Jennings: Political Briefings Just to “Thank” Agency Employees

The scheme was simple: dispatch political aides from the White House to agencies throughout the government and make sure political appointees there knew which Republican members of Congress were faltering. There was a line, however, that ought not to be (openly) crossed. Political appointees got a “not-so-subtle message about helping endangered Republicans,” but they were not given explicit directions. That would be a blatant Hatch Act violation.

Karl Rove’s aide Scott Jennings understood the game. That’s why when he briefed (pdf) employees at the General Services Administration early this year (see a sample slide above), he knew to keep things at the not-so-subtle level — but no more. From The Washington Post:

At [the briefing’s] completion, GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan asked how GSA projects could be used to help “our candidates,” according to half a dozen witnesses. The briefer, J. Scott Jennings, said that topic should be discussed “off-line,” the witnesses said. Doan then replied, “Oh, good, at least as long as we are going to follow up….”

Today, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) took advantage of Jennings appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee to question him about the briefings. And Jennings, like Rove’s former aide Sara Taylor, was right on message.

The talking points, it is painfully apparent from both Jennings’ and Taylor’s testimony, involve heavy recycling of “thank employees,” “informational,” and “political landscape.” As in Jennings from today when Kennedy asked if he thought his briefings would help Republican candidates:

“I felt that my briefings would help boost the morale of appointees and serve to thank them for their service to the president and give them information about the political landscape for which they were trying to enact the president’s agenda.”

And here’s Taylor from last month:

“These briefings were informative. They were meant to thank employees. They were meant to share with them what the president was doing and their role. And given my unique role within the White House and given the fact that many of these people had worked in politics in one way, shape or form and had an interest, I would oftentimes share my knowledge and my viewpoint about the political landscape of the country.”

It’s also apparent from Jennings’ and Taylor’s testimony that they want to avoid admitting that individual candidates were discussed at these briefings. It took Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) four persistent minutes of questioning to get Taylor to admit that. And even then she didn’t abandon her precious lexicon: “it’s very hard to talk about the landscape if you don’t talk about the people who are the stars in the show.” Today, Jennings allowed that individual candidates “may have been discussed.” Well, I guess it’s good, then, that he had several briefing slides that listed the candidates he “may have” discussed.

But the briefings didn’t cross the line of the Hatch Act, he said. He also said he can’t remember Doan asking about helping “our candidates.”