Mr. Abramoff's Meetings, Again

Saturday, January 28, 2006

IF A TYPICAL picture is worth a thousand words, a picture of President Bush with Jack Abramoff, we suppose, might be worth about 10,000. And so we understand the desire of our more visually inclined colleagues to obtain photos of the president and the criminal. But the focus on the photos distracts from a more important question that the president managed to duck in his news conference Thursday: Who in the White House and administration met with Mr. Abramoff, and what were those meetings about?

It is no answer to this question to say, as Mr. Bush did, that "there is a serious investigation going on by federal prosecutors" and "if they believe something was done inappropriately in the White House, they'll come and look, and they're welcome to do so." It is no answer to dismiss questions about Mr. Abramoff and the White House, as press secretary Scott McClellan has, by calling them a "fishing expedition." If there is one thing that is now clear, anything involving Mr. Abramoff is, by definition, fishy.

There are any number of matters of legitimate inquiry and public concern involving Mr. Abramoff and his White House dealings that might not rise to the level of a criminal prosecution. Mr. Abramoff has admitted bribing public officials. He collected at least $100,000 for Mr. Bush's reelection. He took David H. Safavian, then the chief of staff at the General Services Administration and later the administration's top procurement official, on a luxury golfing trip to Scotland; it was, as Mr. Abramoff said in an e-mail, a "total business angle."

The president himself attended a White House meeting with some of Mr. Abramoff's clients. How did that get set up? The White House acknowledges that Mr. Abramoff had some "staff-level meetings" there. With whom, and about what?

Republicans didn't tolerate this kind of behavior from the Clinton White House in the midst of its fundraising scandal. "At every turn, they are stonewalling, covering up and hiding," Haley Barbour, then the head of the Republican National Committee, said as the Clinton administration tried to brush off questions about its fundraising before the 1996 election. Mr. Barbour complained of the administration's "utter contempt . . . for the public's right to know."

Such obstructionism is no more acceptable now. The public understands this: Three-fourths of those surveyed in a new Washington Post/ABC poll said the White House should disclose the contacts. "This needs to be cleared up so the people have confidence in the system," Mr. Bush said. Our point exactly.

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