When Trent Lott starts lecturing the Bush White House about loyalty, you know that things are starting to get interesting. Lott, who is providing advice to Tom DeLay as the House majority leader struggles through waves and waves of ethics allegations, said Sunday that the White House "needs to remember that people who fight hard for you as a candidate and for your issues as president deserve your support, aggressive support."
It's not like the White House has thrown DeLay over the side just yet. Although one senior White House official tells Time that DeLay is handling his troubles "like an idiot," the White House is more or less standing behind the Hammer publicly. Bush calls the Hammer a friend, even if White House press secretary Scott McClellan went out of his way last week to remind reporters that there are "different levels of friendship."
One "level of friendship," for example, would be the one that lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the gambling interests he represented showed to DeLay and his staff. As Time reports, nothing was too good for DeLay and his top aides on a London junket Abramoff arranged -- and the gambling interests paid for -- in 2000. Three sources who worked for Abramoff at the time of the trip told Time that aides for DeLay ran one of Abramoff's assistants ragged with ever-changing requests for their first-class travels. Time says that DeLay's aides "wanted to make sure DeLay's little delegation had the finest of everything on its weeklong trip to Britain -- from lodgings at the Four Seasons Hotel in London to dinners at the poshest restaurants with the most interesting people, right down to the best tickets for The Lion King , at the time, one of the hottest shows playing on the West End and one for which good seats usually meant a six-month wait." The aides told Abamoff's assistant what they wanted, the sources told Time, and Abramoff delivered.
While there's nothing wrong with a former pest-control impresario having a high time while traveling, Time explains that the demands by DeLay's staff raise two problems for the majority leader. First, they further undercut the notion that DeLay and his staff really thought the trip was a fact-finding mission being funded by the National Center for Public Policy Research; if a non-profit were funding your trip abroad, would you feel comfortable ordering up the first-class digs and the Lion King tickets? Moreover, if the idea for and details of the trip came from DeLay's office rather than from the National Center for Public Policy Research, Time says that DeLay and his staff may have violated House ethics rules that allow members to accept gifts, under limited circumstances, but not to solicit them.
Of course, a violation of House ethics rules is important only if there's a functioning House ethics committee to investigate it. DeLay has made sure there isn't: He succeeded in replacing Republican committee members critical of him with supporters, and he got the rules changed so that no investigation can begin unless Republicans want one. Appearing on "Meet the Press" Sunday, Rep. Barney Frank put a fine point on the way in which DeLay has handled his ethical troubles. "I, 15 years ago, had a problem because I behaved inappropriately. The ethics committee stepped in," Frank said. "Newt Gingrich had a problem. He was reprimanded; the ethics committee stepped in. The difference between us and Mr. DeLay is, I think, we changed our behavior. Mr. DeLay changed the ethics committee."