“Early on the morning of September 16, 2010 , Robert Gibbs was scanning news clips on his BlackBerry when a story stopped him short. According to a new French book, Michelle Obama had told Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that living in the White House was hell. It was a potential disaster, he feared, coming on the heels of the Spain trip and weeks before election day. ‘This is the only thing we’re focusing on,’ he told colleagues. He could not reach the first lady, who was playing tennis in Georgetown, or [Valerie] Jarrett and [First Lady chief of staff Susan] Sher, the usual emissaries, who were attending a Morning Joe event. So he met with the first lady’s press staff, directed the American Embassy in Paris to buy the book so it could be translated, and asked the Elysée Palace to issue a denial. By noon, Michelle Obama told Sher the statement was false, the French released their statement, and the crisis had been averted.
“But at [chief of staff Rahm] Emanuel’s 7:30 a.m. meeting the next day , Jarrett announced that the first lady was dissatisfied with the White House’s handling of the situation. All eyes turned to Gibbs. ‘Don’t go there, Robert, don’t do it,’ another aide remembered Rahm Emanuel saying. Years of tension between Gibbs, Jarrett and an absent Michelle Obama exploded. ‘Fuck this, that’s not right, I’ve been killing myself on this, where’s this coming from?’ Gibbs yelled. He calmed down and tried to probe, according to a half-dozen people who witnessed the exchange. ‘What is it she has concerns about?’ he asked Jarrett. Jarrett said something about the reply not being fast enough. Gibbs blew up again. ‘Why is she talking to you about it? If she has a problem she should talk to me!’ David Axelrod was trying to soothe Gibbs. It was the calm of Jarrett’s tone that finally undid Gibbs, others said later. He looked so frustrated one colleague thought he was going to cry. ‘You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,’ he hurled back. ‘The first lady would not believe you’re speaking this way.’ ‘Then fuck her too!’ He stormed out as the rest of the group sat stunned.
“Emanuel grew very still for once . ‘Everyone knows Robert has done a really good job on this,’ he said. Later, in an interview, Gibbs admitted he had lost control, because he had successfully solved the problem and was still being taken to task. But he also said he had misdirected his rage. He said he emailed Sher after the meeting to ask what the first lady’s complaint had been, cc-ing Jarrett, and Sher said there was no complaint. ‘Valerie made the story up,’ he charged. “Valerie went into the meeting to convey what Michelle was angry about when they actually hadn’t talked about it.’ After the [Carla] Bruni [book] incident, he ‘stopped taking her at all seriously as an adviser to the president of the United States,’ he continued. ‘I didn’t always think she was an effective messenger and I didn’t think she was always playing the game fair.’ He even accused her of sabotaging other people to promote herself. ‘I think Valerie’s belief is that there’s one supreme adviser,’ meaning herself, and ‘her viewpoint in advising the president is that she has to be up and the rest of the White House has to be down.’ She saw anyone else close to Obama as a threat, he said.
“Later, Jarrett declined to discuss the incident , but two East Wing aides said she had indeed misspoken, that the first lady had no issue with the White House response. Still, few colleagues thought she would make things up or undermine others to increase her power. (Jarrett ‘does a remarkable job balancing her friendship with the president,’ said Pete Rouse.) But Gibbs’s accusations were proof that the president, so confident of his ability to mediate among competing advisers and to be his own best manager, could not. In fact, the president did not know how dysfunctional the relationships among his top advisers had become. There was one thing all the aides implicitly agreed on: no one was going to tell the president or the first lady about the Gibbs-Jarrett blowup. A few hours after the press secretary’s outburst, Obama called Gibbs into the Oval Office to thank him for his fast, excellent work handling the [Carla] Bruni book.”