Standing outside the White House grounds during a cold drizzle Friday, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and four former Clinton administration staffers demanded an apology from President Bush for the White House vandalism stories leaked by members of his administration and contradicted by a recent General Accounting Office investigation.
The "vandal scandal" stories, consumed by the media like ecstasy at a rave, were spread by anonymous White House sources, and given on-the-record credibility by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, whom Weiner called "shameless." The stories were deemed false in a letter from the GAO after an investigation that was requested by Weiner's House Judiciary Committee colleague Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga. The letter was released with comparatively little press attention two weeks ago.
"A GAO study has confirmed there was no destruction of keyboards, no graffiti, there was no vandalism," Weiner said. Flanking Weiner were Rob Housman, an attorney and former assistant director of the White House drug policy office; Jeff Gulko, who also worked in the drug policy office; Bridger McGaw, former assistant press secretary to Vice President Al Gore; and Matthew Donoghue, former director of communications for the American Heritage Rivers Initiative. White House spokesman Scott McClellan pointed out, however, that "there is no actual GAO 'report,' which the congressman refers to in his letter. There's just a letter from GAO."
McClellan seemed to imply what others at the Bush White House have been telling reporters on background since the letter from Bernard Ungar, the GAO director of physical infrastructure, was reported two weeks ago: that the vandalism did, indeed, take place, but the White House didn't cooperate with the GAO investigation. One anonymous aide told the Associated Press: "We never kept a list of all the incidents, and therefore did not have anything to turn over. That doesn't mean the incidents didn't happen. We just were pleased to let the matter fade so that people could return to the focus on policy."
McClellan seemed to be coming from the same vantage point as the unnamed source in the AP story. "'There is no record of damage that may have been deliberately caused by employees of the Clinton administration,'" stressed McClellan, reading from the GAO letter. "'White House repair records do not contain information on the causes of damages being repaired.'"
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, former Clinton White House press secretary Jake Siewert blamed the fracas almost entirely on the media, but that's not how Weiner and many of Siewert's former colleagues see it. "I believe that the responsibility for this largely lies with the White House," said Weiner. "They fed this story, they nurtured this story, they spread this story." This was, in Weiner's estimation, part of a "strategy by the nascent Bush administration to toss up as much dust and smoke about the Clinton administration to give themselves a soft landing. It makes good copy to say 'Well, there's a new sheriff in town, and we don't vandalize offices.' Well, neither did the preceding administration."
At the Friday press conference, Weiner specifically singled out McClellan's boss, Fleischer, as particularly culpable for the story getting play in the press. He quoted Fleischer from the White House briefing on the day the story became big news, saying, "You know, I really stopped paying attention to all the places" where vandalism supposedly took place, as well as another comment he made referring to a White House staffer "cataloguing" the alleged damage done. Weiner called Fleischer "shameless in his deeds here."
Hard-working Clinton staffers were being used as "cannon fodder," Weiner said. Donoghue referred to the incident as "a uniquely Capitol punishment, and that is the besmirching of our reputations. Standing here, all I can think of is what Ray Donovan said years ago, which is 'Where do I go to get my reputation back?' And that's why we're here today."
Donovan, President Reagan's labor secretary, was singled out by name as the first Cabinet secretary ever investigated by an independent counsel. He was acquitted of bribery charges on May 25, 1987. Conversely, no Clinton staffers were investigated or even named, and unless you were paying really close attention to the American Heritage Rivers Initiative, you probably have never heard of Donoghue.
When pressed by a reporter about how much of his "reputation" had actually been "besmirched," Donoghue said that the vandalism scandal affected his life through "sly digs at parties" and "relatives asking questions: 'Were you involved in that? Did you do this?'" Additionally, said Donoghue, "for those of us seeking work, it's left a cloud over our heads." Donoghue, McGaw and Gulko are all seeking employment.
Housman, employed as an attorney in Washington, argued that the larger issue was correcting "the lingering misperception about the last administration." McGaw said that he was one of the many "kids who believed in the country, who came to work for our country every day with a reverence and awe. And now there's a bunch of new kids who are working there, and they think we didn't believe in our country as much as they do and it's not true."
The ostensible purpose of Weiner's press conference, held on the 17th Street side of the Old Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House, was the delivery of two letters -- which proved harder than one would imagine.
One of the letters, from Weiner, charges the Bush administration with having "deliberately misled the American people and smeared the names of public servants who were guilty of nothing ... If your desire is truly to improve the tone of debate in Washington, I hope that you will offer a sincere apology to the staff of the Clinton administration."
The other letter, signed by 34 former mid-level Clinton administration staffers, asks Bush for not only an apology but "assistance in compelling those individuals" who leaked the vandalism stories "to come forward, accept responsibility and apologize to us, the media, and most importantly to the American public." Housman, a former college classmate of Weiner's chief of staff, Kevin Ryan, wrote the letter and organized the signing by his fellow Clintonistas. Weiner was selected for the public show of the delivery of the letters because of Housman's connection to Ryan, and because Weiner has been an outspoken skeptic of the vandalism story from the beginning, Housman said.
If getting an apology out of Bush is half as hard as arranging the drop-off of the letter, Weiner and the Clintonistas have their work cut out for them. Ryan spent Thursday and Friday morning trying to coordinate the drop-off of the letter with Bob Marsh, special assistant to the president in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. At first, Ryan said, Marsh told him that the letter could be dropped off at the White House without any problem, but after Ryan made clear that there would likely be reporters present, that offer was rescinded. Marsh told Ryan to courier the letter over. When Ryan told him that Weiner would be hand-delivering the package, Marsh then told him that, despite a White House tradition of allowing members of Congress to hand-deliver correspondence directly to the White House grounds, his letters would not be officially received. The congressman would have to leave the letters with one of the security guards, Marsh told Ryan.
But Friday morning, a White House security guard told Ryan that he couldn't accept any packages at all. Ryan called Marsh and griped; Weiner announced to the press that the letter would be sent by the U.S. Postal Service. It wasn't until the end of the press conference when Courtney Elwood, associate counsel to the president, appeared and pleasantly accepted the letters. Marsh did not return a call for comment.
Referring to the fact that Bush was away from the White House Friday to attend the Massachusetts funeral of Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., alongside former President Clinton, Weiner referred to "a troubling disconnect between this image of bipartisanship and the sad saga of dozens, if not hundreds, of former White House staffers who were accused of widespread vandalism during the transition period by the Bush White House."
In a press briefing in the driveway outside St. Brigid Church in South Boston, after Moakley's funeral, Fleischer had a somewhat different take, saying there would be no apology to the former Clinton staffers. "We differ on the facts," he said. Asked what exactly what facts he was referring to, Fleischer said, "We're trying to be very gracious to the previous administration."