The two-page memo from White House counsel Robert Bauer, issued Friday, states that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had enlisted former President Bill Clinton to approach Congressman Sestak last summer to discuss the possibility of unpaid service on a presidential advisory board, while retaining his seat in the House.
In his own statement, Sestak laid out the same scenario. “I said no,” he said of the advisory board offer.
The releases provide an embarrassing peek into White House political maneuverings, months after Sestak himself revealed in a Philadelphia TV interview that the White House had made him an offer designed to steer him away from challenging Sen. Arlen Specter (D) in the Democratic primary.
The White House cared about preventing a primary challenge against Senator Specter, because it had promised Specter full support for his 2010 reelection campaign when it persuaded him to jump from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in April 2009. Specter’s party switch gave the Democrats their 60th Senate seat – a filibuster-proof majority.
In the White House memo, Mr. Bauer stated that nothing improper had taken place, citing erroneous speculation that Sestak, a retired Navy admiral, had been offered the position of Secretary of the Navy.
“We have concluded that allegations of improper conduct rest on factual errors and lack a basis in the law,” Bauer wrote.
At issue in the flap is whether anyone in the Obama administration broke the law by interfering with a political campaign. A job offer to Sestak could constitute such interference. Sestak, in fact, stayed in the race, and beat Senator Specter in the May 18 primary.
Republicans were less than satisfied with the White House’s memorandum.
“This memo frankly raises more questions: What was Bill Clinton authorized to offer? Did President Obama sign off on this conversation before it took place?” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement.
In a statement, the congressman questioned why the White House memo does not square with what Sestak had originally said, which is that he had been offered a job by an administration official.
Congressman Issa had sought and failed to get the Justice Department to investigate the matter. He also asserted that the maneuvering with Sestak “is contrary to President Obama’s pledge to change ‘business as usual’ and that his administration has engaged in the kind of political shenanigans he once campaigned to end.”
Political analysts don’t see the flap getting much traction in Pennsylvania – or having much impact on the outcome of the race. Sestak faces former Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey (R) in November.
“I just don’t see this as a huge story for Sestak,” says Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “He didn’t get out of the race. He didn’t do anything wrong. He continued to campaign. And I don’t get any sense among voters in this state that it’s a huge deal.”
The RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls shows Sestak ahead of Toomey by 1 point – within the margin of error.