For an administration that touts its desire to make a clean break with its predecessor, President Obama and his aides have taken to citing President George W. Bush’s White House tenure several times lately when challenged on the same type of indiscretions they once condemned.
The White House earlier this week found itself in the difficult position of defending a top aide’s decision to take $100,000 in speaking fees from a company with strong ties to Iran. Reports about the hefty speaking fees surfaced just days after the administration pressed ahead with the latest round of international sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear programs.
David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and current senior adviser, received the six-figure compensation from MTN Group, a South Africa-based telecommunications company that at the time had been involved in a partnership with a state-owned Iranian telecommunications firm.
Mr. Plouffe was still a private citizen when he delivered the speeches in December 2010, about a month before he joined the White House staff, and even though he did nothing illegal, ethics watchdogs have condemned the arrangement as unseemly and exactly the kind of Washington practice that turns off voters.
“It stinks to high heavens, and it’s the typical cashing-in that Obama decried as a candidate,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. “It’s sort of symbolic of how the system is so messed up the idea that you win an election, and you are anointed as a political genius and are somehow due this money.”
But White House spokesman Jay Carney invoked the Bush precedent and said the Republicans making the accusations were the same Republicans who were silent about Bush administration aides delivering paid speeches to companies deeply involved with Iran.
“I certainly don’t recall similar criticism by the [Republican National Committee] of Bush advisers who had given paid speeches to companies that were cited for violations of financing with Iran,” Mr. Carney told reporters during a briefing this week. “This is clearly politics.”
Democrats have had a similar Bush-did-it-too response on other issues, such as the filming of political ads on and around White House grounds (although Mr. Bush only used exterior White House shots in ads, while Mr. Obama recently shot two ads inside the West Wing), as well as a particularly embarrassing email Mr. Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina sent from a personal account to a pharmaceutical lobbyist when he was deputy White House chief of staff.
In the email, Mr. Messina said he would “roll” then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to fund a deal between the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the Senate Finance Committee on the president’s 2010 health care legislation.
Federal law requires White House staff to keep all emails archived, and to do so, staff are required to use official White House email accounts. But Democrats in their defense have pointed to rampant use of personal and RNC email accounts of White House staffers during the Bush administration, as well as the disappearance of potentially millions of White House emails.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, at the time House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, led an extensive investigation into whether Bush staffers were violating federal law. Last week, Mr. Waxman, California Democrat, accused the White House of failing to live up to its own transparency standards, but stopped short of calling for a probe, while other top Democrats, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, were silent.
“Time and time again, this administration, which claims to better and more transparent than any previous administration, points to the past to cover up their misdeeds,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
“They ran by cloaking themselves in this language that ‘I’m better than the other guy,’ so you make yourself vulnerable to these kind of accusations,” she said.