The Obama Watch

Specter Opens Door on White House Felonies

Gibbs Zieglerizes, Issa probes: Obama staff, Sestak, Romanoff in misprision of felony?

By 3.16.10

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"There's a crime called misprision of a felony. Misprision of a felony is when you don't report a crime. So you're getting into pretty deep areas here in these considerations." -- U.S. Senator Arlen Specter on March 12, 2010

"Right now, they're doing the 'I won't confirm or deny,' and for us, it leaves two possibilities. One is the promise of transparency in this administration is just shot. The second one is even worse, which is either Sestak is lying or the administration has done something wrong and is covering it up…" -- U.S. Congressman Darrell Issa on Friday on March 12, 2010

"The 'stonewall strategy' functioned from the very first episodes of the cover-up. It was instinctive, from the very top of the Administration to the bottom. It was also ad hoc, developed in small reactions to the flurry of each day's events…we found ourselves trying to hold a line where we could." -- Nixon White House Counsel John Dean in his Watergate book Blind Ambition

Here we go again.

Even as the drama of health care carries the headlines, beneath the surface, visible now, the iceberg of scandal ripples.

First, the timeline on the blossoming scandal upon which we will now officially fix the dreaded "gate" descriptive. Jobsgate.

September 27, 2009 -- The Denver Post reports that Obama White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina allegedly offered a job in the Obama administration to ex-Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff if Romanoff dropped his planned primary challenge to incumbent U.S. Senator Michael Bennet. Romanoff refuses comment and runs anyway.

February 18, 2010 -- Philadelphia TV anchor Larry Kane reports that on his just taped Comcast show, he had asked Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak, who is challenging incumbent Senator Arlen Specter whether it was true that the Obama administration had offered Sestak a job if he would withdraw from his primary challenge to Specter. Sestak answers "yes," specifically saying the offer came from someone in the White House and that he, Sestak, turned down the offer. Sestak refuses to name who it was that made the offer. Two hours later, Kane calls the White House, plays them the tape, and asks for comment. The White House never calls him back.

February 22, 2010 -- In a column here in this space, both the Sestak and Romanoff stories are reported with new information: to offer jobs for favors is in fact a federal crime, and Sestak is in effect accusing the Obama White House of doing just that, just as the Denver Post, months earlier, effectively reported the same activity with Romanoff.

February 22, 2010 --  ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper asks Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs for a reaction to the charge by Congressman Sestak. Replies Gibbs: "I was traveling for a couple of days, as you know. I haven't looked into this." He promises to get answers.

March 1, 2010 -- Seven days later, with no answers produced, Gibbs is asked again, this time by Fox News White House correspondent Major Garrett, Gibbs responds: "I have not made any progress on that. I was remiss on this and I apologize."

March 9, 2010 -- Fifteen days later, Major Garrett asks again. Below, from the transcript provided by the White House:

Q  A couple of quick political ones. On the Sestak issue, Arlen Specter said on another -- this afternoon that Sestak and his opinion on this allegation that he was offered a job not to run against Specter, needs to prove it, needs to back it up, and claims that Sestak's accusation is hurting the White House, damaging its reputation.  You told us a couple of times you'd check back on this.  Can you give us an update, number one?  And number two --

MR. GIBBS: I don't have the update with me, but let me check and see if I do have anything --

 Q  Do you have any evaluation of Senator Specter's comments on this?

 MR. GIBBS: No, I don't.

March 11, 2010 -- Seventeen days later Major Garrett yet again, as Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) makes news that he has written a letter to White House Counsel Robert Bauer, demanding an investigation of Sestak's charge.

"I don't have anything additional on that," Gibbs responds.

"Are you ever going to have anything additional on that?"

"I don't have it today," Gibbs said.

March 12, 2010 -- Eighteen days later, yet again Gibbs responds to Major Garrett by saying: "I don't have any more information on that."

