For three months, the White House has refused to say whether it offered a job to Representative Joe Sestak to get him to drop his challenge to Senator Arlen Specter in a Pennsylvania Democratic primary, as Mr. Sestak has asserted.
But the White House wants everyone who suspects that something untoward, or even illegal, might have happened to rest easy: though it still will not reveal what happened, the White House ensures that it has examined its own actions and decided it did nothing wrong. Whatever it was that it did.
“Lawyers in the White House and others have looked into conversations that were had with Congressman Sestak,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “And nothing inappropriate happened.”
“Improper or not, did you offer him a job in the administration?” asked the host, Bob Schieffer.
“I’m not going to get further into what the conversations were,” Mr. Gibbs replied. “People that have looked into them assure me that they weren’t inappropriate in any way.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the “trust us” response from the White House has not exactly put the matter to rest. With Mr. Sestak’s victory over Mr. Specter in last week’s primary, the questions have returned with intensity, only to remain unanswered.
Mr. Gibbs deflected questions 13 times at a White House briefing last week just two days after the primary. Mr. Sestak, a retired admiral, has reaffirmed his assertion without providing any details, like who exactly offered what job.
Republicans have pressed Mr. Sestak to explain. “Congressman Sestak should tell the public everything he knows about the job he was offered, and who offered it,” former Representative Pat Toomey, his Republican opponent, said Monday.
Amber Marchand, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, “Joe Sestak owes Pennsylvanians a full explanation for this potentially illegal activity.”
Whether the conversations might have been illegal is unclear. There are certainly statutes that bar government employees from using their authority to influence a Senate nomination or to promise employment as a reward for political activity. Yet presidents have given appointments to many people to reward allies or take would-be obstacles out of the way for other allies, explicitly or not.
Even if the conversations were perfectly legal, as the White House claims, the situation challenges President Obama’s efforts to present himself as a reformer who will fix a town of dirty politics. And the refusal to even discuss what was discussed does not advance the White House’s well-worn claim to being “the most transparent” in history.
When Mr. Gibbs was pressed on the matter Thursday, he resolutely referred back to his original statement exonerating the White House and refused to elaborate.
“But you never really explained what the conversation was,” said Jake Tapper of ABC News.
“And I don’t have anything to add today,” Mr. Gibbs said.
“But,” Mr. Tapper continued, “if the White House offers a congressman a position in the administration in order to convince that congressman not to run for office ...”
“I don’t have anything to add to that,” Mr. Gibbs said.
Mr. Tapper persisted: “But do you really think the American people don’t have a right to know about what exactly the conversation was?”
“I don’t have anything to add to what I said in March,” Mr. Gibbs said.
Neither the White House nor Mr. Sestak’s campaign had anything new to say about the matter on Monday either. Other Democrats have come to their defense by arguing that even if Mr. Sestak’s assertion about a job were true, it would hardly be shocking in a city of political tradeoffs.
“I don’t see the scandal,” Steve Elmendorf, who was chief of staff to former Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri when he was the House Democratic leader, said in an e-mail message. “Sestak is totally qualified for the job, and Dem and Rep presidents routinely offer members of Congress jobs for all sorts of reasons.”
Indeed, Douglas B. Sosnik, who was the White House political director under President Bill Clinton, said using jobs to reward political friends was simply “business as usual.” But, he added, that was the problem: Mr. Obama promised not to perpetuate business as usual. “It cuts against the Obama brand,” Mr. Sosnik said. “The public tolerance for these deals is less than in the past.”
Ron Kaufman, who had the same job under the first President George Bush, said it would not be surprising for a White House to use political appointments to accomplish a political goal. “Tell me a White House that didn’t do this, back to George Washington,” Mr. Kaufman said. “But here’s the difference — the times have changed and the ethics have changed and the scrutiny has changed. This is the kind of thing people across America are mad about.”
Moreover, he said, Mr. Obama’s own rhetoric raised the bar: “When you get out there and say, ‘We’re going to do things totally different, we’re above all this and we’re going to be totally transparent,’ they cause their own problem because they’re not being transparent.”
not endorsing this article by posting it (and is it just me or is this way sarcastic for the New York Times?), I just thought there should be a post re: this story.
BTW, Anthony Weiner said on Morning Joe this am that the White House & Sestak should open up about the deal.