Politics

Benghazi: What Was Tom Donilon Doing?

The wisdom of White House veteran Pat Caddell.

By 5.6.14

UPI
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John Dean.
Oliver North.
John Poindexter.
John Sununu
Monica Lewinsky.

Now: Tom Donilon?

The list of names of White House staffers who were not known beyond the perimeters of their office space or those who shared their area of expertise in various White House positions and, um, sex are in fact the stuff of White House political scandals. The kind of scandal that can politically cripple or depose a president of the United States.

While Dean, North, Poindexter, Sununu, and Lewinsky have been on the stage since 1973 — some 41 years — and departed in a cloud of controversy of one kind or another, they have predecessors. LBJ’s Walter Jenkins, forced to resign after caught having sex with a man in the YMCA (huge problem in 1964 America). Dwight Eisenhower’s Sherman Adams, the chief of staff hounded for having accepted a vicuna coat from Bernard Goldfine, a Boston textile manufacturer who had business in front of the federal government. Harry Vaughan, the Truman Missouri aide/crony who in fact was an army general with an honorable military record. There are more, of course, salted through one presidential scandal after another.      

But the appearance of ex-Obama NSC aide Tommy Vietor on Bret Baier’s Fox News Special Report did nothing if not give credence to the case former Carter aide Patrick Caddell has made repeatedly for months.

The now quickly legendary Vietor response to a Baier question on Benghazi (“Dude, it was like two years ago!”) was nothing if not exactly the mistake all Vietor predecessors in White House scandals have made, if perhaps with not such hilarity. The institution of the White House — home and working quarters to the occupant of the moment who is always billed as the most “powerful” person on Planet Earth — is a heady place indeed. There’s nothing new here. Power, from the dawn of human history to this moment, is exactly as Henry Kissinger once famously described it. Kissinger, the decidedly un-Brad Pitt-like Harvard professor turned-Nixon’s national security advisor turned-Secretary of State and man-about-the-world with one Hollywood beauty after another famously advertised that. “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

All true.

Which is exactly the reason that all those who have gone astray during their White House tenures went astray in the first place. Seduced by power, even if believing in All the Right Things like the law or national security, those so seduced found themselves caught. They made self-evidently bad decisions, even when thinking for the right reasons. In the Reagan administration, it would be tough to find a truer patriot than Ollie North. But for the best of reasons — national security — Ollie North… Lieutenant Colonel North… found himself thrust front and center in the Iran-Contra scandal. And it should be no small moment of note — Vietor worked for the National Security Council — that Reagan had not one but two NSC advisors — Poindexter and Bud McFarlane — get swept up in the Iran-Contra scandal.

But all of this is ancient history. And it is no accident that someone of Pat Caddell’s substance and experience is calling attention to the man who was Tommy Vietor’s decided senior in the White House: National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon. The latter-day Obama version of Reagan’s Poindexter and McFarlane.  In fact, the real effect of Vietor’s now famous “Dude!” response to Bret Baier is nothing but a backfire, a call to the newly announced House Select Committee on Benghazi to turn the spotlight on Vietor’s NSC boss — Tom Donilon.

Who is Tom Donilon?

The easy answer is that Donilon is, in that well-worn Washington phrase, a “long time political operative.” His ties are well documented. Particularly to Vice President Biden. If Washington, D.C. were a university, Tom Donilon would have a dual major, politics and foreign affairs. He is the Political Player squared. So political is he, with long documented involvements as a campaign aide to Biden and more, that when his name was floated for a post in the Obama-Biden administration one reporter wrote that a conspicuous part of Donilon’s political background wasn’t mentioned.

What was that?

According to Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner (Morgenson a New York Times reporter) in their bestselling book on the 2008 financial crisis, Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon, Donilon was a key player at Fannie Mae. The government agency at the center of the crisis. Donilon, note Morgenson and Rosner, was, in his role as “Fannie’s longtime head of government affairs and a key political operative,” a key part in the “cast of characters that helped create the mess” and continued, in the Obama-era, “to hold high positions or are holding jobs of even greater power.” When Donilon was announced as President Obama’s NSC aide, Morgenson and Rosner note, his connection to Fannie Mae was unmentioned. Nor was his tendency, as reported by Morgenson and Rosner, to “regularly telephone” the executive director of a “coalition set up to monitor Fannie…” and say, “you are killing the value of my stock options.” Donilon, say the two journalists, “was not joking.”

