Right-wing media are comparing false allegations that the White House “bribed” Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) with an administration job to the Watergate scandal. In fact, legal experts have rejected the claims that such offers are a bribe or are illegal.
Right-wing media dub false allegations about Sestak “bribe” as “Obama's Watergate”
Kuhner: “The White House is facing a major scandal. ... It could be his Watergate.” In a May 28 Washington Times column, Jeffrey Kuhner wrote that "[t]he White House is facing a major scandal -- one that threatens to bring down President Obama. It could be his Watergate." Kuhner stated that if the allegation is “true -- and I believe it is -- then the Obama administration has committed a serious felony. The White House has engaged in 'high crimes and misdemeanors' -- an impeachable offense.” From the article:
At its core, Watergate was about the criminality and abuse of power that pervaded the Nixon White House. It eventually destroyed Richard Nixon's administration.
The Sestak scandal is Mr. Obama's Watergate -- a political cancer that will slowly devour his presidency. It will first consume the president's men, as they desperately seek to contain the damage. Many may fall on their swords. But this cancer threatens to spread all the way to the top, claiming Mr. Obama as its ultimate progenitor and victim.
Fox & Friends hosts Issa to promote idea that the situation is similar to “Watergate.” On the May 26 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Gretchen Carlson hosted Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) to discuss his request for a “special counsel to investigate” the allegations. Issa compared the situation to “Watergate” and said that “there's been an allegation of what could be up to three felonies.” Carlson also asked whether the allegations, if true, amounted to “an impeachable offense,” and Issa replied, “I think it was Dick Morris who said that, and you know, you can only impeach the president. You can't impeach his staff. ... Until we know who made the offer, we really don't know.” On Fox News' Hannity, Morris had claimed that if the allegation was true it would amount to an “impeachable offense.”
Drudge latches on to Issa's “Watergate” claim. The Drudge Report linked to a May 26 The Hill article highlighting Issa's comparisons, under the headline, “Issa: Job offer scandal could be Obama's 'Watergate.' ” From Drudge:
RedState: “Obama's Watergate?” A May 27 RedState.com post titled, “Obama's Watergate?” stated: “With all the attention on President Obama's bungling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the news of Congressional calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate of an alleged job offer by the Obama Administration to get Congressman Joe Sestak (D-PA) out of the Pennsylvania Senate race has been pushed down the news pages. This is a serious matter and something that will not be brushed aside. Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), former Bush Administration official Karl Rove and Senate Judiciary Republicans have raised the issue that somebody in the Obama Administration may have committed a felony.”
Legal experts dispute claims that a crime was committed
Bush ethics lawyer calls claim that a job offer is a “bribe” “difficult to support.” In a post on the Legal Ethics Forum blog, former Bush administration chief ethics lawyer Richard Painter wrote: “The allegation that the job offer was somehow a 'bribe' in return for Sestak not running in the primary is difficult to support.” Painter also wrote:
The job offer may have been a way of getting Sestak out of Specter's way, but this also is nothing new. Many candidates for top Administration appointments are politically active in the President's political party. Many are candidates or are considering candidacy in primaries. White House political operatives don't like contentious fights in their own party primaries and sometimes suggest jobs in the Administration for persons who otherwise would be contenders. For the White House, this is usually a “win-win” situation, giving the Administration politically savvy appointees in the Executive Branch and fewer contentious primaries for the Legislative Branch. This may not be best for voters who have less choice as a result, and Sestak thus should be commended for saying “no”. The job offer, however, is hardly a “bribe” when it is one of two alternatives that are mutually exclusive.
Painter: "[D]ifficult to envision applying" bribery statute to Sestak job offer. In a subsequent blog post replying to Issa's call for a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate possible criminal charges, Painter wrote: “The Administration probably should provide the information needed to clarify what happened, but the bribery statute citied by Congressman Issa is, for reasons explained in my previous post, difficult to envision applying to this situation.”
CREW executive director: “I don't see the crime.” CNS News reported that Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor, commented of the allegations: “I don't see the crime.” From the March 24 CNS News article:
“People offer members of Congress things all the time,” Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and now the executive director of the liberal government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told CNSNews.com. “I don't think there is any issue. I don't see the crime.”
If it is true, such a trade would be an indictment of the system, Sloan of CREW said, but not likely illegal.
“A quid pro quo has to offer something of value in exchange for something,” Sloan said. “If you agree not to run for the Senate and we'll make you secretary of the Navy -- that offers no monetary value. It's just the unseemly side of politics.”
Sloan: “There is no bribery case here.” Talking Points Memo's Zachary Roth reported in a May 25 post that “several experts tell TPMmuckraker this is much ado about nothing” and quoted Sloan saying, “There is no bribery case here. ... No statute has ever been used to prosecute anybody for bribery in circumstances like this.” Sloan also said: “It's not at all about whether there was actual criminal wrongdoing. ... It's about how to go after Sestak.”