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Democratic Senate candidate Romanoff is apparently now hiding under his bed. Denver's KHOW talk radio host Peter Boyles invites Romanoff on-air to discuss the Post story with me and find out exactly what Romanoff knows and when he knew it. Romanoff's campaign refuses the opportunity to let the public in on these behind-closed door dealings, saying the issue is "old news."

Not quite.

Days after Romanoff dodges Boyles and myself, Senator Arlen Specter says that if anyone gets such an offer -- and in this case that would be Romanoff in Colorado and Sestak in Pennsylvania -- and didn't report it, they could go to jail for committing a felony.

Stunningly, this would presumably also include anyone on the Obama White House staff who knew one of their colleagues had offered such a job -- which is to say committed a crime -- and didn't report it.

Let's catch up.

After the February 22nd column in this space noted what no else had yet said -- namely that the Sestak accusation was actually a charge of a federal crime --  the Washington Times checked into the story and agreed, editorializing in favor of an investigation into the Sestak/Specter/Romanoff/White House mess.

Next, our colleagues at National Review Online run a news story by former Justice Department official Hans von Spakovsky in which Spakovsky not only further elaborates on other federal laws that may have been broken, but adds this:

Moreover, the Justice Department has a handbook on the prosecution of election offenses published by the Criminal Division that it distributes to all of its federal prosecutors. That handbook specifies that prosecutors can also use 18 U.S.C. § 600 to prosecute corrupt public officials who use "government-funded jobs or programs to advance a partisan political agenda."

But wait. There is a problem in the Justice Department.

One former high-ranking Justice Department official, after telling me that there were indeed problems with the Department's silence on this issue, said that in the current political climate at the Holder-run Justice Department, any Justice official who sought to go to Holder with thoughts of investigating Messina or his boss Rahm Emanuel or anyone else in the White House would have to have "brass balls." A colorful way of saying that Justice Department officials are being intimidated from pursuing the truth, no matter where it leads. Let's go back to Congressman Darrell Issa.

Issa has stepped up to the plate and sent his  letter to White House Counsel Bauer, who now holds the job in the legal precincts of the White House one frequented by Nixon's John Dean. Bauer, it should be noted, is the husband of now-departed Glenn Beck foil Anita Dunn, briefly the Obama White House Communications Director. Bauer and Dunn have been featured in Newsweek as one of ten "global power couples," ranking them alongside -- honest -- Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Bill and Hillary, Beyonce and Jay Z, and Nestor Kirchner and  Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina's back-to-back presidents.  All of which means, according to Newsweek, the Bauer/Dunn power-combo has power, lots of it. The Congressman has formally requested an answer to his letter -- from Bauer --  by March 18.

Here are Issa's questions, as reported by Politico.com: 

1. At any time, did White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel have communications with Rep. Sestak about the 2010 race for the United States Senate? Identify the communications.

2. At any time, did White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina have communications with Rep. Sestak about the 2010 race for the United States Senate? Identify the communications.

3. At any time, did any official within the White House Office of Political Affairs have communications with Rep. Sestak about the 2010 race for the United States Senate? Identify the political officials and the communications.

4. Identify any other individuals at the White House that had communications with Rep. Sestak about his bid for the United States Senate. For each individual, identify the communications.

5. What position(s) was (were) Rep. Sestak offered in exchange for his commitment to leave the Senate race?

6. Following Rep. Sestak's disclosure that he was offered a position in the president's administration in exchange for bowing out of the 2010 race for the United States Senate, what, if any, investigation did your office undertake to determine whether the criminal activity described by Rep. Sestak occurred?

7. Do you expect to make a referral to the United States Department of Justice in this matter? When should we expect this referral?

Now, the heat begins to rise as Arlen Specter steps into the middle of all this on Friday.  It should be recalled here that Specter is not just Sestak's opponent. He is a former Philadelphia district attorney and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Asked last week about Sestak's charge by Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC, Specter replies:

"That's a very, very serious charge. It's a big black smear without the specifications. But I'm telling you it is a federal crime punishable by jail, and anybody who wants to say that ought to back it up. Listen, Congressman Sestak has gotten a lot of political mileage out of that, and it's really an attack on the administration."

