We may never know exactly what President Obama said to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) during his trip to the state on Wednesday, but it’s clear things didn’t go well.
What was supposed to be a trip focusing on jobs and innovation a day after the State of the Union instead became a story about finger pointing and who said what to whom during a brief exchange on an airport tarmac.
“In my opinion it was a terrible encounter,” Brewer told Fox’s Greta Van Susteren a few hours later. But in a way, it was also a victory for the governor and the latest in a series of moves by President Obama that may have unintentionally elevated the Republican to a national figure.
Four years ago, Brewer was relatively unknown to most of the nation. As Arizona’s secretary of state, she was the No. 2 elected official there.
But when Obama headed to the White House in 2009 following his historic election, he tapped Arizona’s Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano to become homeland security secretary. Napolitano was a natural choice, but her move was also a promotion for Brewer, who automatically became governor on Jan. 21, 2009.
From there, things got better for Brewer. Napolitano had managed to ward off versions of Arizona’s harsh immigration law for years, but with Brewer in the executive’s chair a year later, the politically popular bill became a reality.
The law made Brewer a national lightning rod and a favorite of conservatives. That reputation was emboldened when the president publicly criticized her and his Justice Department sued to block the law.
So on Wednesday, when reporters spotted her pointing a finger at the president and appearing to be flustered after Obama walked away, the governor was well positioned to get her side of the story out quickly.
Brewer said she was there to welcome the president and tell him about what she calls the “Arizona comeback,” her plan to turn around the state’s lagging economy. But the conversation somehow turned to the governor’s book, which was published in November. At some moments during her interviews, Brewer said that the president was the first one to bring up the book. At other points, she said she was the one to ask him about it.
“I asked him if he had read my book, ‘Scorpions for Breakfast.’ And he said that he read an excerpt and he didn’t think that I was very cordial,” Brewer told a conservative radio talk show host in Phoenix. “He was somewhat thin skinned and a little tense to say the least.”
In interview after interview, Brewer used similar language, mocking the president as “thin skinned” and “angry” because he criticized her book. She said Obama walked away from her while she was in mid-sentence. But the governor also made it clear she was caught by surprise at the exchange.
“I was so taken aback by it all. I was trying to be very gracious and listen to him,” Brewer told the host on Phoenix’s KFYI radio station. “I was shocked by his sternness of it all.”
The confrontation just elevated Brewer’s profile even more, while moving the spotlight off the president’s jobs trip and onto her.
Judging by available sales figures, it was also a huge boost for her book, which was written with the help of conservative Jessica Gavora. A short time after the confrontation, Brewer’s “Scorpions for Breakfast” was ranked at 343,222 in Amazon’s book sales. By Thursday morning, it had rocketed to 169.
An anonymous administration official told a pool reporter on the trip that Obama did talk to the governor about the book. The conversation focused on a description of a June 2010 meeting Brewer and Obama had, at the president’s invitation, to discuss immigration.
“The president said he’d be glad to meet with her again,” the official said, “but did note that after their last meeting, a cordial discussion in the Oval Office, the governor inaccurately described the meeting in her book.”
The description in question came from a particularly harsh passage in which Brewer called the president “condescending” and described a scene in which she sat silently for 10 minutes while he “proceeded to lecture” her. From Brewer’s book, emphasis hers:
It wasn’t long before I realized I was hearing the president’s stump speech. Only I was was supposed to listen without talking. Did he care to hear the review from the actual scene at the border? Did the opinions and observations of the people of Arizona mean anything to him? I didn’t think so. His mind seemed made up. If he knew about the escalating levels of violence, the kidnappings, the drop houses, the home invasions, the spotters, and the drug mules, he didn’t give any indication. It was as though President Obama thought he would lecture me and I would learn at his knee. He was patronizing. He understood that we were “frustrated,” he said — yes, we were frustrated! — but he didn’t seem interested in knowing why. Then it dawned on me. He’s treating me like the cop he had over for a beer after he bad-mouthed the Cambridge police, I thought. He thinks he can humor me and then get rid of me.
It was a totally different picture than Brewer had painted publicly immediately after the meeting. At the time, the governor described the meeting as “very cordial” despite some disagreements with the president.
On Wednesday, Brewer was asked by the hosts of KTAR, another Phoenix radio station, whether she thought her actions toward Obama were disrespectful.
“I would never disrespect a president. I certainly wouldn’t disrespect the office of the president,” she said.
But she conceded she was a little unclear about what exactly happened in the heat of the exchange.
“I tried not to be angry,” she said. “It’s always hard to look back and see if you were angry. I was trying to make a point that I thought my book was right and correct.”
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com