- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tales about the White House’s hot-tempered, foul-mouthed chief of staff are legion, from Rahm Emanuel’s mailing of a dead fish to a pollster to a lawmaker’s accusation that Mr. Emanuel berated him over a vote in the shower at the congressional gym.

Mixing mockery and scorn, the Obama administration Tuesday dismissed new accusations about Mr. Emanuel from Rep. Eric Massa, a freshman New York Democrat who has formally resigned his seat amid a growing ethics scandal and charges of sexual misconduct involving his staff.

Top White House officials made it clear that President Obama is standing behind his combative chief of staff as the best person to shepherd his agenda through Congress - something Mr. Emanuel knows a thing or two about as a former congressman from Chicago and one-time head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm.

Asked whether naked politicking is standard practice, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs chuckled and told a reporter to e-mail the query to Mr. Emanuel, saying he hadn’t discussed the matter with him. Mr. Gibbs then took aim at Mr. Massa, accusing him of changing his story numerous times.

“The notion that somehow the White House had anything to do with the series of events that have caused him to not seek re-election and ultimately leave the House, the notion that somehow we were involved in that I think is … silly and ridiculous,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Regardless of their veracity, Mr. Massa’s bizarre accusations provide the latest headlines about Mr. Emanuel, whose behind-the-scenes wrangling has fueled journalistic speculation about divisions within the West Wing. A slew of stories have speculated on the former Clinton White House aide’s relationship with the Chicago-based political team that carried Mr. Obama on his successful 2008 presidential quest.

As the administration’s legislative quarterback, Mr. Emanuel has been blamed for the fact that Mr. Obama has not signed into law any of his legislative priorities: health care reform, energy and education measures and financial regulatory reform. Mr. Emanuel’s defenders have suggested that Mr. Obama is not listening closely enough to his Washington-savvy chief of staff.

The proposed civil trial in downtown Manhattan, N.Y., of the self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is a prime example of the conflicting narratives.

A Washington Post account reported that Mr. Obama and senior political adviser David Axelrod sided with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on his position that a civilian court was the most appropriate venue, overruling objections from Mr. Emanuel, who lobbied for a military trial and warned that the decision would complicate the administration’s stalled efforts to close the prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The administration has since backed away from its plan to hold the trial in New York and reportedly is considering moving the proceedings to a military tribunal. Meanwhile, Mr. Emanuel has continued to negotiate the logistics of closing Guantanamo with Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.

Mr. Gibbs last week sought to tamp down any suggestions of disunity at the White House, telling reporters that Mr. Emanuel “absolutely has the president’s confidence” and dismissing the articles as inside-the-Beltway “parlor games.”

“There’s nobody working harder at passing the president’s agenda than the chief of staff is,” Mr. Gibbs said. “I know Washington likes to do this stuff. They love the parlor games.”

But the bizarre week-old story of Mr. Massa, a Democratic backbencher, has breathed new life into the controversy over Mr. Emanuel’s effectiveness.

In the news this week are audio clips of Mr. Massa blaming his downfall not on his ethics problems but on bare-knuckled politics and the White House’s desire to pass a health care bill he opposes.

Mr. Massa referred to Mr. Emanuel as the “son of the devil’s spawn” and detailed an awkward confrontation in which Mr. Obama’s lieutenant needled him over his opposition to the budget while both men were nude in the congressional gym showers.

In an interview with a New York radio station over the weekend, Mr. Massa recalled, “I am showering, naked as a jaybird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel, not even with a towel wrapped round his tush, poking his finger in my chest, yelling at me because I wasn’t going to vote for the president’s budget. Do you know how awkward it is to have a political argument with a naked man?”

In an interview with Fox News’ Glenn Beck on Tuesday evening, Mr. Massa seconded complaints that Mr. Emanuel’s negotiating style was hurting the president’s agenda.

“Rahm Emanuel is very good at making enemies and not very good at making friends,” Mr. Massa said.

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