White House Not Looking So Good On Sestak Question

[ Posted Thursday, May 27th, 2010 – 17:02 UTC ]

President Barack Obama, as expected, was asked at today's press conference about the assertation by Representative Joe Sestak, who is running for the Senate from Pennsylvania, that the White House offered him a job in order to sideline him from the primary race against Arlen Specter (which Sestak then won). Obama's answer was to kick the can down the road a bit. This is not too surprising, since this is what his White House has been doing with the issue for three months now. Here is Obama's response to the question:

Q: Secondarily, can you tell the American public, sir, what your White House did or did not offer Congressman Sestak to not enter the Democratic senatorial primary? And how will you meet your levels of expressed transparency and ethics to convey that answer to satisfy what appear to be bipartisan calls for greater disclosure about that matter? Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: There will be an official response shortly on the Sestak issue, which I hope will answer your questions.

Q: From you, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: You will get it from my administration. And it will be coming out -- when I say "shortly," I mean shortly. I don't mean weeks or months. With respect to the first --

Q: Can you assure the public it was ethical and legal, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: I can assure the public that nothing improper took place. But, as I said, there will be a response shortly on that issue.

Translated from Washington-speak, this means: "the lawyers are huddling, trying to come up with the right wording."

Republicans, of course, have been gleefully conflating the issue into what they dearly hope is a momentous scandal for Obama and/or Sestak. This is likely not going to happen, but the Republicans are certainly going to give it the old college try. They think they've painted the president into a corner, and in some ways they are right about that -- because no matter what language the White House comes up with, it will have the possibility to be spun against Obama by his opponents. No wonder the GOP is licking their chops.

The facts are uncertain, which is why speculation is running rampant on the Right over just how quickly they can manage to impeach Obama. But, Republican fantasies aside, the lack of a White House response is certainly a problem for a man who campaigned on "changing the culture of Washington" while simultaneously promising to have the "most transparent" administration in history. One of those promises is going to be badly bent, if not broken, no matter what the White House says at this point, it seems.

Here's what we do know. Joe Sestak, during an interview, was asked whether the Obama administration had promised him a job in order to get him out of the primary race against Specter. Here's the exchange:

Q: Were you ever offered a federal job to get out of this race?

SESTAK: Yes. Let me just say that, both here in Pennsylvania and down there, I was called quite a few times. And all I said is, look, I felt when a deal was made, that it was hurting the democratic process. I got into this because I think that deal started getting us off the track where the Democratic Party should go. I would never get out for a deal.

Since then, the White House initially said that Sestak had never been offered a job. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gave the fullest answer the administration has so far given on March 16, when he said:

I've talked to several people in the White House. I've talked to people that have talked to others in the White House. I'm told that whatever conversations have been had are not problematic. I think Congressman Sestak has discussed that this is -- whatever happened is in the past, and he's focused on his primary election.

Since that time, Gibbs won't answer any questions on the matter, instead referring back to this statement in March in the face of repeated questions from the press.

Since then, also realizing how problematic the whole issue is, Joe Sestak has been pretty closemouthed about what he said, as well (one can assume he's had a few conversations with a lawyer about it, from his reluctance to shed any further light on the situation). Rumors abound about the details, though. Pretty much everyone assumes that the job offered (Sestak has never identified any specific position) was Secretary of the Navy. Others whisper that Rahm Emanuel was the one who actually had the conversation with Sestak, with nothing so far (that I've seen) to back this story up.

Beyond details, however, the interpretation of what, exactly, happened is a wide-open field. Republicans insist that laws were broken. Democrats call this laughable. Lawyers and political operatives weigh in mostly on the side of "this sort of thing happens all the time in Washington." The best of these so far was from Ron Kaufman, ex-political director in the Bush White House: "Tell me a White House that didn't do this, back to George Washington."

Absent an actual recording or transcript of any calls between the White House and Sestak, the questions surrounding what happened will likely never be answered sufficiently enough to please everyone, especially not Obama's critics. Also, absent such recordings, nobody's going to jail over this, because any possible illegality (at any stretch of the imagination) in this sort of thing is almost impossible to prove in court.

