Craig's About-Face Worries GOP Colleagues
Lawmaker Changes His Mind, Plans to Stay in Senate if Guilty Plea in Airport Arrest Is Dropped

By Paul Kane and Robert Barnes Staff Writer and Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

Sen. Larry E. Craig yesterday launched a campaign to save his political career, dismaying fellow Republicans with his determination to stay in the Senate if he successfully overturns his guilty plea, made after he was arrested in a sex sting in an airport men's room.

The Idaho lawmaker called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), telling him that he plans to finish his term through 2008 if he manages to have the charges against him dismissed by Sept. 30. Meanwhile, his attorneys sought to quash an ethics committee investigation, prompting a rare public rebuff from the panel's leadership, who said that their probe will continue.

Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after his arrest at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in June, paid a fine and was sentenced to a year's probation. He said on Saturday that he intended to resign at the end of the month.

But his new determination to fight surprised his colleagues and prompted a new round of calls that he step down.

"If he is able to get the case favorably disposed of in Minneapolis, it would be his intention to come back to the Senate . . . and to try to finish his term," McConnell told reporters after his discussion with Craig. He said he stood by his earlier comments that Craig should step down. "I thought he made the correct decision -- the difficult but correct decision -- to resign," McConnell said.

"Any reconsideration would be a mistake," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), referring to the earlier decision to resign.

The White House pressed Craig to stick to his plan to resign. Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten noted on last night's PBS "NewsHour" that President Bush called Craig after his announcement last weekend and considered it "the right decision for himself and for Idaho." Bolten added: "I think Senator Craig is going to conclude that that remains the right decision."

Craig's only outspoken backer is his home-state colleague, Sen. Michael D. Crapo (R), who told reporters: "I'll support whatever Larry does."

Yesterday, Craig's attorneys asked the Senate ethics committee not to pursue a complaint filed against him by GOP leaders, including McConnell. One of them, Stanley Brand, contended in a letter to the committee that it has not sanctioned senators for low-level offenses such as misdemeanors and that it does not have the jurisdiction to investigate personal conduct not involved with official actions.

In a letter released by the Senate GOP leadership, the committee said it will go forward with its inquiry as long as Craig continues to serve. The letter, co-signed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who head the evenly divided bipartisan panel, quoted the chamber's ethics manual as saying that senators can be reprimanded for "any misconduct, including conduct or activity which does not directly relate to official duties, when such conduct unfavorably reflects on the institution as a whole."

In a statement last night, Craig responded: "It is my intent to fight the case before the Ethics Committee while I am a sitting senator, so that I can have my name cleared."

What is unclear from Craig's statements, and his comments to McConnell, are his intentions if his effort to overturn the Minnesota plea is successful and results in a judge scheduling a full trial on the charges against him. Aides and legal advisers declined to say whether Craig would then return to the Senate and battle both the criminal case in Minnesota and the ethics inquiry on Capitol Hill beyond the end of September.

According to legal analysts, a full public trial is about the best outcome Craig could hope for in his legal case. Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer Jon M. Hopeman said it is "almost impossible" to withdraw a guilty plea after sentencing without showing that "the person did not understand the nature of the legal proceeding."

"The issue will be, 'Was the plea voluntary and intelligently made and did the [defendant] know the consequences?' " Hopeman said.

But University of Minnesota law professor Stephen Simon said one chance Craig has is if he can prove that, during the court proceedings, he was not informed of his right to counsel.

The Aug. 8 plea agreement signed by Craig states the constitutional rights he had waived -- for instance, the right to a jury trial -- but does not specifically mention the right to have an attorney.

It might seem common sense that a senator would understand his rights, Simon acknowledged, but he added that courts "are very careful not to have a subjective constitutional standard." Simon cautioned that Craig might have been informed of his rights at an earlier hearing. He was alerted about his right to an attorney when arrested on June 11, according to the audiotape of the arrest interview released last week.

Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.

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