By Friday, March 12, as Gibbs is stonewalling Major Garrett yet again on this issue, Specter is a guest on a WSBA-radio show in York, Pennsylvania. Since the show is in York, and not on national radio or television, Specter's answer goes virtually unnoticed.  Asked about the topic, he says this, as noted above:

"There's a crime called misprision of a felony. Misprision of a felony is when you don't report a crime. So you're getting into pretty deep areas here in these considerations." 

In a blink, Specter has raised the stakes here.

What we are now talking about is the potential for a significant unraveling of the Obama White House even as their biggest domestic agenda item, health care, sucks in most of the media oxygen.

If in fact Sestak is telling the truth, if in fact the Denver Post story about Andrew Romanoff is correct -- and neither Sestak nor Romanoff reported these offers to federal authorities -- Specter is saying both could in fact do jail time for committing a felony.

Even more remarkable is to comprehend why Robert Gibbs may now be standing at that White House podium five different times and refusing to answer questions from Jake Tapper and Major Garrett. If Sestak has told the truth, if the Denver Post got it right -- then not only is the person or persons within the White House who made these job offers in big trouble, but anybody else on the Obama White House staff who currently knows this has happened and has not reported it to the proper authorities -- the FBI, just for starters -- is, according to Specter, a potential prosecution target for "misprision of a felony."  For which this person or persons could also go to jail along with whomever offered the jobs in the first place.  

Quite possibly, that could include Robert Gibbs, if in fact he knows these job offers occurred.

Which is surely incentive enough for Gibbs to understand that he doesn't want to ask this question of his colleagues -- much less get an answer. An answer for which he could be legally liable. Which in turn makes it a lose-lose proposition for him to say anything -- anything beyond some version of no comment -- to Major Garrett or Jake Tapper.

So how does Gibbs deal with this? Fox's Brett Baier has sat down with Sestak, who sticks by his story one more time -- yet tellingly refused to identify the culprit to Baier. This kind of interview with Sestak only adds more pressure still to the White House apparatus.

Again, John Dean on the art of "stonewalling":

"It was instinctive…ad hoc…developed in small reactions to the flurry of each day's events…we found ourselves trying to hold a line where we could."

One other thing.

These days, Charles Colson is one of humanity's good guys. He has spent decades creating a ministry called the "Prison Fellowship" in which he looks after the souls of America's prison population. But it will be remembered how Colson got to this point. Once upon a time he was the feared Nixon White House political aide who famously was said to be capable of running over his own grandmother for his president.  In a pre-Watergate 1971 story, the Washington Post described Colson as one of the "original back room boys…the brokers, the guys who fix things when they break down and do the dirty work when it's necessary."

And how has the Denver Post described Obama's Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina? The man at the center of the Romanoff story and possibly the Sestak story as well? The Denver paper tellingly said Messina was "President Barack Obama's deputy chief of staff and a storied fixer in the White House political shop."

Which is to say, Messina is Barack Obama's Chuck Colson. The fixer.

With a senior Democratic United States Senator, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, now ever so not delicately suggesting the players in this drama could all go to jail, it would seem that perhaps Mr. Messina and his Chicago buddies in the White House have fixed things for President Obama in a fashion that was unimaginable on inauguration day in January of 2009.

On that day many of these people sat just yards from the very spot on the Capitol grounds where Richard Nixon -- seemingly invulnerable -- landed in the glow of the klieg lights to bathe in the applause of an admiring nation as he reported on the results of his diplomatic triumphs with the Soviet Union and Mao's China.

In June of 1972.

Days before a break-in at the Watergate set off a chain of events that had the star players on the Nixon White House staff launched on a massive cover-up that -- quite inevitably in retrospect -- simply fell apart. And eventually ended the Nixon presidency itself.

