WASHINGTON — White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel asked former President Bill Clinton to push Rep. Joe Sestak to drop a Democratic Pennsylvania Senate bid against Sen. Arlen Specter, offering in return unspecified unpaid advisory positions, the White House said Friday.
The revelations were in a legalistic White House seven-paragraph memo by White House Counsel Robert Bauer, who said he reviewed the Emanuel-orchestrated bid to persuade Sestak not to make the race and concluded nothing had been improperly offered.
The White House — which months ago denied anything was offered — refused to answer follow-up questions. The report did not state what positions Sestak was offered or who was interviewed.
Bauer’s conclusion that the offer was legal and that no “impropriety” took place did not silence skeptics. After the memo’s release, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked the FBI to begin a criminal investigation.
The Bauer memo provided a window into Emanuel’s backstage political power-broking and his willingness to get a former president entangled into what at the least was a messy situation.
The Obama team was supporting Specter, who switched from the GOP to the Democrats in 2009, giving Obama a crucial Senate vote. Despite the help, Specter lost the May 18 primary to Sestak.
Emanuel “enlisted” the support of Clinton, “who agreed to raise” with Sestak “options of service on a presidential or other senior executive service advisory board,” Bauer said in his memo. Bauer said in his memo Democrats and Republicans try to steer candidates out of a race by offering “alternative paths to service.” Bauer said Democratic Party leaders wanted to avoid a “divisive” primary fight and were worried about holding Sestak’s House seat.
Sestak, talking to reporters on Friday afternoon, said Clinton broached the position in a portion of a conversation that lasted no more than a minute and he immediately turned him down.
Emanuel owes his career to Clinton — he moved from Chicago to Little Rock to become a fund-raiser for Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and ended up as a top Clinton White House adviser. Emanuel asked Clinton to embark on a political mission that was inherently messy and conflicted for him because he owed a debt of gratitude to Specter and Sestak. Specter was among the handful of Republicans who found Clinton “not guilty” after his 1999 Senate impeachment trial. And Sestak was a supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential bid.
This is the second time Emanuel’s wheeling and dealing surfaced in an internal Obama inquiry. In December 2008, Greg Craig — then an Obama transition lawyer — conducted an internal inquiry of conversations Emanuel had with then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich over filling Obama’s Illinois Senate seat. Craig concluded the conversations were “entirely appropriate.”
This episode started when Sestak was asked by a radio host last February if he had been offered a job not to run for the Senate — and he said yes. The Obama White House denied any offer, and the matter simmered before the primary. The question of what Sestak was offered — and by whom — was revived after the primary, fueled by Republicans and the blogosphere.