Mr. Abramoff's Meetings

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

HERE ARE SOME things we know about Jack Abramoff and the White House: The disgraced lobbyist raised at least $100,000 for President Bush's reelection campaign. He had long-standing ties to Karl Rove, a key presidential adviser. He had extensive dealings with executive branch officials and departments -- one of whom, former procurement chief David H. Safavian, has been charged by federal prosecutors with lying to investigators about his involvement with Mr. Abramoff.

We also know that Mr. Abramoff is an admitted crook who was willing to bribe members of Congress and their staffs to get what he (or his clients) wanted. In addition to attending a few White House Hanukkah parties and other events at which he had his picture snapped with the president, Mr. Abramoff had, according to the White House, "a few staff-level meetings" with White House aides.

Here is what we don't know about Jack Abramoff and the White House: whom he met with and what was discussed. Nor, if the White House sticks to its current position, will we learn that anytime soon. Press secretary Scott McClellan told the White House press corps: "If you've got some specific issue that you need to bring to my attention, fine. But what we're not going to do is engage in a fishing expedition that has nothing to do with the investigation."

This is not a tenable position. It's undisputed that Mr. Abramoff tried to use his influence, and his restaurant and his skyboxes and his chartered jets, to sway lawmakers and their staffs. Information uncovered by Mr. Bush's own Justice Department shows that Mr. Abramoff tried to do the same inside the executive branch.

Under these circumstances, asking about Mr. Abramoff's White House meetings is no mere exercise in reportorial curiosity but a legitimate inquiry about what an admitted felon might have been seeking at the highest levels of government. Whatever White House officials did or didn't do, there is every reason to believe that Mr. Abramoff was up to no good and therefore every reason the public ought to know with whom he was meeting.

Mr. McClellan dismisses requests for the information as an effort to play "partisan politics," and no doubt there is more than an element of partisanship in Democrats' efforts to extract this information. But Republicans wouldn't stand for this kind of stonewalling if the situation were reversed. We can say that with confidence because history proves it. During the 1996 scandal over foreign fundraising in the Clinton White House, Republicans demanded -- and obtained, though not without a fight -- extensive information about White House coffees and other meetings, including photos and videotapes.

"Any suggestion by critics or anybody else to suggest that the president was doing something nefarious with Jack Abramoff is absolutely wrong, and it's absurd," presidential adviser Dan Bartlett said on NBC's "Today" show. The best way to refute such "absurd" suggestions is to get all of Mr. Abramoff's dealings with the Bush White House and the Bush administration out in the open -- now.


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