It is, technically, illegal to use a political appointment or job or campaign as a bargaining chip. Remember Rod Blagojevich? But, as I said, proving any sort of quid pro quo is just about impossible, and even with wiretap recordings (as in Blagojevich's case) it is very, very difficult to prove.

There's a reason for this. Most of these folks are lawyers, and the ones who aren't certainly also know how to say something without really (technically, and legally) defining any sort of quid pro quo. There's another reason nobody's going to jail over this, and that is that this sort of thing happens all the time, from both parties, sometimes at the same time. Obama reportedly made the same sort of deal offer to Judd Gregg, when he was thinking of naming him to his cabinet, except the deal he made was to assure Gregg that a Republican would take his place in the Senate. This is what I mean about this sort of thing happening all the time -- both parties do it, and they both understand how these things happen. It's probably technically illegal for Obama's motorcade to exceed the posted speed limit, but I bet he's never going to get a ticket for it, in other words.

In Sestak's case, it's pretty obvious that no mention need have been made by anyone in the White House to Sestak about what Sestak would have to give up if he took the job. Because, by law, the Secretary of the Navy can't run for political office. In other words, both sides knew exactly what such a job offer entailed, and therefore it didn't need to be spelled out. If Sestak accepted the job, he automatically took himself out of the running for the Senate seat. Automatically -- it would take the campaign decision out of Sestak's hands if he had accepted the job. There was no need to mention this fact, just as if I offered you a job as a professional sports referee I wouldn't have to explain to you that this would mean you couldn't play for one of the teams in the league -- because you would already know that. It's obvious, in other words.

Assuming that Sestak and whoever he talked to at the White House aren't complete idiots, there was nothing untoward in the White House exploring offering Sestak the Navy job -- there are always political implications over appointments, and nobody in Washington could get offered any job if it was illegal for there to be any political implications over any appointment.

But just because something's legal doesn't make it "right," as far as the public is concerned. Quoting Republican operative Ron Kaufman again: "...times have changed and the ethics have changed and the scrutiny has changed. This is the kind of thing people across America are mad about." In other words, this could be a political problem for Obama. And, so far, by stonewalling, the White House is not looking especially good on the issue.

President Obama is somewhat trapped by his own rhetoric, which he is likely fully aware of. If he says "This isn't illegal, it isn't unethical, everybody does it," then someone will be sure to remind him that he promised to "change politics as usual." Conversely, if he says "It never happened," then President Obama is calling the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Pennsylvania a liar. If Obama says "Sestak misinterpreted things," then he looks kind of weaselly, and someone is sure to start cracking "the meaning of 'is' " type of jokes. If he continues to refuse to answer any questions, then his critics will cry "Stonewalling!" and bring up all Obama's campaign promises about transparency.

You can see why the lawyers are huddling. There aren't a whole lot of easy ways out of the corner they've been backed into.

There is one course of action left which might just appease everyone -- pin it on a scapegoat, and fire him. If Obama "accepted the resignation" of Rahm Emanuel (assuming the rumors are true, or, if not, whoever is nominated to fall on his sword for the administration), it might put an end to the political "Scandal!" stories. It's kind of doubtful that this is the route Obama wants to take on the matter, but it might be the only route left open to him, especially if his "official answer" on the subject raises more questions than it answers -- as it is almost guaranteed to do, since Republicans sense political opportunity here. Republicans see this as a win/win situation, almost no matter what Obama does. They'll either tarnish the White House, they'll tarnish Sestak (improving their chances to take Specter's seat), or they'll have a White House scalp to hang on their wall.

One way or another, though, Obama needs to address the issue soon. Because so far, stonewalling hasn't gotten him very far. Whether this turns into a political disaster or just a bump in the road depends on what Obama does next. But he'd better do something soon, instead of just letting this fester. Especially if he wants to see Sestak have a chance this November.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


20 Comments on “White House Not Looking So Good On Sestak Question”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Sestak was not offered the SecNavy post. Not without a time machine: Obama's nominee was already in place.

