Job Offer: Artificial Smoke, No Fire in Colorado

If former Colorado speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff (D) applied for an administration position at USAID and then followed up with White House officials well before the White House called to see if he was going to run for Senate, then the story of "yet another White House job offer" has no legs. Last night, with Romanoff's selectively sly press release, which managed to simultaneously leave out a very important fact and imply that wrongdoing on behalf of the White House even as it explicitly cleared the White House of wrongdoing, Republicans threw their machine into high gear. "Chicago style politics" was in about a half dozen press releases.

The bottom line to both the Romanoff and Sestak stories has been this: White Houses from time immemorial have far more explicitly dangled jobs in front of rival politicians to prevent them from running against ostensibly safe incumbents. The letter of federal law is designed to prevent direct quid-pro-quo situations where financial incentives are in lay and protect the rival politician from harm should he or she decide to make a decision that goes against the wishes of the powerful executive branch. But that law has never been used to criminalize low-level political horsetrading. This is the reason why ethics lawyers can read the text of the statutes, which seem to be clear, and conclude that no prosecutor in his or her right mind would ever bring a case against a White House for doing what the Obama White House did.  However, since the Obama White House holds itself as an avatar of ethical excellence, it might have to hold itself to a higher standard than other White Houses. That is an optical problem, not a legal one.

If this is Chicago-style politics, it's been most ineffective, and kind of weak:polite job offers and friendly chats. If the goal is shame the White House into not trying to create the best crop of candidates, then Republicans should welcome this sort of Chicago style politics.

This morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that:

Andrew Romanoff applied for a position at USAID during the Presidential transition. He filed this application through the Transition on-line process.  After the new administration took office, he followed up by phone with White House personnel.

Jim Messina called and emailed Romanoff last September to see if he was still interested in a position at USAID, or if, as had been reported, he was running for the US Senate.  Months earlier, the President had endorsed Senator Michael Bennet for the Colorado seat, and Messina wanted to determine if it was possible to avoid a costly battle between two supporters.

But Romanoff said that he was committed to the Senate race and no longer interested in working for the Administration, and that ended the discussion. As Mr. Romanoff has stated, there was no offer of a job. 

Romanoff's own account, even as it tried to make the White House look bad, is not out of line with this version of history. And it does not contradict what the White House and others originally told the Denver Post last year. Romanoff owes Messina an apology. By releasing Messina's e-mail outlining job offers without providing the crucial bit of context that Messina was responding, albeit in a timely fashion, to Romanoff's job application, his campaign was clearly trying to fuel the fire (which helps Republicans, really, and theoretically makes Romanoff seem like the aggrieved outsider who was the White House tried to force from the race) and not clear the space of smoke.

Later today, the White House will release Romanoff's USAID application. And that should smooth out this particular curve in the story.

Disclosure: Michael Bennet, the incumbent senator, is the brother of Atlantic EIC James Bennet.