Pew study exposes internal “no notes” Clinton legal policy: Obama’s Sestak defense?
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• Is this “no notes” policy why it took Obama White House Counsel Bauer from late February to the Friday before Memorial Day to construct a careful two-page report on the Jobsgate issue?
Jobsgate, first reported here on February 22 as a potential federal crime, three days after Sestak’s initial revelation to Philadelphia Comcast anchor Larry Kane that he was offered a job by the White House, has launched increasingly louder calls for an independent investigation.
The realization that the Obama White House Counsel’s office may be deliberately repeating the strategy of the Clinton White House — no paper trail, nothing for investigators to discover — will certainly increase the pressure for the independent investigation being demanded not only by Issa but by Republican Senators. So too could it launch demands for a congressional change in the law — forcing a White House policy that requires its Counsel’s Office to do exactly what Clinton’s White House Counsel deliberately refused to do. What Abner Mikva — a Clinton Counsel and former federal judge — accurately noted are “the habits” of “a good litigator”: take notes and keep a written record.
According to the Pew study, the Office of the White House Counsel was created by Franklin D. Roosevelt to do, in FDR’s words, “legal stuff” for the president. The first occupant was Judge Sam Rosenman, an FDR loyalist from Roosevelt’s days as Governor of New York.
Once upon a time the office was fairly innocuous, its inhabitants almost always anonymous beyond official Washington. This being government, however, the job grew — and grew, its influence mushrooming.
The study does not note that the office burst into public consciousness in a serious way in the Nixon years. Richard Nixon’s White House Counsel was, famously, a young California lawyer named John Dean. And the scandal was called Watergate.
Things did not go well for White House Counsel Dean. In fact, John Dean wound up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and was sentenced to federal prison. He lost his license to practice law, having his sentence of one-to-four years reduced to time served — four months — after his cooperation with federal prosecutors. Eventually, like most of his convicted colleagues, he wrote a book — Blind Ambition. It is a story of, in his publisher’s words, “power and brutality and corruption.”
Why is Dean’s story suddenly important now in the Obama era?
Because John Dean kept notes. Meticulous notes.
Dean provided a detailed play-by-play description of just how the office of the White House Counsel can be abused — to protect a lie, to plot, to be used to obstruct justice. Or to offer a job. It was John Dean, says Dean, who helped get Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy his job as the general counsel of the Nixon re-election campaign.
In fact, it was Dean’s quite precise revelations of what went on in the Counsel’s office during his tenure — he later wrote that there were “an enormous number of documents” that included “notes I had kept”—that may have encouraged the Clinton White House, like Nixon’s the subject of impeachment proceedings, to simply stop keeping the kinds of records that John Dean kept so religiously in the style of a very thorough lawyer. The kind of records that finally brought down the Nixon presidency. And were not in evidence when Clinton was impeached but not removed from office, with supporters insisting the case against him had not been made.
Basing it on the “enormous number of documents” as well as “notes I had kept,” John Dean painted a graphic portrait of what the Office of the White House Counsel can look like when its occupants abuse its power — and records are well and accurately kept. It only vaguely resembles the academic approach taken by the Pew study. The Counsel, if he has the confidence of his number one client the President, has wide latitude within the White House and sometimes outside it.
• Internal investigations : The Counsel can keep control of internal and sometimes external investigations into the White House. He can define the framework for the investigation — what to investigate and what not to investigate. He can devote time and resources to investigating with a goal of revealing the truth — or investigating in order to contain or ignore everything from scandal to simple embarrassment. The Counsel can shape this in part by simply refusing to document and note the substance of the parade of daily activities, meetings and phone calls that involve the Counsel’s office. The fact that it took so long — some ten weeks — for the Obama White House to report on what happened in the Sestak Jobsgate Affair could lend credibility to the idea it has, under Emanuel’s leadership, returned the White House to the Clinton-era “no notes” policy. Which, in the Sestak Jobsgate affair, would protect no less than Rahm Emanuel himself.
• Information and the press: The Counsel can serve as a determinant of the information on White House investigations that will be supplied to the White House press corps by the White House Press Secretary. Dean did this by dealing directly with Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler. “How should I handle it?” Ziegler once inquired of a non-existent “Dean Report” on Watergate. To which Dean says he responded curtly by saying: “That’s what you get paid that high salary for.” When Robert Gibbs repeatedly and with increasing evident awkwardness told the press “I don’t have anything to add to that” about what was going on inside the Obama White House on the Sestak scandal, he may well have been acting under the instructions of Mr. Bauer. Who in turn is operating under a “no notes” policy laid down by Clinton-veteran Emanuel.
• Scandal containment, witness coaching: “Each day brought threats, dramas and more legal strategies,” wrote Dean about his efforts to contain the Watergate scandal. There were “clandestine conversations,” “nervous sessions” in which sensitive documents — FBI reports — were handed over to Dean. There was “fighting to stall” and “coaching sessions for witnesses.” This latter Dean revelation will strike a chord in reference to former President Clinton’s visit to the Obama White House the day before the release of Bauer’s report — for a private lunch with the President. Did he see Emanuel? Did he discuss the Sestak scandal? As seen in this video clip taken the next day, Clinton refused to even breathe a word on the subject as it was dominating the news. What role did the White House Counsel’s office play in that sudden and uncharacteristic bit of silence from Clinton? And what exactly was said in the phone call from the White House to Sestak’s brother and campaign aide Richard Sestak, also made in the days before the Bauer report was released. Was this part of a stalling and witness coaching campaign — all of which is deliberately un-documented by a “no notes” policy?
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