One week ago, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs spoke to reporters on Air Force One as President Obama flew to Chicago after visiting the Gulf Coast to survey the oil spill response. The very first question Gibbs faced was what the president thought of attempts by top aides to lure Democrat Joe Sestak out of the Senate primary in Pennsylvania.
The administration had acknowledged earlier in the day, for the first time, that top aides to Obama did in fact offer Sestak a position – they claimed it was an unpaid advisory board spot – in a memo released minutes after the president landed in New Orleans.
“I’ve just been dealing with oil today,” Gibbs dodged. He then promised: “I will go talk to him about this after this.”
Thursday, however, Gibbs said that he had, in fact, not done so. Questioned once again by reporters about the Sestak affair, Gibbs said that he, one of Obama’s closest advisers, has yet to talk to the president about the matter.
“I have not talked to him about Sestak,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs also said he had not discussed with Obama the news that top White House officials also dangled high-paying government jobs in front of Colorado Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff, in a second unsuccessful attempt to clear a challenge to an incumbent Democratic senator.
“I haven’t talked to [Obama] about it today,” said Gibbs, who had put out a formal statement to the press at 6:25 a.m. confirming that White House officials did make overtures to Romanoff.
Gibbs did say that Obama “wasn’t aware” of the actions of his top aides. Obama has been briefed recently on the matter, since he said last Thursday at a press conference that he could “assure the public that nothing improper took place.”
Though Gibbs is a close confidante of Obama’s, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who was the first to man the briefing room podium for President George W. Bush, said it is not surprising that Gibbs may have avoided speaking to the president about the Sestak and Romanoff matters.
“That’s exactly what White Houses and press secretaries do when you either don’t want to know the answer or you want to shield the president for as long as possible from getting mired in the muck. The problem is that it is a temporary solution and it won’t hold up over time,” Fleischer said in an interview.
“It’s inevitable over time that someone will ask a question directly of the president in an interview,” he said. “What the White House is hoping for is that it will come up at a time when there is a lot less focus and heat so they can fade the issue.”
Another Bush administration official said that White House lawyers might have “suggested” that Gibbs not speak with Obama about the issues, “or requested that he not.”
Behind the scenes, Democratic strategists were pushing back hard Thursday against the idea that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina had violated any laws by their attempts to influence Sestak and Romanoff.
“They didn’t break any law,” one veteran Democrat with close connections to the White House said, arguing specifically that a portion of U.S. federal law, 18 USC 600, “does not ban common political horse trading.”
“If it does … every president since George Washington was a criminal,” the Democrat said. “I can’t find a single prosecution under Section 600 … It is just crazy to pretend that this is any kind of a crime.”
Numerous Democrats who spoke with The Daily Caller both in and out of government – all of them outside the White House – seemed to be singing from the same sheet of music, suggesting a concerted effort by the administration to stonewall in public while trying to undercut the story in private conversations with individual journalists.
Whether that was the case or not, the reception for Gibbs by the White House press corps during the televised, nearly hour-long daily briefing was remarkably tame. The first questions from the Associated Press zeroed in on Romanoff and Sestak, but then all five of the other journalists in the briefing room’s front row gave Gibbs a pass on the matter, asking instead about the oil spill.
That set the tone, and though there were a handful of questions after that on Sestak, most of the briefing revolved around the oil spill. The tone stayed mild, Gibbs never came under pressure from successive questions and follow ups to divulge more than he and other officials have done so far, and he ended the session with an ode to Major League Baseball umpire Jim Joyce for his response to a blown call Wednesday night that cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.
Gibbs ignored repeated requests from The Daily Caller near the end of the briefing to ask a question about the matter.
Several questions remain outstanding: If the White House offered Romanoff three possible jobs, one of them paying $165,300 a year, how is it plausible that they offered Sestak an unpaid advisory board post and thought that was potentially sufficient to draw him out of the Pennsylvania race, as they have stated? Did they in fact offer him the Secretary of the Navy position, or a similar high-ranking post?
The White House has not said what specific advisory board that was mentioned, if any, by former President Bill Clinton, who acted as a go between for Emanuel with Sestak. What was it? And if he was to keep his House seat, how could he have served on either the president’s intelligence advisory board – the panel Sestak has indicated he was offered a spot on – given the PIAB’s exclusivity to non-governmental employees.
White House Counsel Bob Bauer’s memo last week indicated that numerous conversations were held with Sestak last summer to try to find him a job he could take instead of running against Sen. Arlen Specter. But Sestak said there was only one conversation with Clinton. Which is it?
Will this practice of trying to move primary challengers out of races through job offers remain the White House modus operandi, and does the president think it violates his promise to change the way Washington works?
Gibbs on Thursday rattled off a list of ethics and lobbying rules that the Obama administration has put in place but sidestepped questions about whether top aides would continue to use government service or paid employment as bait to influence political races.
“That’s the problem that Barack Obama created for himself when he ran such a noble campaign,” said Fleischer. “To the degree his staff does things that are less than noble but work, at the end of the day it doesn’t do Barack Obama much good and damages his brand.”