Scott McClellan has dug in his heels. The White House refuses to provide specific information about which senior staff members met with tainted lobbyist Jack Abramoff since Bush has been in office. The President has returned $6,000 in campaign contributions. Abramoff was present at a couple of Hanukkah receptions, but aside from that, officials here have nothing to share beyond that Abramoff had "staff level meetings."
Yesterday I was among the reporters who pressed McClellan for more specifics. (Click for link to briefing transcript.) Again today, the press secretary called attempts to learn about Abramoff's ties to the White House a "fishing expedition." What's more, he batted away our questions by asking us if we had "something specific" to bring to his attention. The implication being, if NOT, then he wouldn't answer. He even accused me of insinuating some wrongdoing by asking the question.
These are tricks of the trade in this White House. McClellan's predecessor, Ari Fleischer, was the one who coined the tactic of asking us to provide him something specific to respond to before he would answer sensitive questions. I argued to Ari, just as I argue to Scott, that it's not their job to make such demands of us. We ask the questions and they provide the answers. Or not. The burden is not on members of the press corps to provide specifics when we are trying to gather information. That's a diversionary tactic used by the White House and, by the way, it only invites the sort of leaks they say they deplore. I guess McClellan means that only when someone inside the White House leaks word of some staffer's meeting with Abramoff will they disclose it.
Furthermore, the position that the White House doesn't provide information about staff level meetings is accurate but doesn't tell the whole story. My producer Alicia Jennings did some research today. Back when Enron's collapse was a huge financial and political story, we also asked pointed questions about Ken Lay's relationship with the President and other members of his staff. Ari Fleischer provided information about phone calls and meetings between Enron officials and then-Commerce Secretary Don Evans as well as then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
I don't know if any of this amounts to anything. But figuring out whether there is any link between a top Republican lobbyist, now disgraced, and the Republican in the White House is fair game.
We'll see if something specific emerges to bring to the White House's attention.