    I just saw this on CNN (Ronald Martin was sitting in for Campbell Brown) and it was a fun moment. I liked Gibbs' reaction.

    May 1, 2009 09:12 pm at 9:12 pm |
  8. D. D.

    It appears complete Truth is a little seconday somedays in Washington. I wonder who is the most honest politican in the city?
    Is any of them humble? Does anyone have a quess?
    It appears Washingon is a beautifully, historically built swamp with swamp creatures there for new arrivals to mock.
    I love Specter's move. lol What a teaching moment for our youth. If they can't be an elected class representative for their class-fail and run in the next class' election or make sound proof deals that this years' rep can't run in the next year campaign because it has all ready been assigned -democracy at it's best.
    What happened to serving our country and then going home?
    They need to serve like our President and VP and go some place- not like Cheney but at least he is out of the office.

    May 1, 2009 09:19 pm at 9:19 pm |
  9. Nancy - Houston

    The person who has the qualities Pres. Obama spoke about at the press conference would be Michele Obama. However, I don't believe she has ever served as a judge....only a lawyer. But then, I don't know if holding a position as a judge is actually required.

    May 1, 2009 09:39 pm at 9:39 pm |
  10. Pat Omaha, NE

    Thank you, President Obama, for your willingness to come to the camera as soon as you know something and to be able to speak intelligently and clearly about the task at hand!
    You continue to amaze me, and I am grateful that you are the POTUS!!

    May 1, 2009 09:55 pm at 9:55 pm |
  11. Simmy

    Can you believe the political posturing from the party of NO? They have disrespected the President from the time he took office, and now, they dare to voice premature complaints....What am I saying? That is what they do best....

    There is one president - a Democrat. This will be his decision. He has more than enough capable voices advising him.....Media and Pundits, stay in your respective places, and let the process flow.

    P. S. A Latina female, an African American male or female....

    May 1, 2009 10:08 pm at 10:08 pm |
  12. Katie B in Clayton NC

    Gotta love a Prez that can make us laugh!

    May 1, 2009 10:10 pm at 10:10 pm |
  13. keekers

    This will be another well researched, intelligent decision by Obama. Thanks Justice Souter for waiting.

    May 1, 2009 11:02 pm at 11:02 pm |
  14. Kuriya

    that was great and funny. I like the face of the press corp when he walked in. Has Fox news said anything yet.

    May 1, 2009 11:13 pm at 11:13 pm |
  15. Yossi Gestetner

    Btw, obama fans: u noticed that Iraq is falling back in the past month? I wonder who's to balme. Ah... Maybe a White House that said a few weeks earlier the the US is living Iraq no diff how things look on the ground?

    Ha? Am just asking.

    And for those who have some brains: the GDP report and ISM report of this passed week tells us that the economy is still in DEEEEEP trouble. Not even close to getting even a half drop better. So my obama friends: wake up of ur Nov dream, and get a sense of the facts.

    May 3, 2009 12:59 am at 12:59 am |