By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"Perhaps most disturbing is that this is an administration that claims to be the most transparent, accountable and ethical White House in history," Steele said in a statement. "The only thing we know for certain now is that they have failed on all three counts."
Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.) and nine other GOP lawmakers cited public-corruption statutes that make it a crime, among other things, to "directly or indirectly promise any employment position, compensation, contract, appointment or other benefit."
But as the details of the conversation emerged Friday, the Washington legal community -- which loves a good public inquiry -- seemed unimpressed.
Former Bush attorney general Michael B. Mukasey, who days earlier had said a special prosecutor might be warranted, changed his mind during an interview with Fox News.
"It really is a stretch," he said. "It would have to be something much more direct than what we have here."
"Not everything that is unseemly or exposes the underbelly of politics is a crime," said Stanley Brand, a lawyer who has represented Democratic and Republican members of Congress in ethics cases. But he added: "They didn't help themselves by waiting to do this till now. They fostered the notion that there's something wrong."
Sestak emerged from the Capitol after a long day of voting to find a swarm of reporters, who demanded to know why he had not divulged earlier the conversation with Clinton. He said that the call had lasted "30 to 60 seconds," but that he had not felt it proper to talk about it.
"I told President Clinton that my only consideration in getting into the Senate race or not was whether it was the right thing to do for Pennsylvania working families and not any offer," Sestak said in a statement.
If he had thought he was better off keeping quiet, everyone else involved apparently did, too. Clinton has remained silent throughout (and his spokesman could not be reached for comment Friday).
At the White House, reporters had tried for months to get answers, without luck. "I've talked to people that have talked to others in the White House," press secretary Robert Gibbs said in his March 16 briefing. "I'm told that whatever conversations have been had are not problematic."
Obama didn't provide much clarity. Asked about Sestak on Thursday, the president said: "I can assure the public that nothing improper took place."
White House officials said they knew the issue would return "with a vengeance" if Sestak won the primary. They were right.
The White House moved quickly to smooth over any hurt feelings. Obama called to congratulate Sestak on primary night, pledging to campaign for him. And the counsel's office gave Sestak's brother Richard, who serves as his campaign lawyer and adviser, notice that Bauer was going to call him with questions about Clinton's offer.
Joe Sestak said there are no hard feelings. "Look, I understand Washington, D.C., is often about political deals," he said outside the Capitol. "I didn't feel bad, or good, or indifferent."