High Ethical Standards? Then Investigate the Sestak Allegations

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Grade A bullshit, That's how the West Wing views the hullabaloo that Republicans are making over Joe Sestak's allegation about having been offered a senior administration job in exchange for not running for Senate. Number one, having asked chief of staff Rahm Emanuel whether he in fact made the offer, White House lawyers seemed to be satisfied that the language was equivocal enough. Number two, all the noise has been coming from the right -- a partisan right that's eager to delegitimize the Obama government. Number three, Sestak was never threatened with anything; at best, he was given options, neither one of which involved harm to his political or personal aspirations. But now that Sestak is the Senate nominee from Pennsylvania, and now that the non-Republican media has begun to incorporate the Sestak question in their daily discourse, the White House has to wonder whether the story is going to to float away, or whether it's going to stick.

There should be a further consideration. This White House has promised to hold itself accountable to a higher standard than previous administrations. Though the letter of the law would indeed seem to make it illegal for any officer of an executive branch agency acting in his executive capacity from interfering in a political race (18 USC 595), political aides have been doing exactly this from time immemorial. When a president campaigns for someone, he is clearly acting in his executive capacity, even if his party has to bear the costs of the presidential travel. The excuse that "everyone does it" might work for a White House that hasn't gone out of its way to demonstrate how sensitive it is to charges of impropriety and ethical malfeasance. But this White House HAS. They've bragged about their ethics record. And it seems incongruous, at best, to dismiss a claim, brought on by a person who could become a senator, that a senior administration official might have acted inappropriately.

My gut feeling here is that Sestak is holding this alleged proffer of a job over the White House's head to try and make sure that the West Wing does everything it can to support his candidacy. That's bothersome, because it means that someone believes they can use an allegation to divert the attention and resources of the seat of government. I also think the White House, and Rahm, have plausible legal-political-practical defenses. Moreover, Sestak might have decided to overstate the terms of the proffer -- maybe Rahm just floated the idea -- to puff up the drama to the story. The admiral was known for being a savvy political player when he was on active duty.

There are ways for the White House to deal with the story without bowing to an independent counsel, which would come from a Justice Department that is even more reluctant to appoint one. Reprimand Rahm in the way that a deputy chief technology officer was reprimanded for a minor misuse of government e-mail. Write a new ethics policy that forbids officials from offering people jobs in exchange for political favors.  But stonewalling and reassurances that "this has been looked into" aren't satisfying from a White House that claims to hold itself to a gold standard.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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