Bush Aide Addresses Missing RNC E-Mails
Friday, August 3, 2007
A young White House political aide was grilled inconclusively by the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday about the firings of U.S. attorneys after Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser, failed to show up at the committee's hearing in response to a subpoena.
J. Scott Jennings, 29, the deputy political director for the White House, refused to address the firings but tried to explain how thousands -- or possibly millions -- of White House e-mails to and from the political office were transmitted only through communications accounts controlled by the Republican National Committee.
That use of the RNC accounts put some of the political office's messages outside the reach of the National Archives, which sought to preserve them under a federal law mandating eventual public access, and the reach of Democratic congressional investigators, who have sought to look at them for evidence of improper actions.
Jennings offered a stripped-down explanation: He wanted a White House-supplied BlackBerry and was told no, and so he got one from the RNC, as many other political affairs aides had done. "I was receiving a lot of e-mail on my official account. And I requested [a BlackBerry] at that moment, and I was told that it wasn't the custom to give political affairs staffers those devices," Jennings said.
Jennings, 29, appeared as part of the panel's ongoing investigation into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year as well as other allegations of politicization at the Justice Department, a probe that has created offshoot inquiries into whether the Bush White House violated laws restricting political activity by federal employees.
In e-mails among top Justice staffers, obtained by the committee months ago, Jennings figured prominently in discussions about at least two of the ousted U.S. attorneys. But Jennings cited Bush's claim of "executive privilege" in refusing to answer questions about it. Rove, whose RNC e-mail address shows up on some of the e-mails discussing the firings, cited the same privilege claim in refusing to appear.
"Where is Karl Rove? Why is he hiding? Why does he throw a young staffer like you into the line of fire while he hides behind the White House curtains?" Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Jennings, who said that he spoke several times a day with Rove.
Jennings's testimony on the RNC e-mails was the most detailed explanation to date of why President Bush's top political aides had sent and received so many e-mails on their RNC accounts. House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) is probing whether the use of RNC e-mails for official purposes violated federal laws requiring presidential records to be preserved.
The RNC told Waxman recently that it has more than 200,000 e-mails sent and received by Rove, Jennings and Sara M. Taylor, the former White House political director.
Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel has said that aides such as Jennings and Rove, whose jobs required them to deal with outside political groups on a regular basis, were trying to avoid violating Hatch Act provisions forbidding federal property to be used for political purposes. But Stanzel added that the White House has issued a new policy on e-mail usage, directing aides to more carefully consider records preservation rules.
Jennings also confirmed that he has given more than 10 briefings to political appointees at federal agencies about the election prospects for Republican candidates. Jennings said the meetings were merely meant to thank the appointees and boost their morale, not to suggest they steer federal contracts and decisions for political purposes.