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Obama Recycles Bush's "Ongoing Investigation" Talking Point

December 10, 2008

Over the past eight years, perhaps no two words came to encapsulate the ethical failings and rampant lawlessness of President Bush than "ongoing investigation." From the Valerie Plame affair and the U.S. attorneys purge to countless other scandals, Bush administration officials deployed the "ongoing investigation" dodge as a shield against charges of criminality reaching the highest levels of the White House. Which is why hearing Bush's tried and untrue sound bite coming from President-Elect Obama in response to the Blagojevich pay-for-play outrage is so unnerving.
To be sure, no one aside from the usual frothing at the mouth right-wing suspects like Sean Hannity and Eric Cantor (R-VA) is suggesting that Obama had any role in or knowledge of Governor Blagojevich's scheme to auction off his vacant Senate seat. U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald took great pains Tuesday to clarify that "we make no allegations that he's aware of anything." And in an analysis published Wednesday, the New York Times detailed Senator Obama's essential role in pushing ethics reform legislation in Illinois that the renegade Governor was trying to circumvent.
Yet in his understandably limited statements over the past two days, Obama has unfortunately recycled Team Bush's two-word code used to cloak its criminality. Rather than simply denouncing (if true) the "political corruption crime spree" Fitzgerald alleges Blagojevich committed and promising the full cooperation of himself and his transition team, Obama on Tuesday chose the phrase the sadly popularized by the likes of Scott McClellan and Alberto Gonzales:

"Like the rest of the people of Illinois I am saddened and sobered by the news that came out of the U.S. attorney's office today. But as this is an ongoing investigation involving the governor, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the issue at this time."

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published Wednesday, the President-Elect again used the "O" word. Asked if he was aware of any conversations his aides might have had with Blago or his chief of staff, Obama responded:

"Let me stop you there's an ongoing investigation. I think it would be inappropriate for me to, you know, remark on the situation beyond the facts that I know. And that's the fact that I didn't discuss this issue with the governor at all."

If hearing the two words "ongoing investigation" passing over the lips of Barack Obama is painful, that's because they're still ringing in your ears after eight years of abuse by George W. Bush and friends.
A Google search of the White House web site shows that the "ongoing investigation" talking point appears 154 times. And no doubt, it's most loyal practitioner was former press secretary Scott McClellan.
As the scandal surrounding the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame broke in July 2003, McClellan initially responded to reporters questions. For example, McClellan on September 23, 2003 famously - and wrongly - proclaimed "it is simply not true" that Karl Rove was involved. Two weeks later, he assured reporters of the innocence of Rove, Scooter Libby and Elliot Abrams, announcing, "that's why I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved."
But as Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's probe heated up in the summer of 2005, the Bush White House rolled out the "ongoing investigation" evasion. Despite his earlier insistence two years earlier that "I've instructed this staff of mine to cooperate fully with the investigators," President Bush himself retreated on July 11, 2005 and announced, "We're in the midst of an ongoing investigation and I will be more than happy to comment further once the investigation is completed." Two days later, Scott McClellan delivered the timeless if unabridged version of the deception:

"I think your question is being asked relating to some reports that are in reference to an ongoing criminal investigation. The criminal investigation that you reference is something that continues at this point. And as I've previously stated, while that investigation is ongoing, the White House is not going to comment on it. The President directed the White House to cooperate fully with the investigation, and as part of cooperating fully with the investigation, we made a decision that we weren't going to comment on it while it is ongoing."

George W. Bush's cynically predictable smokescreen would resurface again and again over the next three years. And its biggest fan would become disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The same man who told a Senate Committee "I don't recall remembering that" put McClellan's trusted stonewall to use in the imbroglio over the political purge of U.S. prosecutors.
On January 18, 2007, Gonzales regurgitated the talking point in what became just the first of his many lies under oath to Congress:

"I would never ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons or that in any way would jeopardize an ongoing investigation."

And so it went. Myriad loyal Bushies including McClellan's successors Tony Snow and Dana Perino all put "ongoing investigation" to work in concealing the President's lawlessness.
Which is why Barack Obama should strike those two words from his vocabulary. And this morning, finding its legs on the Blagojevich scandal, the Obama transition team through spokesman Robert Gibbs called for the resignation of the corrupt Illinois governor.
Hopefully, this will be the last we'll hear of the defining Bush expression from President Obama. After all, turning to the "ongoing investigation" defense is not change we can believe in.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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