Monday, January 30, 2006

Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff visited the White House on at least a half-dozen social occasions, including Hanukkah celebrations, receptions and one meeting with President Bush that included 20 other participants.

Abramoff never lobbied or attempted to influence Mr. Bush on behalf of his clients, said a source familiar with the visits, but did have his picture taken with the president, as did hundreds of other visitors attending those events over a four-year period.

The meeting with Mr. Bush included some policy discussions “that were not relevant” to any of Abramoff’s clients, the source said, but it focused on the audience’s asking the president questions.

“The White House is making too much of a mystery out of this and needs to release the dates, times, details and photos of the visits,” the source said. “It’s not like [Abramoff and Mr. Bush] were plotting to overthrow Iraq.”

The call to release the information was echoed on yesterday’s political talk shows by Republican lawmakers, who say the delay gives Democrats a political weapon to criticize their party in an election year.

“Absolutely,” Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana told “Fox News Sunday” when asked whether the details of the visits should be released.

“I think this president is a man of unimpeachable integrity. The American people have profound confidence in him,” he said. “As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘Give the people the facts, and republican governance, perhaps, will be saved.’”

Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, agreed, calling the uproar “a bit of a silly thing” but said the White House needs to “get it out” to put an end to speculation.

“If you want to talk about it in strict political terms, why give the Democrats an opportunity, or the press to keep this story going?” Mr. Hagel said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“Is the issue here that somehow Jack Abramoff held President Bush hostage, or was a big buddy, or affected policy based on his relationship with Abramoff?” he said. “I don’t think so. But my personal opinion on these things is just get it out. If you’ve got pictures, get the pictures out.”

Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday” that “more is better” and that he would “be a big advocate for making records that are out there available,” but disagreed on the photos.

“I don’t think it’s useful to have pictures released, because, clearly, all the Democrats want to do is use those for political purposes.”

Mr. Bush said during a press conference last week that politics is exactly why the photos will not be released.

Appearing on CNN’s “Late Edition” yesterday, White House counsel Dan Bartlett said, “It is important that everybody take a step back, let the prosecutors do [their] work, not try to add fuel to an already politically charged environment.”

Mr. Bush says he does not know Abramoff, a leading fundraiser in his 2004 campaign. Abramoff pleaded guilty earlier this month to conspiring to influence members of Congress and is now the leading witness for the Justice Department’s probe of political corruption on Capitol Hill.

The Washington Times reported that the first tier of lawmakers and staffers targeted by the Justice Department include Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican and former chairman of the House Administration Committee; Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat; Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat; Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican; and Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican.

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, continued his denial that Mr. Reid or any other Democrat received campaign funds raised through Abramoff’s lobbying firm.

He was asked on Fox, “If we find that there were some Democrats who wrote letters on behalf of some of the Indian tribes that Abramoff represented, then what do you say, sir?”

Mr. Dean responded, “That’s a big problem, and those Democrats are in trouble, and they should be in trouble. If the American people will put us back in power in ‘06, we will have on the president’s desk things that outlaw all those kinds of behaviors. Right now, it’s a Republican scandal.”

Mr. Reid wrote a letter to the Interior Department on March 5, 2002, opposing a casino operating illegally and competing with Abramoff’s clients. On March 6, the tribe that Abramoff represented donated $5,000 to Mr. Reid’s Searchlight Leadership Fund. In total, Mr. Reid has received $66,000 at Abramoff’s direction, but his spokesman says the donations are legal and will not be refunded.

• Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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