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Salahis insist they didn’t crash White House dinner

The couple who made it past Secret Service protection to hobnob with the president at a state dinner last week say “the truth will come out” about their night at the White House, and they insist they were not party crashers.

Tareq and Michaele Salahi told their story Tuesday in their first television appearance, as a House committee prepared for a hearing on what has developed into an increasingly embarrassing incident for the White House.

The couple said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” that they were “shocked and devastated” by accusations that they showed up uninvited and talked their way past security. They said they were cooperating with a Secret Service investigation and claimed they had evidence showing they had permission to attend the A-list affair.

“I am certain we will be completely exonerated,” Tareq Salahi said.

Their evidence, believed to be e-mail correspondence with a Pentagon official, is expected to be reviewed Thursday by the House Homeland Security Committee. The Salahis, along with Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan and White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, have been asked to testify.

As of Tuesday, only Sullivan, who has accepted blame for the security breach, was confirmed to appear, according to committee spokesman Adam Comis.

Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told CNN late Tuesday that he believed the Salahis would appear. He said Rogers, a close associate of the Obamas, had declined to appear before the committee.

Rogers would probably have been asked about her decision not to post a staff member at the entrance, as well as about any contact the social office had with Michaele Salahi in the days leading up to the dinner.

From now on, the social office will staff the gates to help the Secret Service, the first lady’s communications director, Camille Johnston, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

The wire service also reported that Michele Jones, a special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, had told the couple that she would try to get them access to part of the state dinner and had asked them for their Social Security numbers.

An administration official with access to e-mails between Jones and the Salahis said Jones had her deputy e-mail the White House Office of Public Engagement. An official there said he could not get the Salahis into the dinner, and Jones left the Salahis a voice mail with that information before the dinner.

The official, who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, said that at 1 a.m. Wednesday, hours after the dinner ended, the Salahis e-mailed Jones to say their cellphone battery had died and they had just received her message. The Salahis wrote: “We ended up going to the gate to check in at 6:30 p.m., just to check in case it got approved.”

Jones later responded: “You are most welcome. I hear the smile in your e-mail. Am delighted you and Michaele had a wonderful time.”

Teresa Foss, a friend of Michaele Salahi, said Tuesday that Salahi told her she had called the social office for wardrobe advice before the event.

“She mentioned speaking to someone in the social secretary’s office,” said Foss, who once worked with Salahi as a makeup artist and gave her style advice before the dinner. “She wanted to know what the proper attire was. They told her that the traditional Indian garb would be appropriate.”

Salahi wore a bright red sari.

“We were invited, not crashers,” Michaele Salahi said in the “Today” interview from the couple’s home. “There isn’t anyone who would have the audacity or the poor behavior to do that. No one would do that, and certainly not us.”

Tareq Salahi said the e-mails were “clear to us.”

“Based on the timeline, I think the American public is actually going to be extremely surprised with all the details that went from beginning to end into what was supposed to be a lovely, beautiful evening -- a lifetime memory,” Tareq Salahi said.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday that there was no way to view the incident other than as an unauthorized intrusion.

“This wasn’t a misunderstanding,” Gibbs said in an interview aired by MSNBC. “You don’t show up at the White House as a misunderstanding.”

The White House says the Secret Service is investigating what happened at the dinner, where the Salahis managed to make the rounds, shake the president’s hand and pose for photos with Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

“I think the president really had the same reaction the Secret Service had,” Gibbs said, “and that was great concern for how something like this happened.”

Tareq Salahi said he and his wife had been “very candid” with the Secret Service and had “turned over documentation to them. . . .”

“We’re going to definitely work with the Secret Service between Michaele and I to really shed light on this.”

kathleen.hennessey@ latimes.com

mdsilva@latimes.com


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