The 90s, Like The 60s, Will Never Die

Greg Sargent:

Senior White House advisers asked former President Bill Clinton to talk to Joe Sestak about whether he was serious about running for Senate, and to feel out whether he’d be open to other alternatives, according to sources familiar with the situation.

But the White House maintains that the Clinton-Sestak discussions were informal, according to the sources. The White House, under pressure to divulge the specifics of its interactions with Sestak, will release a formal statement later today outlining their version of events, including Clinton’s involvement.

According to the sources, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel asked Clinton and his longtime adviser, lawyer Doug Band, to talk to Sestak about the race. It’s unclear right now whether the White House will say that Clinton was asked to suggest specific administration positions for Sestak, whether Clinton floated positions on his own, whether Clinton discussed other options not related to the adminstration, or whether employment even came up at all in the talks.

But the news that Clinton is at the center of this whole story is noteworthy on its own because of the former president’s stature, and underscores how heavily invested the White House was in dissuading Sestak from running. The White House sent Clinton to talk to Sestak because Arlen Specter, constituting the 60th Dem vote in the Senate, was viewed as key to enacting Obama’s agenda.

The White House maintains that Clinton’s overtures to Sestak merely constituted an effort to gauge his seriousness about the race, the sources say, adding that Clinton was informally discussing the range of options open to Sestak as part of a larger conversation meant to ascertain Sestak’s thinking.

I’ve been unable to ascertain precisely what Clinton discussed with Sestak in terms of his future options, but the release of the White House’s formal response will clear that up.

UPDATE, 11:41 a.m.: Here’s some detail on the job that the White House offered Sestak and the White House’s official response.

UPDATE, 1:21 p.m.: Sestak himself weighs in.

UPDATE, 3:03 p.m.: Chief ethics officer under Bush dismisses the idea that this is a scandal and tells Republicans it’s “time to move on.”

Dan Amira at New York Magazine:

Emanuel reportedly decided against a paid gig because he wanted Sestak to keep his House seat. As evidence of how poorly planned this all was, though, the White House later discovered that Sestak couldn’t serve on the Board and in Congress at the same time, either. It’s unclear whether Sestak turned down the offer before or after the White House came to this realization, but we imagine he was never really interested to begin with. Seriously, Rahm, you’re asking him to give up on a fairly good shot at becoming a senator, and all you can guarantee in return is an unpaid advisory position? We’re shocked he didn’t jump at the opportunity.

Paul Chesser at The American Spectator:

Never mind that Sestak said repeatedly he was offered a “job,” which by definition does not carry with it the condition “uncompensated.” But we must emphasize how badly the Democrats wanted to avoid a primary, so coming up with something of value that would attract Sestak was necessary. Among the other tempting incentives they considered offering:

1. A green job

2. Box seats to a Pirates game

3. A framed copy of Specter’s resignation from the Republican Party

4. A cookie

Officials finally settled on the equally valuable “uncompensated high-level advisory capacity” in the Administration. Can you believe Sestak turned them down?!

Doug Powers at Michelle Malkin’s place:

“Did you get Joe Sestak a job yet, Daddy?”

It seems like a believable story — I mean, who wouldn’t be convinced to give up their quest to become a United States Senator in return for a spiffy, uncompensated job title in an administration that may well be swept out of office in just over two years — sooner if nobody buys their explanation for this?

If it’s that easy I’m going to call Nancy Pelosi and convince her not to run for re-election by offering her a job as an unpaid volunteer at her plastic surgeon’s office and give her the title “Queen of the World.”

According to the New York Times, one of the “jobs” being dangled in front of Sestak was a position on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. One of duties of PIAB members is to bring to the president’s attention activities that are not being adequately addressed by the Attorney General — things like, oh I don’t know… the White House orchestrating a bribery to get somebody to drop out of a Senate race.

For those of you keeping score at home, “nothing improper took place” usually bats two or three spots in the lineup ahead of “mistakes were made.”

Rahm Emanuel couldn’t be reached for comment because he was in the middle of a dine-n-dash at an Israeli restaurant.

Tom Maguire:

So why do they think the job offer came from a White House official?  I am not going to be able to track down every utterance of Sestak, but he was a bit vague in his “bombshell” interview with Larry Kane and my understanding is that he has not advanced the story since them.  Here is some early coverage from Feb 20, 2010 which tilts Sestak’s way:

In the face of a White House denial, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak stuck to his story yesterday that the Obama administration offered him a “high-ranking” government post if he would not run against U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary.

“I was asked a direct question . . . and I answered it honestly,” Sestak said in a Fox News interview. “There’s nothing more to go into.”

Sestak made his startling claim Thursday during the taping of Comcast Network’s Larry Kane: Voice of Reason, a public affairs show televised on Sunday evenings.

“Were you ever offered a federal job to get out of this race?” Kane asked near the end of the 30-minute interview.

“Yes,” Sestak answered.

“Was it Navy secretary?” Kane asked.

“No comment,” Sestak replied.

In response to follow-up questions from the host, Sestak said the job was offered by the White House. He also nodded when asked if the offer was for a high-ranking post.

Here is the Fox coverage; it sounds like a windy “no comment, but if someone could find that Fox transcript and dump it in the comments that would be lovely.

Let’s note that nodding when asked if the job was offered by the White House is not the same as saying the offer came from a White House official; if Clinton met him as a White House emissary, Sestak’s response would have been reasonable.  We also note this:

The Washington Post reported yesterday [link] that Sestak, in a separate interview Thursday about White House pressure, said, “There has been some indirect means in which they were trying to offer things if I got out.”

