A tip for the cowardly press corps

Scott "Stonewall" McClellan arrogantly insists on "specific" questions about Abramoff's ties to the White House. OK, here's one: Did Bush meet with the lobbyist on May 9, 2001?

Published January 20, 2006 6:42PM (EST)

One of the president's top fundraisers pleads guilty to felony fraud in a major Washington bribery scandal -- a scandal in which he plays the central role as a super-lobbyist handing out checks and favors to members of Congress. The crooked fundraiser is a close friend and associate of the president's top political advisor and deputy chief of staff, whom he has known for more than two decades. His former assistant now works in the White House as personal assistant to the deputy chief of staff. The fundraiser was awarded a place on the president's Department of the Interior transition team, and constantly exploited his White House connections to impress his clients.

The fundraiser described above is of course Jack Abramoff, whose connections to the Bush White House, the president and Karl Rove may yet prove to be a crucial aspect of the lobbying scandal. To date, however, members of the Washington press corps -- from the New York Times bureau to the host of "Hardball"! -- have displayed scant interest in discovering how extensive those connections actually were.

And so far, press secretary Scott McClellan has easily turned aside the occasional desultory questions about Abramoff's access to the president and the White House without providing any real answers.

By now it is clear that he doesn't intend to provide full and candid answers, despite his promises to "look into" the questions. He has revealed only that Abramoff attended two White House Chanukah parties sometime in the distant past and met with "staff" on several occasions. Beyond that he has refused to provide details, photographs or any other information.

On Tuesday, when reporters inquired again about "staff-level meetings" with Abramoff, the press secretary bristled. With his harsh retort to NBC correspondent David Gregory, which can be viewed at Crooks and Liars, McClellan tried to shut down further questioning on the subject.

The first question on the topic, asked by another reporter, was whether McClellan had "an update for us on any records of phone calls or e-mails between staff members and Mr. Abramoff, or photos of the president with him?"

"No," replied the press secretary. "As I indicated yesterday, we're not going to engage in some sort of fishing expedition. I know there are some that want to play partisan politics, and do so."

In the brief exchange that followed, McClellan told members of the White House press that they would be getting no further information about Abramoff from him, unless they could give him a compelling reason for their questions.

Declining to say whether the White House figures who met with Abramoff were "senior staff," or what they discussed with the lobbyist in those meetings, McClellan concluded with a slight smirk: "And if you have anything specific, I'll be glad to take a look into it."

"He's pled guilty to some serious charges," ventured the questioner. "And so are you insinuating something?" barked McClellan. "We're just trying to find out the facts." "Well, if you've got something to bring to my attention, do so, and then I'll be glad to look into it." At that point, the exasperated Gregory broke in. "Scott, that's not a fair burden to place on us. This is a guy who is a tainted lobbyist, and he has connections -- we want to know -- with whom in the White House. You shouldn't demand that we give you something specific to go check it out. I mean, this guy is radioactive in Washington. And he knows guys like Karl Rove. So did he meet with him or not ... Don't put it on us to bring something specific. It's a specific question about a specific individual. Can you tell us if he met with Karl Rove?" Again McClellan claimed, "We don't discuss staff-level meetings." "Of course you do," Gregory interrupted, "whenever you want to discuss staff-level meetings. And if Karl Rove, who has ties to Ralph Reed, which he does, we want to know if he has ties to Jack Abramoff, and if they met."

Finally, McClellan accused Gregory of "insinuating" that Abramoff had pursued "pending business," meaning issues of concern to his clients, with members of the White House staff. "There's been no suggestion of anything like that out of this White House," said McClellan.. "I'm just asking," Gregory replied, "I'm not suggesting." "No, you're insinuating," scolded McClellan. "Go ahead. This is a gentleman who is being held to account for the wrongdoing he was involved in. He is someone who, through himself and his clients, contributed to both Democrats and Republicans. And it was outrageous what he was involved in doing and he needs to be held to account, and he is being held to account by the Department of Justice." Nobody else spoke up, as they surely would if they cared about the question, and on the issue of Abramoff's dealings with the White House, McClellan has escaped accountability.

Now under different circumstances -- for example, if the president were named Bill Clinton -- this sort of scandal stonewalling would only fan the firestorm of demands for information and charges of coverup. There is no doubt that McClellan could find out exactly when Abramoff had visited the White House over the past five years and whom he saw. The process of compiling that information should take less than a single day.

Doesn't everyone still remember the logs kept by the Secret Service, which identify every White House visitor on every date? The press rightly demanded access to those records during the Monica Lewinsky investigation. Why not now?

Actually, it would be surprising if McClellan and Rove had not requisitioned all those records already for their own purposes. The Bush operation is competent in nothing if not politics and communications -- indeed it seems competent at very few other functions of governing -- and no competent political operation would have failed to examine its own vulnerability on this issue long ago.

McClellan, however, is still claiming not to know whether the disgraced lobbyist ever met with Bush. Two weeks ago, he claimed that the president "does not know [Abramoff], nor does the president recall ever meeting him."

The president may not recall meeting with Abramoff, but others say they remember a meeting with him in the White House that the lobbyist arranged and attended. It was a very specific meeting, as McClellan might say, on a specific date.

On May 9, 2001, as Lou Dubose reported last June in the Texas Observer, Abramoff ushered the chiefs of the Coushatta and Choctaw tribal councils into a 15-minute Oval Office meeting with Bush. They also had lunch in the White House. For this swift brush with the president, the tribal chiefs paid dearly, including $25,000 to Abramoff himself, an additional $25,000 to Americans for Tax Reform (the outfit led by Republican eminence Grover Norquist, a longtime associate of Abramoff's and Rove's) and millions more in contributions to political causes and "charities" overseen by Abramoff.

According to Dubose, the Coushatta chief, a man named Lovelin Poncho, had initially denied visiting the White House with Abramoff. But under pressure from tribal opponents, he admitted the meeting last summer. Dubose has interviewed others present at the meeting who confirmed that Abramoff was there. In his Texas Observer article, Dubose reproduces several documents confirming the meeting and Norquist's role.

Some brave soul in the White House press corps should ask Scott McClellan a "specific" question about that meeting on May 9, 2001, and suggest that he check the Secret Service's White House logs for the names of Abramoff and the tribal council chiefs. Someone should start asking the members of the Coushatta and Choctaw tribal councils about that date as well. The president meets with many people and cannot be expected to remember everyone -- even if they raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for him, perhaps. But the tribal chiefs are likely to remember the day they met George W. Bush in the White House, who brought them there -- and how much they had to pay for the privilege.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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