With the political world holding its breath for the Friday-afternoon document dump containing the Obama White House response to the Joe Sestak scandal, Greg Sargent gets a sneak peek at the possible defense. The Obama administration will say that it asked Bill Clinton to conduct “informal” talks with Sestak to determine his political ambitions, which Sestak then mischaracterized afterward:
Senior White House advisers asked former President Bill Clinton to talk to Joe Sestak about whether he was serious about running for Senate, and to feel out whether he’d be open to other alternatives, according to sources familiar with the situation.
But the White House maintains that the Clinton-Sestak discussions were informal, according to the sources. The White House, under pressure to divulge the specifics of its interactions with Sestak, will release a formal statement later today outlining their version of events, including Clinton’s involvement.
According to the sources, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel asked Clinton and his longtime adviser, lawyer Doug Band, to talk to Sestak about the race. It’s unclear right now whether the White House will say that Clinton was asked to suggest specific administration positions for Sestak, whether Clinton floated positions on his own, whether Clinton discussed other options not related to the adminstration [sic], or whether employment even came up at all in the talks.
But the news that Clinton is at the center of this whole story is noteworthy on its own because of the former president’s stature, and underscores how heavily invested the White House was in dissuading Sestak from running. The White House sent Clinton to talk to Sestak because Arlen Specter, constituting the 60th Dem vote in the Senate, was viewed as key to enacting Obama’s agenda.
Having someone outside of the administration as a buffer would be very convenient for Obama at this juncture. It allows Obama to offload the blame to someone other than a staffer. And like all buffers, it provides the President with plausible deniability for any legal problems that might ensue.
That doesn’t mean that it’s also not true. After all, the idea of plausible deniability has a long, if inglorious, history in American politics. The film The Godfather, Part II has one character, Joe Cicci, laughing while he tells a Congressional committee that the Corleone family had “lots of buffers.” Buffers exist because they’re practical and they work, especially in politics. Even if no criminal intent existed, a buffer for this kind of mission would be essential. It would be hard to imagine either Barack Obama or Rahm Emanuel tasking themselves with the job of pushing Sestak out of the Pennsylvania primary.
Assuming that Sargent’s sources are correct, we can pretty much predict what the document dump will say. “We asked President Clinton to see what Rep. Sestak’s intentions were, and how we could help” would cover all the bases — and leave Bill Clinton holding the bag if anything untoward happened. That, however, seems highly unlikely for a man so slippery that he could parse the meaning of the word “is” under oath. An accidental crossing of the line would be much more likely with an inexperienced staffer than with Clinton, who would have been on his guard. This makes it much more likely that Sestak blew it out of proportion in order to score a few political points against Arlen Specter and Obama.
Here’s a question, though. Who was the buffer in Colorado?
Update: The New York Times has the same leak, but even more information about the job offer, emphasis mine:
Mr. Obama promised on Thursday to release an account of the matter, which White House lawyers have been drafting in recent days in consultation with Mr. Sestak’s brother, Richard, who runs his campaign. The White House plans to release its statement later on Friday. Until now, the White House has said publicly only that whatever conversations took place with Mr. Sestak were not inappropriate.
The office of Robert F. Bauer, the White House counsel, has concluded that Mr. Emanuel’s proposal did not violate laws prohibiting government employees from promising employment as a reward for political activity because the position being offered was unpaid. The office also found other examples of presidents offering positions to political allies to achieve political aims.
That may get around the letter of the law, but certainly not the spirit, and it clears up another point that had puzzled me. Obama yesterday claimed that the repor would exonerate him; if so, why hold it until Friday afternoon? That would limit the media coverage of the exoneration. The answer appears to be that the report may exonerate Obama and his staff from violations of the law — but that it clearly shows Obama attempting to manipulate an election in Pennsylvania for his own political purposes. That may be legal, but it’s certainly not indicative of the “most transparent/ethical administration ever,” as Obama promised to provide.
Update II: What kind of unpaid position would be attractive enough to get Sestak out of the Senate primary? That’s a darned good question, and I’ll bet the Obama White House is scrambling to make up find an answer. If Sestak challenges this spin, though, I’d be very surprised. I think he’s looking for an exit from this scandal at least as hard as Obama and his staff.
Uncompensated Advisory Board Options. We found that, as the Congressman has publicly and accurately stated, options for Executive Branch service were raised with him. Efforts were made in June and July of 2009 to determine whether Congressman Sestak would be interested in service on a Presidential or other Senior Executive Branch Advisory Board, which would avoid a divisive Senate primary, allow him to retain his seat in the House, and provide him with an opportunity for additional service to the public in a high-level advisory capacity for which he was highly qualified. The advisory positions discussed with Congressman Sestak, while important to the work of the Administration, would have been uncompensated.
White House staff did not discuss these options with Congressman Sestak. The White House Chief of Staff enlisted the support of former President Clinton who agreed to raise with Congressman Sestak options of service on a Presidential or other Senior Executive Branch Advisory Board.
Er, isn’t that at the least an admission of attempting to tamper with the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania? If this didn’t violate the law, why did Rahm Emanuel ask Bill Clinton to make the pitch rather than do it himself?
I’m guessing this adds gasoline rather than water to the fire.
Last summer, I received a phone call from President Clinton. During the course of the conversation, he expressed concern over my prospects if I were to enter the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and the value of having me stay in the House of Representatives because of my military background. He said that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had spoken with him about my being on a Presidential Board while remaining in the House of Representatives. I said no. I told President Clinton that my only consideration in getting into the Senate race or not was whether it was the right thing to do for Pennsylvania working families and not any offer. The former President said he knew I’d say that, and the conversation moved on to other subjects.
There are many important challenges facing Pennsylvania and the rest of the country. I intend to remain focused on those issues and continue my fight on behalf of working families.
Excuse me, but a position on a Presidential Board is not a “job” in any sense of the word. Sestak has repeatedly insisted that the White House offered him a job to get him to withdraw from the race. Now we’re at the who’s-lying stage, and it may well be everyone.