And the initial Philadelphia Inquirer coverage was more clear about the haziness of the contact:

After yesterday’s taping, Sestak said he recalled the White House offer coming in July, as he was preparing to formally announce his Senate candidacy in August. He declined to identify who spoke to him or the job under discussion. Sestak also would not say whether the person who approached him worked for the administration or was an intermediary for the offer.

“I’m not going to say who or how and what was offered,” Sestak said in an interview. “I don’t feel it’s appropriate to go beyond what I said,” because the conversation was confidential.

Well, Sestak didn’t say it was not a White House official.  But it was clever of him to leave the door open for Clinton even last February.

As I read this, Sestak told the WaPo that the approach was indirect; he was vague with everyone else, but (at least initially) does not seem to have claimed that the approach came directly from a White House official.

All helpful for the Dems, and one can see why Sestak wants to leave his former C-in-C out of it.

Mona Charen at The Corner:

FWIW, I think these hunts for criminal wrongdoing are excessive and unhealthy. The Democrats do it incessantly to Republican office holders. That much having been said, this administration explanation seems quite lawyerly. And what can Sestak do, deny it? If he does, he thoroughly alienates himself from the Obama White House as well as many loyal Democrats. He answered a question honestly once and it’s caused no end of trouble.

Marc Ambinder:

It is hard to see, quite frankly, how this account implies any violation of criminal law, and how any law that governs the intersection of the executive branch and electoral politics would intend to criminalize routine and innocuous political horse-trading, especially since the President is dual-hatted, in our system, as the leader of his political party. Bribery is bribery, but the facts here, assuming you believe them, and I do tend to believe them, are exculpatory.

David Weigel:

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca.), whose doggedness in asking question after question about an answer Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Penn.) gave to a local TV reporter is bearing fruit, responds to the White House’s memo on what happened. Issa:

After more than ten weeks of outstanding questions, the White House has offered a version of events that has important differences from what Congressman Sestak has been saying for months – that he was offered a ‘job’ by ‘someone in the White House’ in exchange for leaving the Pennsylvania Senate race.I’m very concerned that in the rush to put together this report, the White House has done everything but explain its own actions and has instead worked to craft a story behind closed doors and coordinate with those involved. The White House has admitted today to coordinating an arrangement that would represent an illegal quid-pro-quo as federal law prohibits directly or indirectly offering any position or appointment, paid or unpaid, in exchange for favors connected with an election.

President Clinton and Congressman Sestak now need to answer questions about what the White House has released today – that at the behest of the White House Chief of staff, they dispatched a former President to get Joe Sestak out of the Pennsylvania Senate Primary.

As Chris Cillizza argues, the White House more or less created this story by failing to give a straight answer about Sestak’s February claim of being offered some kind of job to leave the race against Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.). And I think Issa’s role as the chief critic had something to do with this.

Issa, who became ranking member of the Government Reform & Oversight Committee last year, has taken the wheel with both hands and issued statements, booked TV interviews, and pounded the table about plenty of issues that have not taken on life outside of the conservative media, such as the firing of an Americorps Inspector General in 2009 and the DOJ’s decision not to pursue a case against the New Black Panther Party. Liberals simply didn’t take his questions seriously, and assumed that the media would blow them off, too.

“You know,” Sestak said in an April 22 interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, “I didn’t make the allegation. I was asked the question and answered honestly. I don’t know Darrell Issa. He’s never come and talked to me. And he should do what he wants, but only the right-wing Republicans like him and Arlen Specter.”

But Sestak pitched a ball 5 mph down the plate, and it was inevitable that if Issa worked every day to ask these questions — and Sestak won his primary — the story would get somewhere. Democrats made a huge error in ignoring him and blowing him off.

Digby:

But more noteworthy for the Village is the fact that it was a) Clinton and b) it features an alleged “bribe” for a job.

Why is this noteworthy? Well, Bill Clinton was impeached for arranging for Vernon Jordan to offer Monica Lewinsky a job, remember? There is no doubt in my mind that the Villagers are salivating over this. So many “questions” remain. So many “concerns.” So many titillating possibilities.So much fun! (And keep in mind that these things are always trivial — that’s the point. It’s a show of strength to be able to turn a nonsensical scandal into a political threat, which is a skill the villagers greatly respect.)

During the impeachment I always used to say that it was actually proof that things were going pretty well in this country because otherwise nobody could justify wasting that kind of time and money on something so stupid. We can’t say that about this era. So I’m hopeful that the sheer volume of real news and the scope of the various crises confronting us will drown this idiocy out and that the public will reject such scandals for the trumped up nonsense they are. So far the polls for Sestak look as if that’s happening. But you can see the outline of the plot if they do care to pursue it. And the point of these things is to plant doubts and build upon them.

The bottom line is that no matter what, it isn’t illegal to offer someone a job, much less to turn one down and it is no crime for a politician to be miffed at the party establishment trying to muscle him out of the race and mentioning it on the trail. There is literally no there there besides the usual “process” story by which we are supposed to judge politicians on how well they play village games, the rules for which change on a daily basis and which always seem to turn petty, non-stories into major Democratic scandals while excusing far more egregious Republican offenses. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what mechanism makes that happen.

EARLIER: All Our Senate Candidates Bring Us Scandal

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