Faced with a wide range of personal or ethical questions, some politicians are trying out an old strategy that has long been considered obsolete: hiding out.
Rather than publicly confronting the issues, they have had aides issue statements — sometimes denying allegations, sometimes apologizing — and then have simply declined to talk much further about the issues.
The strategy appears designed in part to avoid saying something that could be contradicted by others, but there is also an underlying sense that voters cannot pay attention to one thing for long in the nonstop-news era of President Trump — that if they just keep their heads down, particularly over the holiday weekend, people will forget about the unanswered questions.
There’s Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who felt compelled to apologize when two women accused him of inappropriate sexual conduct. Franken was last seen in public on the morning of Nov. 16 at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which he sits. He disappeared before the hearing began, just before the first allegation against him appeared online.
Franken’s apologies have included suggestions that he remembers the incidents differently, but he has declined to explain his side of things, even to news media in Minnesota. He has not returned to the state and is instead holed up in his family’s home in Washington’s Tenleytown neighborhood this week, even though Congress is not in session.
Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore of Alabama has issued repeated denials since The Washington Post published a story two weeks ago in which four women said he pursued them romantically when they were teenagers and Moore was in his 30s. Several more similar allegations have surfaced since, but Moore has submitted to only one detailed interview about the allegations, on Sean Hannity’s radio show.
It went poorly, prompting most leading Republicans in Washington to declare that they believe Moore’s accusers and to ask him to withdraw from the race.
This head-in-the-sand approach has confounded some in the capital.
“Sen. Al Franken crisis strategy: hide out in DC for Thanksgiving, hoping this blows over and people quickly forget. Better to hold a Minnesota news conference before Turkey Day and apologize to voters who elected you,” Ron Bonjean, a Republican crisis communications expert, tweeted Sunday.
Bonjean has experienced these matters firsthand. Fifteen years ago, he served as a top adviser to Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was poised to reclaim the post of Senate majority leader after the GOP’s successful 2002 midterms. But about a month later, Lott made a racially insensitive joke at a celebration of Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, leading to a reevaluation of Lott’s previous statements on civil rights.
Rather than quickly making a public appearance to explain himself, as some friends suggested, Lott chose to issue a few prepared statements, then went on a private trip to Florida before flying home to Mississippi for the holidays.
Almost 10 days into the scandal, Lott finally gave in to demands from his colleagues and did a TV interview. He went on BET with Tavis Smiley and tried to answer every painful question.
The damage was already too deep. He resigned his leadership post three days later.
Lott rejected then what had become a commonly accepted practice of getting out in front of bad news on your own terms. The term “Friday news dump” came from that era, signifying when administrations announce bad news late in the week, admitting mistakes publicly but timing the release of information to get the least attention.
Another violation of this principle is happening in Detroit, where Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) is not explaining what happened in his office to cause a nearly $30,000 payout to a former female staffer who said he sexually harassed her. Conyers answered the door to his home Tuesday when the Associated Press sought him out, but his answers were contradictory and confused. Since then, he has spoken only through legalistic statements issued by his staff.
Bonjean believes the old rules still apply, particularly in the prevailing charged environment in which allegations of sexual misconduct by powerful men are roiling industries from Hollywood to Washington.
“What Franken, Conyers and Moore are underestimating is the anger of female voters out there. It’s not going away for these guys,” Bonjean said in an interview. “Better to deliver your message on your own terms.”
By not addressing these issues, the lawmakers create the impression that they are hiding something.
In Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul (R) has refused to talk about an attack on him allegedly by a next-door neighbor in Bowling Green during which six of Paul’s ribs were broken. Paul is the victim here, not the assailant, but for nearly three weeks, his silence has helped propel speculation.
On Wednesday, his wife, Kelley Paul, published an op-ed saying her husband now has pneumonia and denying that there was any “ongoing dispute” with the neighbor. She called the attack “deliberate” and complained about media coverage of the matter.
Her comments contradict the suggestions of the senator’s own friends that it was a property dispute that has lasted for years.
Local authorities have charged the neighbor only with a misdemeanor. If federal authorities thought the matter was a politically motivated attack on a U.S. senator, they would have jurisdiction and could file charges, but they have not done so.
The prototype for handling controversy may be the case of Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who was arrested for drunken driving in Alexandria, Va., in December 2012, far away from his apartment on Capitol Hill. He went on what his aides called an “apology tour” that included interviews with Idaho media.
Crapo is a Mormon who had said he does not drink alcohol, and his standing could have fallen apart under perceptions of hypocrisy. It is still unclear why he went for a drive far away from his apartment after drinking shots of vodka, but his voters accepted his full-fledged apology.
Last year, his opponent raised questions about the arrest. Virginia’s disclosure laws are so restrictive that Idaho media could not obtain the detailed police report.
The senator obtained the report himself and gave it to the media, leading to more stories about the most embarrassing night of his political career. He apologized again.
He then won reelection by more than 35 percentage points.