Obama dodges, but Sestak questions won't go away 

How interested is Barack Obama in discussing Rep. Joe Sestak's allegation that the White House offered him a big government job if he would not challenge Sen. Arlen Specter, the White House's favored candidate in the Pennsylvania Senate primary?

Well, when the president was asked about it at his news conference Thursday -- the question didn't come up until the very last reporter was called on -- the normally long-winded Obama spoke for a total of 32 seconds.

"I can assure the public that nothing improper took place," Obama said, echoing earlier statements from White House officials who denied any wrongdoing. "There will be an official response shortly." And that was that.

Obama's brief answer brought a smile to Rep. Darrell Issa, who has been pursuing the Sestak issue in his role as ranking Republican on the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform. "That means the answer will be forthcoming after the lights go out for the weekend," Issa said shortly after the news conference. "While the president is away and nobody's available, a statement will come out."

The way Issa sees it, the White House has to thread the needle when it finally responds to Sestak's charges. A retired Navy admiral, Sestak is now the Democratic candidate for Senate from Pennsylvania, and the White House wants all the Democratic senators it can get. So they can't come out and call Sestak a liar or a hack. On the other hand, they can't admit that what Sestak is saying is true, because that would be, in the words of top White House adviser David Axelrod, a "serious breach of the law."

So what can the White House do? "They can say we're sorry, that the job offer was not intended to be a quid pro quo," Issa says. "They can say that we offered a job to a person who was in the process of running for a Senate seat but who we felt he was better suited to be secretary of the Navy, and we never intended for it to be a quid pro quo but rather to fill our Cabinet with good people. That's the only thread-the-needle that I see."

It might thread the needle, but it won't end the questions. Say it turns out, as everyone believes, that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was the official who talked to Sestak, and the job in question was secretary of the Navy. "Everybody is going to ask [Emanuel], Did you talk to the president about this?" Issa says. "What happened when [Sestak] turned you down? Did you believe he would get out of the race for this job? Did you talk to Arlen Specter about this? All those questions are inevitable."

Inevitable that they'll be asked, but not that they'll be answered, or that the answers will satisfy critics. The matter at hand is a conversation that took place between Sestak and the White House. To determine whether any wrongdoing occurred, we have to learn both sides of the conversation. If the White House releases its side of the story, then we'll have to hear from Sestak, who has so far refused to provide any details. Only then can investigators evaluate both versions of events.

Which is why on Wednesday all seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee -- a group that included the moderate Sen. Orrin Hatch -- wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder to ask that a special prosecutor be appointed to look into the Sestak matter. Citing Axelrod's statements, the senators wrote, "We do not believe the Department of Justice can properly defer to White House lawyers to investigate a matter that could involve a 'serious breach of the law.' "

Holder has already rejected a similar request from Issa. And no Democrats in the House or Senate support a Justice Department investigation, nor does the White House. With total one-party control of the government, a formal probe is highly unlikely. But some Democrats do want the issue to be resolved and have urged both sides to get the facts out.

The next move is up to the White House. Nobody expects a holiday-weekend news release to end the matter, but it will be the start of what could be a long process. "Everyone is going to have follow-up questions," says Issa. "And I'm a patient man."

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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