So with all of this going for him — and against him — Donilon had a problem. He was a valuable Democratic insider  — but the Fannie Mae business made him “toxic.” The latter term comes from none other than Bob Woodward in yet another of his inside Washington blockbusters, this one Obama’s War.But if Donilon was “toxic” in terms of a Senate confirmation, he still had friends. Incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel made it clear: Donilon was to be in the White House. And so it came to be: one of the most political players in Washington would be the Deputy Obama NSC advisor. Writes Woodward, General Jim Jones, the Obama pick for the top spot at the NSC, “could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from Obama’s political and transition teams.” Later, too late, Woodward adds that Jones realized the Obama White House was in fact a political “clique” — and that Emanuel’s tight relationship with Donilon would not be extended to the man who in fact was Donilon’s boss — General Jones.

And who was on that Obama “political and transition” team? That almost certainly would have included a young Obama speechwriter named… Ben Rhodes. The very writer of the now celebrated Benghazi e-mail that has launched the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

Pat Caddell is a smart guy. He has, as they say, been around the block. So too has my ex-Reagan boss Ed Rollins, and Clinton aide Doug Schoen, all three of whom were discussing this situation in Benghazi the other night on Fox. No one who has worked for a president and emerged reputation intact is naïve enough to believe that young staffers like Ben Rhodes and Tommy “The Dude” Vietor  just woke up one fine morning and decided to do whatever they did in the memo writing department out of the blue. These guys would instruct a UN Ambassador on Benghazi? Or for that matter on anything else? Dudes! Somebody is hallucinating!

Rhodes and Vietor had a boss. A senior. Somebody who was perceived inside the White House as a political heavyweight. Precisely the kind of person who could talk directly with the president — or say he did and make it up as he went along. The kind of guy who could find then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates staring him in the face, angry over leaks glorifying the administration’s role in the killing of Osama bin Laden, and confronting him bluntly, as reported here in the Weekly Standard:

By Wednesday of that week, Gates went to see Donilon, offering up a barbed assessment of how the White House had handled the aftermath of the raid. “I have a new strategic communications approach to recommend,” Gates said in his trademark droll tones, according to an account later provided by his colleagues. What was that, Donilon asked? “Shut the f**k up,” the defense secretary said. 

Pat Caddell’s well-experienced and savvy point is that the next domino in the Obama White House Benghazi scandal is Tom Donilon. Caddell makes his case for a reason. And yes, while the two may have crossed swords in the Biden days, Caddell is surely not putting himself out there on something like this without a serious understanding of Donilon. Donilon is a man Bob Woodward describes as a “political junkie,” a “detail man and extremely close to Vice President Biden.” Donilon’s relationship with Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel “went back decades.” A man who served as chief of staff to Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher and wanted to be Obama’s deputy secretary of state — but was too “toxic” because of his time at Fannie Mae to get the job.

So he was brought inside the White House to be Number 2 at the NSC, and finally Number 1 — the national security advisor to the President. The job Donilon held the night of September 12, 2012 — the night of Benghazi. A job he secured when his friend of decades, Rahm Emanuel, was still the White House chief of staff before Emanuel’s own departure to run for Mayor of Chicago. When a foreign policy failure of disastrous proportions — resulting in the killing an American Ambassador and three others — blew up in the stretch of a highly competitive presidential campaign — who ya gonna call if you’re in the Obama White House and the Hillary Clinton State Department?  The combination of events — a foreign policy disaster in the middle of a presidential campaign — were precisely the two areas in which Donilon had expertise and sway.

Much has been made now of the Ben Rhodes memo. It is the memo that launched a congressional investigation.

But as with those infamous Watergate tapes — there is more here than a simple revelation to be investigated. The next step is to find out what was going on with Tom Donilon, exactly as Pat Caddell has suggested.

Or as Senator Howard Baker of Senate Watergate Committee fame might say:

What did the President’s National Security Advisor know and when did he know it?

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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.