The White House possesses several photographs of George W. Bush with Jack Abramoff, the once-powerful Republican fixer who recently pled guilty to bribery and fraud. The snapshots show nothing more than the typical “grip-and-grin” that the President has politely bestowed on thousands of visitors—or so his flacks assure us. Although the pictures are said to be wholly innocent and commonplace, however, the White House refuses to release them to the press.
Perhaps that’s because the pictures might show that when the President says he “doesn’t know” Mr. Abramoff, he isn’t being entirely truthful. He and his handlers still hope to confine the Abramoff scandal to the grubby members of Congress who took golf trips, stadium tickets and free meals from the lobbyist.
Yet with or without pictorial proof, there is ample evidence of the President’s connections to him in the public record. Enough evidence, certainly, to provoke a frenzy of questions, demands and speculations from the Washington press corps.
The questions at the daily briefings with Presidential press secretary Scott McClellan sound rather muted—and the official response is an absolute stonewall. Mr. McClellan declines not only to provide the photographs of Mr. Bush with Mr. Abramoff, but any records whatsoever of the lobbyist’s visits to the White House. He has admitted only that Mr. Abramoff met with unnamed “staff” on unspecified occasions to discuss unspecified matters.
Instead of candor, Mr. McClellan repeats the same opaque phrases every time a reporter asks about Mr. Abramoff’s connections with the President and the Bush administration. Asked about the pictures and meetings, he says he won’t participate in a “fishing expedition” motivated by “partisan politics.” He notes that Mr. Abramoff “is being held to account” by the Justice Department.” Like his boss, the press secretary hastens to mention that Mr. Abramoff “contributed to both Democrats and Republicans.”
And the President—for whom Mr. Abramoff gathered contributions of at least $100,000 in 2004, which is by far the largest amount that the lobbyist collected for any politician of either party—insists that he doesn’t know the guy.
Now, there was once another scandalous Republican donor whom Mr. Bush professed not to know. Ridiculously, he tried to blame his connections with disgraced Enron chief executive Kenneth (“Kenny Boy”) Lay on Ann Richards, the Democrat who preceded him as Governor of Texas.
“I got to know Ken Lay when he was the head of the—what they call the Governor’s Business Council in Texas,” said Mr. Bush back in 2002. “He was a supporter of Ann Richards in my run in 1994. And she had named him the head of the Governor’s Business Council. And I decided to leave him in place, just for the sake of continuity. And that’s when I first got to know Ken.”
Actually, he and his family had long known Mr. Lay, who gave triple the amount to Mr. Bush as he did to the incumbent Ms. Richards. But their friendship was retroactively erased—at least in the President’s mind—when prosecutors started to investigate the financial chicanery at Enron.
So skepticism is warranted when he says he doesn’t know Mr. Abramoff. He stops knowing people when they get in trouble.
It is obvious that Mr. Abramoff was no stranger to the Bush White House from the very beginning. Well before the President took office, Mr. Abramoff was named to the Bush transition team for the Department of the Interior. He may not have had any discernible qualifications to oversee that department’s appointments, but he had clients on tribal reservations and in the Marianas Islands whose businesses were regulated by Interior officials.
He has been a friend of Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff and Presidential political advisor, for more than a quarter-century. His personal assistant soon showed up as the personal assistant to Mr. Rove. His associate David Safavian, since indicted, became the administration’s chief procurement officer. He told his friends and clients that he could get into the Bush White House—and get whatever he wanted there.
He proved that boast on May 9, 2001, only four months into the first Bush term, when the President met with two Native American tribal leaders represented by Mr. Abramoff. According to a report published in the Texas Observer last June, that meeting was arranged in cooperation with conservative strategist Grover Norquist, another longtime comrade of Mr. Rove. The Texas magazine uncovered documents showing that Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Norquist used their White House access to squeeze money from clients. There are probably photographs of that May 2001 event, and they must be among the photos that the White House is refusing to release.
Eight years ago, the Clinton White House released photos and videos of President Clinton’s coffee meetings with campaign donors and potential donors, following angry demands from politicians and the press. How fortunate for Mr. Bush that his scandals and prevarications provoke no such outrage.