Brand: “I don't put much stock in this, and I don't think its gonna go anywhere;” charges have “no legal substance.” Roth also quoted Stan Brand, a “prominent Washington criminal defense lawyer,” saying that “people horse trade politically all the time. ... So I don't put much stock in this, and I don't think its gonna go anywhere.” Brand is also quoted in Mother Jones magazine saying claims that the alleged actions are illegal “is a nice political ploy. ... But it has no legal substance. The president can promise Sestak the moon for a political reason. That's the system.”
Zeidenberg: “Horrible precedent” to treat “horsetrading” “in the criminal context.” Roth also quoted Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor with the Justice Department's Public Integrity unit, saying, “Talk about criminalizing the political process!... It would be horrible precedent if what really truly is political horsetrading were viewed in the criminal context of: is this a corrupt bribe?”
Kaufman: “Tell me a White House that didn't do this, back to George Washington.” The New York Times reported that Ron Kaufman, who served as President George H.W. Bush's White House political director, “said it would not be surprising for a White House to use political appointments to accomplish a political goal. 'Tell me a White House that didn't do this, back to George Washington,' Mr. Kaufman said.”
Riley: “It is completely unexceptional ... the fact that it's spun out into a scandal has been surprising.” In a Huffington Post article about how “seasoned political observers, historians, and lawyers are responding [to the allegations] with veritable yawns,” Dr. Russell Riley, an associate professor and chair of the Miller Center's Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia, is quoted as saying, “It is completely unexceptional. ... I read some place today that this is evidently illegal, which was shocking news to me. I don't know what the statutes are that would bear on this ... it just doesn't seem to me to particularly rise to the level of being newsworthy in the first place and the fact that it's spun out into a scandal has been surprising.”
Edwards: “All this is old news historically.” The Huffington Post also quoted George Edwards, a distinguished professor of political science and Jordan Chair in presidential studies at Texas A&M University, saying: “There is no question whatsoever that presidents have often offered people positions to encourage them not to do something or make it awkward for them to do it. Presidents have also offered people back-ups if they ran for an office and lost. All this is old news historically.”
Wash. Post: "[E]thics laws do not seem designed for this circumstance." In a May 25 editorial, The Washington Post stated: “Would it be illegal? Mr. Specter said so, but ethics laws do not seem designed for this circumstance. Ordinarily, bribery takes place in the opposite direction: Government officials aren't usually the ones offering something of value. Other statutes prohibit officials from using their power to interfere in an election, or to, directly or indirectly, promise a job as 'reward for any political activity.' But these have been understood to prevent official coercion, not criminalize horse-trading.” The editorial continued:
Still, the White House position that everyone should just trust it and go away is unacceptable from any administration; it is especially hypocritical coming from this one. “I'm not going to get further into what the conversations were,” Mr. Gibbs said Sunday. “People that have looked into them assure me that they weren't inappropriate in any way.” This response would hardly have satisfied those who were upset during the previous administration about the firing of U.S. attorneys. If there was nothing improper, why not all that sunlight Mr. Obama promised?
Reagan administration reportedly offered job for candidate to step down
Reagan adviser reportedly offered CA senator a job with the administration “if he decided not to seek re-election.” A November 25, 1981, Associated Press article (from the Nexis database) reported that President Reagan's political adviser Ed Rollins planned to offer former California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa a job in the administration in exchange for not seeking re-election.
From the AP article:
Sen. S.I. Hayakawa on Wednesday spurned a Reagan administration suggestion that if he drops out of the crowded Republican Senate primary race in California, President Reagan would find him a job.
“I'm not interested,” said the 75-year-old Hayakawa.
“I do not want to be an ambassador, and I do not want an administration post.”
In an interview earlier this week, Ed Rollins, who will become the president's chief political adviser in January, said Hayakawa would be offered an administration post if he decided not to seek re-election. No offer has been made directly to Hayakawa, Rollins said.
Similarly, Hayakawa said in a statement, “I have not contacted the White House in regard to any administration or ambassadorial post, and they have not been in contact with me.”
AP: “Ethics attorneys in Washington said such offers are common.” A February 19 AP article reported: “Ethics attorneys in Washington said such offers are common. Melanie Sloan, director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, described it as 'politics as usual.' ”
Wash. Post: “This would hardly be the first administration” to offer a job to “clear the field.” A May 25 Washington Post editorial critical of the Obama administration's response stated: “At the same time, of course, political considerations play a role in political appointments. This would hardly be the first administration to use appointments to try to clear the field for a favored candidate.”