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CBS's John Dickerson: Obama White House Scandals are 'Little Fires'

John Dickerson downplayed most of the recent scandals surrounding the Obama administration on Thursday's CBS This Morning, asserting that the White House was "trying to get something done on immigration....they're trying to stay focused on the things that really matter to this presidency, and only trying to spend a small amount of time putting out these little fires."

This came mere moments after Dickerson acknowledged the potential for the scandals to affect the President's legacy: "At the worst end...you get a feeling it's a scandal a week related to the administration, and if that idea sets in – that there's a kind of, rot....that affects the President's legacy." [audio available here; video below]

Just before the segment with the CBS News political director, anchor Gayle King gave a news brief on the latest on the developing State Department scandal. King noted that "Secretary of State John Kerry says he welcomes an investigation into the alleged coverup of misconduct by diplomats and other officials."

Co-anchor Charlie Rose turned to Dickerson and asked, "So, the question comes: what's the impact on the President and the presidency?" His reply included his "little fires" label of the scandal. Rose followed up by wondering if the White House "should they be more aggressive in defending and responding".

The former Time magazine journalist answered by further explaining the White House strategy, and admitted the administration's ongoing concern about the IRS scandal:

JOHN DICKERSON: ...Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, has this 90/10 rule that I keep being told about, which is spend 90 percent of your time on the things that are important to this White House, 10 percent on the scandals. That's wise for any White House. The problem is, if they miss the one scandal that's important – and I think the one they're most worried about is still these IRS allegations. That's what people in the public really seem to care the most about, and it's the one that can affect the other things the White House is trying to do – to the extent that it effects total distrust in – or it increases total distrust in the government. So, should they be more aggressive? I think on that one in particular; on these others, they should probably stay focused.

Dickerson made a gaffe later in the segment after King raised the issue of how this latest State Department scandal might affect a possible Hillary Clinton run for the presidency in 2016:

GAYLE KING: John, does this latest scandal affect Hillary Clinton, since she was Secretary of State at the time?

DICKERSON: That is the most interesting political part of this State Department scandal – is this is tarnishing Hillary Clinton's image as Secretary of State. It gives Republicans something to talk about. They obviously see her as the next Republican nominee in 2016 (sic). And so, there's a real political motivation, even if people don't seem to care about these – that scandal or the Benghazi investigation in the public, they see a political target here in Hillary Clinton.

It's amazing that the CBS News political director would even bring up Benghazi by name, as just over a week earlier, he only vaguely referenced it as he gave his take on Susan Rice being named the President's national security advisor: "We know ever since Susan Rice worked for his campaign, and is, by all accounts from – from those inside the White House, sees the world in the way the President does. They have a very good relationship. And so, he was disappointed during the secretary of state circus, as they saw it."

The full transcript of the John Dickerson segment from Thursday's CBS This Morning:

[CBS News Graphic: "State Department Cover-Up? Sec. Of State Kerry Welcomes Review"]

GAYLE KING: Secretary of State John Kerry says he welcomes an investigation into the alleged coverup of misconduct by diplomats and other officials. The State Department's inspector general plans to review those charges revealed earlier by CBS News earlier this week

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm a former prosecutor. I can tell you, as a former prosecutor, I take very seriously a – investigative process, and I am confident that the OIG's [Office of Inspector General's] process, where he has invited outsiders to come and review whatever took place a year ago, will be reviewed.

CHARLIE ROSE: Meanwhile, a second House committee is asking the State Department for answers.

CBS News political director John Dickerson is in Washington. John, good morning.

JOHN DICKERSON: Good morning, Charlie

ROSE: So, the question comes: what's the impact on the President and the presidency?

[CBS News Graphic: "State Department Cover-Up? How Latest Scandal Is Affecting Administration"]

DICKERSON: Well, I think at the – at the small end, the impact is that this is a distraction. We're talking about the latest scandal, and they're not – we're not talking about whatever the White House wants us to be talking about. At the worst end, this becomes – you get a feeling it's, kind of, a scandal a week related to the administration, and if that idea sets in – that there's a, kind of, rot, then that – and we haven't seen that yet – but that – that affects the President's legacy.

I think, in a practical matter, though, when you talk to staffers inside the White House and in reporting I've done on the Hill, they're focused on implementing the Affordable Care Act. They're trying to get something done on immigration. The President's aides are talking to senators about trying to work out some kind of a deal on the budget. So, they're trying to stay focused on the things that really matter to this presidency, and only trying to spend a small amount of time putting out these little fires.

ROSE: They can do more than one thing at a time, so should they be more aggressive in defending and responding?

DICKERSON: They – well, you know, Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, has this 90/10 rule that I keep being told about, which is spend 90 percent of your time on the things that are important to this White House, 10 percent on the scandals. That's wise for any White House. The problem is, if they miss the one scandal that's important – and I think the one they're most worried about is still these IRS allegations. That's what people in the public really seem to care the most about, and it's the one that can affect the other things the White House is trying to do – to the extent that it effects total distrust in – or it increases total distrust in the government. So, should they be more aggressive? I think on that one in particular; on these others, they should probably stay focused.

[CBS News Graphic: "President Obama Job Approval: Disapprove, 47%; Approve, 45%; Source: Gallup Poll; Margin of Error: +/- 3 Pts."]

KING: John, does this latest scandal affect Hillary Clinton, since she was Secretary of State at the time?

[CBS News Graphic: "State Department Cover-Up? How Scandal Could Impact Hillary Rodham Clinton"]

DICKERSON: That is the most interesting political part of this State Department scandal – is this is tarnishing Hillary Clinton's image as Secretary of State. It gives Republicans something to talk about. They obviously see her as the next Republican nominee in 2016 (sic). And so, there's a real political motivation, even if people don't seem to care about these – that scandal or the Benghazi investigation in the public, they see a political target here in Hillary Clinton.

ROSE: Speaking of Hillary Clinton, the former President, Bill Clinton, has said in a closed meeting – closed to press – reported by Politico, that the President [Obama] should be more aggressive in Syria in supporting the rebels.

DICKERSON: Yeah, Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, it was reported, was pushing the President to be more aggressive, too. The President – former President Clinton seemed to be making a more general point about presidents and when they should engage. He was looking back on his own presidency and saying – you know, presidents can't be driven by public opinion; talked about his intervention in Bosnia.

I think this White House would push back and say, well, you know, this President took action in Libya, so he's not – he's not scared of public opinion. He's just being wise about the differences here. I think they'd also point to Rwanda, which is an area where President Clinton didn't intervene because of the – because of the logistical problems there. So, it's a little more complicated, I think, they would argue.

ROSE: John, thank you so much. 

— Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.