    Bear in mind that Sestak has a fine record and would be right for any plum DoD-related slot, a wet one especially but not necessarily. The job offer occured before Sestak was a declared candidate, as we have already established in a previous post's comment thread. Ergo:

    "Republicans insist that laws were broken. Democrats call this laughable."

    Basically, I don't see the blood and I don't see the foul. I see a zero-tolerance policy that has never been inflicted on any president. The only change agent in town is being pilloried for a crime that, at the time, was not a crime.

    This nontroversy reflects the general obsession with Obama among the liberal-left. As I've argued before, Congress is the change agency:

    Chris, if we applied this standard to Congress there would be no incumbents left. There would be no candidates for office, either.

    I don't apologize for the WH. What's more, I don't think I have to.

  2. [2] 
    Yeah right wrote:

    It's looks bad but the truth is this is the business of Washington. President Obama went in thinking he could change thing but now more and more he seems sucked in. His problem is he tried to play their game and has forgotten the fundamentals. Even the best players can be traded. But the question really is whether or not Sestak was qualified for the job. If so than this witch hunt should stop.

    Now while we are getting back to the basics Obama has failed to use his biggest assets since day one -- The people. Babe Ruth had it, Barry Bonds had it, Tony Lesorta even had it and maybe for Obama it is too late (like Ruth and Bonds) but it is fine time he puts a switch hitter on the mound for the left handed pitches the Republics keep using. What Americas needs is not business as usual but a massive building project. One that would involve creating jobs for generations to come.

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Osborne Ink -

    I agree this is a nontroversy. But the Republicans, led by Issa, are trying to fan the flames, so for PR reasons, the WH needs to get ahead of this. Per Sestak, this is going to happen tomorrow, in the traditional "Friday before a holiday weekend" WH "take out the trash" news dump, so look for it to come within hours.

    On a personal note, my emails to you seem to be being bounced by your server's MAILER DAEMON. Just a heads-up...

    Yeah right -

    You know, I was thinking of another baseball metaphor, which didn't make it in to the article: "The whole thing is like bringing a baseball player up on grand theft charges for stealing second base."


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Allow me to, once again, point out the obvious..

    Would ya'all think this a "nontroversy" if it was a GOP president and a GOP majority in Congress??

    Of course not...

    Everyone here would be all over it like white on rice if it was a GOP president.

    Ergo, this is NOT a "nontroversy"...

    Simple logic...

    Now that THAT particular question is settled, let's move on...

    As to whether a crime has been committed or not...

    Was Sestak offered a job to quit the primary race.

    According to Sestak, the answer is YES.. Sestak has been asked this question a half a dozen times and the answer has always been the same..


    So, this settles the question as to whether or not a crime has been committed.

    If Sestak is telling the truth, then it is obvious to anyone who has a politically objective bone in their body that, YES, a crime has been committed.

    So, what have we learned about the facts..

    1. This is NOT a nontroversy.


    B. If Sestak is telling the truth, then a crime has been committed...

    But I do agree with one thing...

    It's probably taking so long because the WH lawyers are trying to figure out the best way to spin the story so that they are true to the facts, but also don't incriminate Obama and his cronies in a criminal investigation..

    I also agree that Obama's options are limited and he is going to get slammed no matter what he fesses up to...

    I have no sympathy for him, however. This is what happens when you start believing your own Press Releases and think that you are above the law..

    Obama's problem is he thinks he is Judge Dredd..

    "I have never broken the law!!! I AM THE LAW!!!!"
    -Sylvester Stallone, JUDGE DREDD

    ooooo I know that THAT quote is going to get me into trouble with TPTB... :D


  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    if we applied this standard to Congress there would be no incumbents left.

    and this would be a bad thing?

    There would be no candidates for office, either.

    yes there would, just not the kind that gets away with legalized large-scale corruption on a daily basis. the president is in a tough position because he's partly responsible for creating this impossible standard to begin with. that said, somebody is clearly making a mountain out of this particular molehill. why? because they can.


