“There is a cancer on the presidency. It has been growing daily for the past three months. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now because it compounds itself. And there is no assurance that it won’t bust.”
Former White House Counsel John Dean spoke those words to President Richard Nixon almost 40 years ago as the Nixon White House was desperately trying to cover its role in the Watergate scandal—ultimately unsuccessfully. The cancer did bust, the administration was laid low, and succeeding generations of Americans learned that the cover up is often worse than the crime.
Now, the Obama administration finds itself in the middle of its first genuine Washington scandal. And the White House’s ham-fisted effort to sweep the budding scandal under the rug—failing to heed the lesson of Watergate—is largely to blame.
White House Counsel Robert Bauer’s memo detailing the White House’s version of events in the case of Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee Joe Sestak raises far more questions than it answers. Released last Friday, at the beginning of both a three-day holiday weekend and a weeklong Congressional recess, the memo was intended to be the Obama administration’s last word on the matter. But the memo’s self-serving explanation and lack of detail have turned a minor annoyance for the administration into a full fledged Washington scandal, virtually guaranteeing that there will be much more written and said about Sestak, the administration’s interference in the Pennsylvania Senate primary, and what looks to be a politically motivated cover up.
In February, Rep. Joe Sestak was asked a seemingly innocuous question by local Philadelphia television host Larry Kane: “Were you ever offered a job to get out of this race?” Sestak’s answer, and the unflinching manner in which he delivered it, are now infamous. “Yes,” he said, swift and surely. Kane pressed. “So you were offered a job by someone in the White House?” “Yes,” the answer came again. What Sestak was describing is a felony—18 USC 600 makes it a crime for anyone to offer a federal job, position, or appointment in exchange for a political act.
Bauer’s memo admits that a conversation took place between Sestak and former president Bill Clinton at the behest of the administration; and admits that Clinton and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had discussed the possibility of finding a place for Sestak on a presidential advisory board in return for his agreement not to challenge Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary. But the memo excuses the offer as legal because the advisory role the administration envisioned for the congressman would have been uncompensated. The law makes no such distinction, and the memo’s reliance on this erroneous interpretation only heightens the contradictions between what Sestak has been saying for months, and what the Obama administration has refused to discuss until now.
Since the original interview, Sestak has been asked on numerous occasions about his claim that the White House essentially tried to buy him out of the primary. He has never challenged the characterization that he was offered a job to bow out. Beyond that, Sestak has refused to reveal any details about what he was offered or with whom he spoke. Sestak never endeavored to correct the record and explain that he was offered a relatively low-ranking spot on a voluntary advisory board. He was apparently comfortable with the perception that the administration was so afraid of either losing him as a congressman, or losing Specter as the nominee, that it would offer Sestak a high-level administration position. On Friday, Sestak dutifully recounted the conversation described in the White House memo, saying that he spoke with President Clinton just once last July about keeping out of the primary, and only for 30-60 seconds.
The Watergate scandal was famously framed by a question from Republican Senator Howard Baker: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” The White House memo in Offer-gate makes that question more relevant today, not less. Did President Obama know of Emanuel’s outreach to Clinton? Did he approve it? Did Obama authorize a role for Sestak in the administration if he agreed to stay out of the primary? So far the White House isn’t saying. And what of a report from earlier this year that Colorado Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff was similarly offered an administration post in return for declining to challenge incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet in the primary? The White House has yet to address the Romanoff allegations.
Despite the White House effort to close the book on the Sestak affair, the Obama administration has given the next Woodward and Bernstein plenty of answers to chase. Perhaps somewhere in the administration, there is a Deep Throat with a story to tell. Like Watergate, Offer-gate will likely compound itself now growing bigger with each passing day that the administration refuses to provide answers to the questions its explanation has raised. And for the administration, there can be no assurance that it will not bust.
Mark Impomeni is a conservative opinion writer, blogger, and contributing editor at RedState.com.