In Washington, it’s often more the cover-up than the scandal that undoes a president.
“And when it’s over, we’ll be hard-pressed to remember how it began.”
So wrote Jay Carney, then a correspondent for Time magazine, in 2007, in the midst of the Bush administration’s growing second-term problems.
Carney now serves as press secretary for President Barack Obama as potentially disabling second-term crises have arisen on three fronts: The administration’s handling of the fatal attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya, the Internal Revenue Service’s handling of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status and the Justice Department’s surveillance of reporters’ telephone records in a case of purported national security.
The White House was at the center of only one of these matters — public communication about the Benghazi attack. The IRS and Justice Department brought the other problems to the White House’s doorstep — it appears, with the administration maintaining it knew nothing of either affair at the time it was conducted. Yet the White House stands front and center on the question of what might be done about apparent over-reaching of government police power — the Justice Department, on the receiving and giving end here, has opened a criminal investigation of the IRS. And Attorney General Eric Holder is on the Hill today.
The White House, many of its own allies are saying, has been slow to learning the lesson that, in crisis management, the management is often more important than the crisis. And, as Bloomberg and others are reporting this morning, the Obama White House needs an accelerated learning curve.
“There’s an industrial-scandal complex that exists in Washington, D.C.,” says Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who worked as a special assistant counsel to Clinton. “You need to have some kind of entity within the building that’s capable of managing these situations.”
The administration’s response “sounded exceedingly passive to me,” Robert Gibbs, Obama’s first press secretary, said in an interview on MSNBC. “The tenor of this briefing would be different if the president had spoken about this on Saturday or Sunday and not on Monday.”
As Carney himself put it, with Time co-author Massimo Calabresi, in 2007:
In Washington, scandals metastasize, growing and changing until we can’t remember what they were about in the beginning. A bungled burglary became a cancer on the presidency, forcing Richard Nixon to resign in disgrace. A money-losing Arkansas real estate deal led to Monica, a blue dress and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Already, the furor over the dismissal of eight U.S. Attorneys has shifted focus from the crass but essentially routine exercise of political patronage to the essential project of George W. Bush’s presidency: its deliberate and aggressive efforts to expand and protect Executive power.
Which is why divining the true motives behind the dismissals is only part of the battle under way in Washington. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have spent six years expanding presidential powers at the expense of Congress and the judiciary, from authorizing domestic wiretapping to limiting habeas corpus and changing bills through signing statements. Democrats, in control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 12 years, are determined to reclaim what they can. And the U.S. Attorneys case gives them powerful new ammunition.
Just getting Karl Rove and other top White House officials to testify could be as important as anything they might say, since it would set a precedent of sorts as Democrats push to investigate internal White House deliberations on everything from Iraq-war contracting to the use of prewar intelligence. Bush is resisting, offering to give only limited interviews with lawmakers with no transcript. Anything more than that, he says, would be an infringement on presidential privilege.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales remains a likely casualty, but the history of past scandals suggests his resignation would not be enough to end the current one. Hearings will be held, subpoenas issued, new investigations launched. And when it’s over, we’ll be hard-pressed to remember how it began.