The Missing Meetings

Who did Jack Abramoff see at the White House?

The drizzle of the White House briefing was interrupted this week by a pointed exchange between NBC’s David Gregory and spokesman Scott McClellan. Gregory repeatedly tried to get McClellan to talk about Jack Abramoff’s meetings with Bush administration officials, and McClellan repeatedly did not. McClellan wouldn’t say with whom the disgraced lobbyist met, what he was after, or what gift baskets he may have left behind. Had Karl Rove met with Abramoff, Gregory asked? “We don’t ever tend to get into those staff-level meetings,” McClellan said.

Potomac Fever has seized the Bush White House. That sickness, as defined by the Texans Bush brought with him to the White House in 2000, afflicts the self-important who stay in Washington too long. Sufferers forget that they work for The People and fall in love with the perks of their job. Clay Johnson, the head of White House personnel in the first term, set up a special Web site to inform White House aides about the symptoms associated with the disease. The site contains pictures of a limousine and a posh table setting as telltale signs of infection. Sufferers seeking a cure were encouraged to travel beyond the Beltway to talk to regular people, so that they’d remember who paid their salaries.

Jack Abramoff was the Typhoid Mary of Potomac Fever: He sucked up to people in power and showered them with gifts and favors in hopes that they would forget who they worked for and think they worked for him. Did White House aides succumb? McClellan’s argument for not telling us is that staff in the executive branch should be allowed to deliberate without fear of disclosure. Staffers can’t give honest advice if they’re constantly worried about how the public might react to every meeting they might hold. The courts upheld the idea when they rejected attempts by both the General Accounting Office and private watchdog groups to sue for the records detailing which representatives of which oil, gas, and coal companies helped Dick Cheney write the administration’s energy policy.

But like the government car, the “executive deliberation” perk can be abused. In this case, the White House isn’t protecting its sensitive decision-making process; it’s merely shielding itself from embarrassment. Congress may not have a legal right to demand records of meetings, but under the circumstances, Bush should voluntarily relinquish them to the public. Taxpayers may not have a right to sit in on every meeting and read every memo, but they should know whether Abramoff succeeded in putting his interests ahead of theirs inside the White House as well as Congress. The Bush campaign returned Abramoff’s donations to help remove the stink. But it won’t be able to fully fumigate until officials let us know who they met with and why.

Will it hurt the Bush administration politically to release the list? That depends who’s on it. Democratic leaders are making increasingly extravagant claims about the “culture of corruption” in Republican Washington, and they’ll pounce if Abramoff met with anyone more senior than the gardener. On the other hand, if there’s nothing for Bush officials to hide, it will draw a pointed contrast between the integrity of the executive branch and the corruptibility of the legislative. Disclosure ultimately helped cleanse the White House during the Enron scandal, when it was revealed that Ken Lay called then-Commerce Secretary Don Evans for a favor and Evans did nothing.

Furthermore, have White House officials already forgotten the benefits of the inching candor they displayed at the end of last year when talking about Iraq? By admitting mistakes—up to a point—they began to rebuild the president’s credibility enough so that people might listen when he made the more important case for finishing the job in Iraq. If he gives in on the tiny privilege of protecting staff meetings with a disgraced lobbyist, it might suggest that Bush doesn’t apply his powers wantonly and without thinking. That message of calibration is what Bush is trying to sell on the far more important question of whether it was legal and right for him to spy without warrants. And indeed, Team Bush doesn’t want to be still clutching the Abramoff meeting list while also defending against charges that the president abused his power by approving domestic eavesdropping.

Reporters aren’t going to stop pressing McClellan for that list of Abramoff meetings. The questioning will continue as it has with the disclosures about who in the White House talked about Joe Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame. And we’re likely to get the answer even faster with Abramoff than in the CIA leak case because, unlike reporters who fought to protect their sources, Abramoff and his partner Mike Scanlon are spilling the beans to investigators. Some of their older comments are talking for them, too. “Jack has a relationship with the president,” Scanlon told a Florida newspaper in 2001. “He doesn’t have a bat phone or anything, but if he wanted an appointment, he would have one.”

Saying that you can get an appointment with the president, by the way, is another symptom of Potomac Fever.