The real life scene of this, by the way, opens Robert Redford's film All the President's Men. Substitute Obama on health care for Nixon on Russia and China and one can quickly see how easily White House staff members can fool themselves into delusions of invulnerability.

Let's end here with Mr. Gibbs and his repeated evasions with members of the White House press corps.

In 1972, four days after the break-in at the Watergate came to light,  a Washington Post editorial quoted the reaction of Nixon White House press secretary Ron Ziegler, the Robert Gibbs of his day. The Post reported what has since become one of the more famous lines in American political history this way:

Mr. Ronald L. Ziegler, the White House spokesman, has already dismissed it as a "third-rate burglary attempt," and warned that "certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is."

To use the phrase made famous in this scandal, the phrase John Dean cited, Mr. Ziegler was "stonewalling." The phrase eventually made it to the dictionary, defined precisely today as it was meant in the Watergate scandal: "to be evasive or uncooperative; use obstructive tactics….to obstruct or evade."

Perhaps lesson number one here for Gibbs and his colleagues  as the unraveling of Jobsgate proceeds is never to "Zieglerize." Never, ever, look the American people in the eye and stonewall. The results are never -- ever -- good.

It is a lesson that Robert Gibbs has at least five times in 18 days demonstrated he is willing to ignore.

As this is written, Robert Gibbs…and Congressman Sestak and Andrew Romanoff and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina and -- yes -- Messina's boss Rahm Emanuel….are all, in their own fashion, Zieglerizing. Stonewalling. Emanuel in particular seems to have failed to understand the lesson learned the hard way by two of his Republican predecessors as chief of staff, Nixon's H.R. Haldeman and Reagan's Donald Regan. Both Haldeman and Regan cultivated reputations as being in iron-fisted control of the White House apparatus. When the roof fell in, they were blamed respectively for Watergate and Iran-Contra, and in Haldeman's case went to jail. Regan, humiliated and his government career ruined, was fired and literally never spoke to Reagan again. Only this past Sunday Emanuel graced the cover of the New York Times' Sunday magazine, the star of a piece that portrays Emanuel as "dipping his hands into virtually everything the White House does…"

In the circumstances at hand, any future Congressional investigator or prosecutor will be using this reputation just as it was used to ruin Haldeman and Regan. And no one anywhere can miss the legion of political commentators predicting the health care issue will result in Republicans regaining control of the Senate, the House -- or both. Either one of which, if it happens, will instantly put the investigating machinery of Congress in the hands of Republicans -- like Darrell Issa.. 

There can be no other reason for Gibbs to be fending off Jake Tapper or Major Garrett, for Robert Bauer and Gibbs both to ignore Congressman Issa, or for Andrew Romanoff to stonewall Denver's Peter Boyles -- the list is growing - than one.

That one reason? 

At a minimum someone inside the Obama White House has screwed up and embarrassed the president.

Or, that somebody or more than one somebody -- a somebody or somebodies of note  -- has or have in fact committed a federal crime in the President's name.

Leaving Robert Gibbs to clean up the mess for public consumption, which he is choosing to do by Zieglerizing. Stonewalling.

Here's an excerpt from the days when Ron Ziegler himself stood in Gibbs' shoes, stonewalling away for the bulk of two years. Say again, two years. The date on this one: October 16, 1972:

Q. Why don't you deny the charges?

Ziegler: I am not going to dignify these types of stories with a comment…it goes without saying that this administration does not condone sabotage or espionage or surveillance of individuals, but it also does not condone innuendo or source stories that make sweeping charges about the character of individuals.

Sound familiar? Sounds downright Gibbsian.

Long afterward, Ron Ziegler said this: "Thank goodness, I was one of the few members of the Nixon White House staff who was never indicted and I was not part of the cover-up."

One hopes the Zieglerizing Robert Gibbs will be that lucky.

Stay tuned.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.