In Adviser's Resignation, Vetting Bites Obama Again

Van Jones, a senior adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, speaks at a clean-energy summit. At left is T. Boone Pickens.
Van Jones, a senior adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, speaks at a clean-energy summit. At left is T. Boone Pickens. (By Eric Jamison -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 7, 2009

The resignation of White House environmental adviser Van Jones has revealed a lapse in the administration's vetting procedures that, nearly eight months into his tenure, delivered President Obama with an unwelcome distraction as he begins an important week on behalf of his health-care reform initiative.

Jones's resignation late Saturday came as calls for his ouster increased from Republican leaders, who have been critical of past statements and associations that have also taken the White House by surprise. His departure as a top adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality leaves Obama's push to create "green" jobs, which he has called an essential element of the more stable economy he is trying to build, without a leader.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Sunday explained the resignation on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," saying Jones "decided that the agenda of this president was bigger than any one individual." Obama does not endorse Jones's past statements and actions, Gibbs said, "but he thanks him for his service."

Jones, a towering figure in the environmental movement, had issued two public apologies in recent days. One was for signing a petition in 2004 from the group that questioned whether officials in President George W. Bush's administration "may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext for war," and the other for using a crude term to describe Republicans in a speech he gave before joining the administration.

His involvement with the now-defunct Bay Area radical group Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM), which had Marxist roots, also emerged as an issue. And on Saturday, his advocacy on behalf of death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of fatally shooting a Philadelphia police officer in 1981, threatened to further deepen the controversy. A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel matter, said Sunday that Jones's past was not studied as intensively as that of other advisers because of his relatively low rank.

While some conservatives tried to portray Jones as one of Obama's many issue czars, he was not. Nancy Sutley, head of the White House environmental council, hired him as her "special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation" in mid-March, and he reported to her rather than to Obama. Because Jones's position did not require Senate confirmation, he avoided the kind of vetting that Cabinet officials were subjected to. "He was not as thoroughly vetted as other administration officials," the official said. "It's fair to say there were unknowns."

Those procedures were tightened during the transition after a history of unpaid taxes emerged during the confirmation hearings of two high-profile nominees -- Timothy F. Geithner and Thomas A. Daschle. Geithner was later confirmed as Treasury secretary, but Daschle withdrew from consideration as secretary of Health and Human Services.

Jones's skill in conveying how clean energy could provide economic opportunities for Americans across social strata earned him a prominent place in the green movement. In his six months at the CEQ, he delivered about two dozen speeches nationwide, as varied as an address in Indianapolis to trainees for a weatherization drive and a talk at a sustainability event in Philadelphia.

Kate Gordon, who serves as both a senior policy adviser for the Apollo Alliance and vice president of energy policy at the Center for American Progress, said Jones managed to make the idea of embarking on "a new industrial revolution . . . really compelling." He served as a senior fellow at the CAP, a liberal think tank, and as a board member of the Apollo Alliance, a clean energy coalition.

"He really transformed it from an idea to a movement," Gordon said. "He was very much in a spokesperson role. Van himself would say he's not a policy wonk."

Jones, who wrote the best-selling 2008 book "The Green Collar Economy" and graduated from Yale Law School, drew the attention of administration officials for his ability to forge alliances between people of color and a variety of groups such as labor unions to corporations.

"It didn't take work to find him," said Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the CAP. "If you actually look at the substance of this [clean energy work], it's Chamber of Commerce stuff."

Jones informed Sutley on Saturday night that he was stepping down; the formal announcement came minutes after midnight Sunday morning. In a written statement, Jones said: "On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me. They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide." He continued: "I have been inundated with calls -- from across the political spectrum -- urging me to 'stay and fight.' But I came here to fight for others, not for myself. I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past. We need all hands on deck, fighting for the future."

Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck began the drive against Jones. Beck's campaign grew more vitriolic after a group Jones founded in 2005,, led an advertising boycott against his show to protest Beck's assertion that Obama is a racist. Republican calls for Jones to step down grew over the weekend. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) called on Jones to resign Friday, saying in a statement, "His extremist views and coarse rhetoric have no place in this administration or the public debate."

Environmentalists said they hope Obama will press for the clean energy priorities Jones championed.

David Axelrod, an Obama senior adviser, suggested on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the president would continue to do so. "The political environment is rough, and so these things get magnified," he said. "But the bottom line is that he showed his commitment to the cause of creating green jobs in this country by removing himself as an issue, and I think that took a great deal of commitment on his part."

Staff writers Garance Franke-Ruta and Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company