Slate's Politics: President Bush's Ties to Abramoff

Newly released photos of the president meeting with GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff are leading some to question how close the two men have been in the past. The Bush administration has downplayed any connection in an attempt to distance the White House from the growing scandal. Madeleine Brand discusses the relationship with Slate chief political correspondent John Dickerson.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, stories from Mexico.

BRAND: But first, several publications are reporting that the photographs everyone in Washington has been looking for, exist. They're photos of President Bush meeting at the White House with the now infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In response a White House spokesman told CBS today, quote, "I don't think that would be fair to jump to any conclusions just because the President took a picture with somebody." Joining us to talk about the White House-Abramoff connection is John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate. Hi, John.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Chief Political Correspondent, Slate): Hi.

BRAND: So tell us more about these photos.

MR. DICKERSON: Well, they're curious, because we know they exist. Reporters have looked at them, but we haven't seen them. So all we know is that there are pictures where President Bush and Jack Abramoff are in the same frame and now we're all trying to figure out what that means. The White House has been really skittish about talking about Abramoff and his connections with the White House. They said he came to some holiday parties.

These pictures suggest, at least, that he was involved in a slightly more intimate relationship with the President and so it's just another turn in trying to get the White House to come clean about exactly what Abramoff did when he was at the White House and who he talked to.

BRAND: Well, of course, people all over Washington have pictures of themselves with the President, it doesn't necessarily mean anything.

MR. DICKERSON: Oh, that's exactly right. In fact, it's a tradition to have these kinds of relatively meaningless photos with the President and the President takes thousands of these in a year. At any party, at any meeting, there's always a photographer and if you meet with the President you get a picture a few weeks later. And so often he's shaking hands with people in pictures and he has no idea who they are or certainly doesn't remember them after he leaves the room. So a simple picture doesn't matter.

What matters in this case is that the White House has sort of tried to say that, well Abramoff just came to a few holiday parties. In addition to that, they've decided not to release the list of people he met with when he came to the White House. He was in the business of getting special favors for his clients. He met with people in the White House and people want to know well what special favors was he asking for and the White House won't say yet.

BRAND: And what is the reason that they give for not revealing all the details that they may have about these meetings?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, they kind of shimmy when they try and give a reason. They, the spokesman Scott McClellan has said, well we don't want to go on a fishing expedition when members of the press have asked who in the White House Abramoff met with. It doesn't seem like a fishing expedition to me exactly, but then they also say, well it's not our policy to talk about staff meetings.

The policy that under girds that is one essentially that says staffers at the White House should be allowed to do their job without always having to worry about it getting out into the press. That policy's been upheld by the courts, but in this case it's a very specific one person and that person is now an admitted felon. It seems to me the White House has an obligation to come forward and say who he met with.

BRAND: And we do know that Abramoff raised at least a hundred thousand dollars for President Bush's reelection campaign and that's not a small amount of money. Is there any indication that he received any special favors for that amount of money?

MR. DICKERSON: There's no indication. All we have so far is that he went to the White House, had some meetings, and now there are these pictures. And arguably the White House could be in a very strong position to say, here's who he met with and yes he had these pictures taken, but despite the fact that he gave all of this money he didn't get anything for it. And in fact it could be, if you look at in one way, it could be a very strong story for the White House.

BRAND: So, by stonewalling in effect it makes them look more suspicious than if they had come clean, is what you're saying?

MR. DICKERSON: That's right. And the White House has always had difficulty coming forward in instances like this, but it worked very well for them during the Enron scandal. Then Commerce Secretary Don Evans, after a few weeks, came forward and said yes, Ken Lay, the head of Enron, called me and wanted a special favor and Evans never got back to him. And by coming out and disclosing they ended up putting the story to bed.

BRAND: Now, as we know now, Abramoff was a prolific emailer, that's what's gotten him into trouble, any indication from his emails that he had contacts with the White House or what business he had with the White House?

MR. DICKERSON: There is some indication. There's an email printed in Time this week that talks about one of these photographs and he essentially tells one of his Native American tribal clients that they can use the photograph to then basically look like a big shot and as if they have access to the President. But Abramoff was a big emailer, but he was also a big boaster. And so, and especially in Washington where everybody boasts about how close they are to power, it's hard to take anybody, let alone an admitted felon, at their word in terms of the access and influence they have.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate. Thanks a lot, John.

MR. DICKERSON: Thank you.

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