An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that former Colorado state House speaker Andrew Romanoff said the White House had offered him a job if he dropped out of a Democratic primary. Though press accounts have alleged it, Romanoff has not confirmed that such an offer occurred.
Sestak: Bill Clinton offered him job to quit race
Friday, May 28, 2010; 2:00 PM
For nearly three months this year, President Obama and his senior White House aides resisted acknowledging what the top West Wing lawyer finally admitted on Friday: This administration plays politics.
And not always effectively.
In classic Washington fashion last summer, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel dispatched former president Bill Clinton to put the arm on an old friend, Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania. Sestak was planning to challenge Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary; Emanuel wanted him out of the way.
In a phone call, Clinton told Sestak that he had doubts about Sestak's chances of beating Specter. Then he dangled an offer: Would Sestak be willing to drop out of the race if Obama offered him an unpaid spot on a prestigious presidential advisory board? Sestak flatly turned him down.
"I said no," he wrote Friday in a statement, adding that "the former President said he knew I'd say that and the conversation moved on to other subjects." (Sestak handily beat Specter in the May 18 primary.)
Clinton's approach was not an illegal quid pro quo, White House chief counsel Bob Bauer insisted Friday in a two-page report on the conversation. "Such discussions are fully consistent with the relevant law and ethical requirements," he wrote.
Legality aside, it didn't look good, especially for Obama, a president who had run on a promise to change politics as usual in Washington.
The White House had tried this kind of thing before, sometimes with similar results. The maneuver with Sestak recalled Obama's unsuccessful attempts to talk New York's Democratic governor, David Paterson, out of running to retain his position, and the White House's failed attempt to persuade Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to run for the Senate.
Speculation about a deal with Sestak had been floating around Washington for months, ever since he let it slip in a February interview. But Sestak, and the White House, refused to give details about which post he had been offered or who had approached him. That only fed speculation that the administration had something to hide.
By refusing to divulge details for more than 90 days, the White House turned what might have been a minor irritant into a cable-news whodunit. It also gave conservative critics the opportunity to wonder just what the president might have offered to get Sestak out of the race.
"How do you make something out of nothing?" grumbled one Democratic operative who spoke on condition of asked for anonymity to talk candidly about the White House. "By acting guilty when you're innocent."
Republican critics intensified their attacks Friday, as they sensed a White House back on its heels. Ten GOP lawmakers wrote a letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III asking for an investigation. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele tried to hit Obama where it hurts.