    If Sestak is telling the truth, then a crime has been committed...

    "Former President Bill Clinton called Joe Sestak last summer at the request of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to offer him a position on a senior executive branch advisory committee..."

    in other words, someone who was not even in the administration at the time suggested secondhand that a job MIGHT be available very early on in the campaign. there's no evidence clinton opposed the senate run at that time, much less that he (maybe) suggested the (possible) job (potentially) for that reason. Sestak clearly interpreted it that way, but it'd be damn near impossible to prove his interpretation correct. i.e. at worst it's unethical, but it's definitely not illegal.

    or in the words of your own favorite source of quotations:

    "Kaffee: You and Dawson, you both live in the same dreamworld. It doesn't matter what I believe. It only matters what I can prove! So please, don't tell me what I know, or don't know; I know the law!"

    the court of public opinion, however, has a much lower standard of proof. so maybe that's what you were talking about.

  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    See, you had a perfectly good Judge Dredd quote, and then you had to ruin the whole thing by putting Stallone's name on it.

    Allow me to demonstrate the proper usage for you:

    "Six months in the isolation cubes for you, punk!"
    -Judge Dredd

    There, that was easy, wasn't it? We'll be awaiting your release around Thanksgiving...


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:


    Awesome usage of a relevant movie quote! :D Kudos..

    As to the meat of your post, I am kinda tied up right now.. But I'll get back to it once I digest the news...


    Ya see, I KNEW that using that Dredd quote would land me in hot water... :D


  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    OK, i have read the gist of things..

    I must admit that it IS a good story and does cover all the bases...

    Of course, I don't believe it for a second and I doubt anyone else will..

    Just ask yerselves one question...

    What would ya'alls reaction be if it was a GOP president and this was a GOP's explanation of the events in question..

    Ya'all wouldn't buy it for a micro second..

    But credit where credit is due..

    Obama came up with a real good story..

    How do I know it's only a fabrication???

    If it were the truth, it would have come out LONG before this...


  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    Obama et al just better hope that Specter wasn't privy to the REAL story...

    How ugly would THAT get, eh?? :D


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    The job offer occured before Sestak was a declared candidate, as we have already established in a previous post's comment thread.

    It's only been "established" in your imagination, because the reality, AND the facts say different.

    Please post the text of the law that states that a person must be a declared candidate before such a bribe would constitute a crime.

    You can't, because it just ain't so.

    Basically, I don't see the blood and I don't see the foul.

    Of course you don't.. Or, more accurately, you won't.

    That is because you are a Democrat first and foremost. All other considerations, like facts, are secondary to you.

    You and I both know that you would be singing a MUCH different tune if it was a GOP Administration..

    Don't bother denying it because we both know it's true....


  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    The more I read about this the more I am thinking it stinks and stinks bad.

    First off, Sestak said he was contacted by a "White House Official"... Bill Clinton does not fit that description.

    Secondly, Sestak claims that he was offered a "job"... One can logically theorize that such a "job" would be comparable to being a Senator.

    A non-paying seat on some board or council would hardly qualify as a "job" by ANY stretch of the imagination, let alone a job that would be comparable to being a Senator.

    The only people who are buying this cockamamie story are the ones who still believe anything and everything this administration says....

    But, like I said above, I have to give credit where credit is due.. Obama hit upon the ONE story that would allow him to extricate himself from this situation with some semblance of honor..

    That fact that it's all bullshit is besides the point.. Ya gotta give Obama points for hitting on the right story...


  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:


    in other words, someone who was not even in the administration at the time suggested secondhand that a job MIGHT be available very early on in the campaign.

    Clinton is NOT a "White House official".. Therefore the recent crap release.. er I mean news release, is not the same story that Sestak initially stated...

    There is also the discrepancy that Sestak "allowed that it was a high level job" that was offered in exchange for dropping out of the primary.....

    This is not in keeping with the current crap... er I mean news... That the "job" offered was was just a non-paying "job" on some Presidential council..

