Robert Gibbs raises the Sestak stonewall 

The White House’s self-exonerating report on the Joe Sestak affair has given spokesman Robert Gibbs a new way not to answer questions.  Now, when asked about the offer of a federal position to Sestak in return for Sestak’s agreement not to challenge Sen. Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, Gibbs simply refers reporters to the White House report.  When reporters respond that the questions are not answered by the report, Gibbs freely acknowledges that — and then refers them to the report again.  And so on.

Tuesday’s White House briefing was Gibbs’ first since the report, prepared by White House counsel Robert Bauer, was released on Friday.  One big question about the report concerns Bauer’s statement that, “Efforts were made in June and July of 2009 to determine whether Congressman Sestak would be interested in service on a presidential or other Senior Executive Branch Advisory Board…”  The plural “efforts” and the specific mention of June and July suggest that the White House plan involved more than one approach to Sestak.  Yet Sestak says he received just one call, from former President Bill Clinton, the White House intermediary in the effort.

This apparent contradiction raises obvious questions. And so a reporter said to Gibbs Tuesday, “The counsel’s memo on Friday said that efforts were made in June and July of 2009.  Were there multiple efforts and were all those made by President Clinton?”

“Whatever is in the memo is accurate,” Gibbs said.

“Okay, but, I mean, with regards to June and July, I mean, were all those President Clinton, or — ”

“I think the relationship on how that happened, yes, is explained in the memo,” Gibbs said.

But that wasn’t explained in the memo at all.  The reporter continued: “Joe Sestak said he had one conversation with President Clinton.”

“Let me check,” said Gibbs.

Gibbs has promised to “check” on details on many occasions during the Sestak affair; it’s unlikely that reporters expect an answer.  At that point, the reporter moved on to a particularly intriguing part of the story.  After the White House report came out, it became clear that the unpaid position Clinton apparently offered Sestak, a seat on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, was a position for which Sestak was ineligible, because the Board’s rules expressly forbid employees of the U.S. government from serving and Sestak is a member of Congress. So another question came up.

“The Intelligence Advisory Board, which most reports said this offer was for, that would be a position a member of the House could not serve on,” a reporter said.

“That’s how I understand the way the PIAB is written,” Gibbs said.

“But the memo, it said that this would be a position to serve in the House and serve on a presidential advisory board.”

“Correct,” Gibbs said.

“Well, how could he sit on the board?”

“He couldn’t,” Gibbs said.

“So that wasn’t the offer, then?”

“I’d refer you to — ”

“What position, what board, was it then?  Do you know?”

“I’d refer you to the memo.”

“But the memo didn’t specify.”

“Right,” Gibbs said.  “Thank you.”

And that was the end of that. The Bauer memo didn’t answer the questions, but when reporters asked the questions, Gibbs referred them to the Bauer memo.  Doing so also just happened to deflect any blame from Gibbs himself.  But Gibbs does bear some responsibility for all this.  He is a member of the president’s inner circle, and he played a role in the White House handling of the Sestak revelations.  But when asked about that, he responded with what could charitably called a non sequitur.

“I’m just wondering, if it’s not a big deal, as you guys are saying,” a reporter asked Gibbs, “then why did we wait for three months to answer that question?”

“I’d have to ask counsel for a better answer on that,” Gibbs said.  “I don’t know the answer.”

“Don’t you have something to do with that as the chief spokesman for the White House?” the reporter continued.  “You were asked on a number of occasions and don’t you think that that kind of created — ”

“If I bear some responsibility for that, I can understand that,” Gibbs said.

What did that mean?  If Gibbs bears some responsibility — and he certainly does — then he can understand that?  But wasn’t the question why the White House waited for months to address the Sestak issue?  It’s all well and good that Gibbs can understand the question.  It would be even better if he would answer it.

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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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