    While this crap does give the impression that nothing untoward happened, it's clear that the claim does not jive with what Sestak initially said happened...

    In short, only someone who is already enamored with Obama would believe this crap...

    I mean, seriously... Obama, Clinton and Sestak get together the day before this "explanation" is released..

    Are ya'all really THAT gullible???

    I highly doubt it...

    Ergo, ya'all have political reasons to believe this story is true..

    Reasons that have absolutely NO basis in reality and the facts....


  13. [13] 
    dsws wrote:

    "It is, technically, illegal to use a political appointment or job or campaign as a bargaining chip."

    If the prospective appointee is doing something in exchange, yes. If the prospective appointee is unqualified, probably, even if they don't have to actually do any quid-pro-quo. But I don't think any law prohibits being aware of the political ramifications of an appointment.

    "...times have changed and the ethics have changed and the scrutiny has changed."

    As in, there was a time when the attempts to stir up scandal over non-issues weren't so one-sided?

    "pin it on a scapegoat, and fire him"

    Now that would be sort of sleazy, particularly given that in fact there was nothing illegal or unethical that such a person might have been responsible for.

    The way to deal with an image problem is to do two things (1) put an incompatible bit of imagery out in public view, so that it's more prominent and persuasive than the problem one, and (2) have the problem image not resonate with any problem in the core of who the public thinks you are. No one would have cared about Dan Quayle reading a wrong answer off a list of spelling-bee words after the student spelled the word right, if they hadn't been worried about his competence to begin with. If a problem image amplifies something that was already shaping up to be a deal-breaker, you're probably hosed no matter what other imagery you put out there.

  14. [14] 
    Michale wrote:

    particularly given that in fact there was nothing illegal or unethical that such a person might have been responsible for.

    Assumes facts not in evidence..

    According to the original Sestak story, a crime was committed.. Illegal *AND* unethical.

    Even with the Obama/Clinton/Sestak BS, a crime was still technically committed...

    But, of course, no one with more than 2 brain cells to rub together would believe the current spin...

    It's a nice fairytale to feed to Lenin's "useful idiots", but in the reality of the here and now, it's complete and utter carp.... :D


  15. [15] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    I know you may find it hard to believe, but I would call it a non-troversy even if it were a GOP president. This is how politics works, it's just a fact. I believe I even said something along these lines when the Blagojevich story broke -- how Blaggy was getting railroaded for doing something all politicians do, simply because he was slightly more blunt in his language than others.

    Deals happen all the time. It's part of the political game, on both sides. It's fun to complain about, but it ain't gonna change any time soon.

    Judd Gregg was offered a deal -- a guaranteed Republican to replace his Senate seat. The guy sitting in Biden's Senate seat made a deal -- he would be a chair-warmer, and not run. I can remember deals like this at least as far back as Reagan, the only difference is that nobody made the slightest complaint about any of them before Obama was in the White House. He's being held to a different standard.

    Of course, he himself invited this, which I mentioned in the article. The only problem here is a perception problem or a PR problem, not a legal problem. You don't think Bill Clinton is smart enough to know what is technically legal and what is not, and to frame his language accordingly? I think Bubba is that smart, personally (by any meaning of the word "is"... sorry, couldn't resist that one).

    The real story here is that Obama was actually keeping his word -- in the ORIGINAL deal here. When Specter jumped the aisle, he was assured that Obama and the PA governor would do everything they could to clear the field for him in the primary. Approaching Sestak was part of this original deal. But there's nothing illegal about any of it, because it happens all the time in politics, and all of these folks are smart enough not to do anything technically illegal while doing so. And if they didn't do anything technically illegal, then no law was broken.

    There's no crime here, in other words. Sestak was speaking off the cuff to a reporter, and not under oath in a court of law or anything. I'm not sure how parsing every word he said is meaningful, really. Just because Sestak said something doesn't mean it is factual or any sort of absolute and final answer to all questions. And even if you were right, if Sestak is now not confirming his original statement, how exactly is he a credible witness?

    I'll say it once again -- Obama is being held, in the Sestak matter, to a standard which NO other president was ever held to. Partly, this was self-inflicted with his promises to be transparent and end politics-as-usual. But then Dubya promised to have the "most ethical White House in history" and more of his folks went to jail than any previous president. But I didn't notice Fox News obsessing over it at the time...


  16. [16] 
    Michale wrote:


    Yes YOU would think it a nontroversy... Maybe... But once again, you simply are the exception that emphasizes the rule...

    But the simple fact is, while the original crime was, indeed, a crime the issue now is the cover-up...

    Do you honestly believe the BS story??? The story that came about the very day after a Sestak, Obama and Clinton all met privately??

    But then Dubya promised to have the "most ethical White House in history" and more of his folks went to jail than any previous president.

    Do you have a cite for this?? I am not disputing you, but I would like to read the background behind that...

    Just because Sestak said something doesn't mean it is factual or any sort of absolute and final answer to all questions. And even if you were right, if Sestak is now not confirming his original statement, how exactly is he a credible witness?


    That is why this needs to be investigated further.. Obviously, there are facts that haven't been aired yet..

    So, let's investigate and get down to the facts...

    Since Obama ran on a platform of transparency, he shouldn't have a problem with an investigation, right???

    But you are right about one thing...

    Obama has totally decimated his claim that he brings a "change" to DC politics..

    Obama has, once again, been proven to be a liar...

    But there's nothing illegal about any of it, because it happens all the time in politics

    Just because it happens all the time doesn't mean it's not illegal...

    Lots of illegal things happen all the time. Does that make them legal?

    Of course not...

    I'm not sure how parsing every word he said is meaningful, really.

    Who's parsing?? I am merely showing what Sestak said.

    Sestak said, "White House Official"... Clinton doesn't met that definition.

    Sestak said, "the job was high-ranking".... Being a non-payed member of an intelligence council hardly qualifies whatsoever...

    As I said, it's not the crime, it's the cover-up..

    And yes, I honestly believe that if a GOP president got caught in a cover-up of this nature, I think the Left would be going bat-shit...

    And I think you would agree with me on that, no??

    Irregardless, I am sure this will go away as well... Obama will survive this scandal as well...

    But, it's one more check in the LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE boxes for this administration...

    When I sit back and recall how the commenters here screamed LIAR at every Bush utterance and then see how they ignore REAL lies from their chosen one....

    Well, you can see why I am so amused... :D

    And in about 9 months or so when we have a GOP majority again and in 2 years and 9 months when we have a GOP president again, the shoe will be back on the other foot and I can sit back and watch the Hysterical (and not so Hysterical) Left go ape-shit over ever little thing that the GOP does...

    And you can bet I will be enjoying myself immensely pointing out the hypocrisy.. :D

    Just as I do now... :D

    "But, as we say on Earth... C'est la vie"
    -Admiral James T Kirk, STAR TREK II The Wrath Of Kahn


  17. [17] 
    Michale wrote:

    OK, so I guess that ya'alls only defense of this crap is the "Everybody does it" defense..

    OK, fair enough..

    Then I guess we can finally lay to rest that complete and utter "Change You Can Believe In" crap that Obama continues to shovel, right??


  18. [18] 
    Michale wrote:

    And the hits just keep on coming..... :D

    It's being reported that Congressman Sestak could not sit on the Presidential Advisory Board that Clinton offered because a sitting CongressCritter cannot sit on such boards...

    Get that?

    Obama/Rahm/Clinton offered Sestak a "job" that Sestak COULD NOT even have accepted even if Sestak WANTED to!!!

    Com'on people..

    I have too much respect for ya'alls intelligence to think that ya'all could EVER believe such obvious and blatant felgercarb...

    Like I said..

    It's not the crime..

    It's the cover-up...

    Just like with Watergate...

    Obama's I-AM-NOT-A-CROOK moment is coming...


  19. [19] 
    Michale wrote:
  20. [20] 
    Michale wrote:

    I bet that Obama and Sestak are on their knees today profusely thanking the gods for the Israelis and the IDF... :D


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