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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Why isn't the Ken Mehlman lie a bigger story?

(updated below)

I want to return to what I think is an extremely important incident that occurred late in the day last Friday, when events typically get lost in the news cycle. As Think Progress documented, at some point during the day on Friday, the GOP decided to go on television and tell an outright lie -- namely, that when Denny Hastert learned the previous Friday about the IMs exchanged between Mark Foley and Congressional pages (as a result of the ABC story), Hastert delivered an ultimatum to Foley: either resign or be expelled. Thereafter, so the new GOP mythology claimed, Foley resigned.

This story is complete fiction. It never happened. It was just made up by Republican operatives in order to defend Denny Hastert and make him look like some sort of hard-nosed, no-nonsense tough guy who took extraordinary steps against Mark Foley. But there is no doubt that this never happened, and anyone who is saying that it did is, by definition, lying -- and is lying clearly and demonstrably.

It wasn't just some obscure pundit or GOP backbencher who told this lie. The Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, went on national television and claimed that Hastert did this:

MEHLMAN: The fact is, what Denny Hastert did is something that we haven’t seen done in thirty years in this town in Washington DC, and that is he said to a member of congress, either you go or we’re going to make you go. That happened the moment that Denny Hastert found out about this.

Former RNC Chair Ed Gillepse repeated the same story: "As the father of a 16-year-old son, I appreciate him going to Mark Foley and saying, 'You either resign or you’re going to be expelled.' That would be the first time in thirty years."

This is not a claim that can be debated or spun. They're claiming that Hastert threatened Foley with expulsion unless he resigned. That either happened or it didn't. And it simply did not happen. Hastert has made clear from the beginning of this scandal that he only learned of the IMs last Friday when they were reported by ABC. Hastert has claimed that he would have demanded Foley's resignation or expulsion had he known about the IMs. But in fact, Foley resigned before ABC made the IMs public and received no such ultimatum from Hastert.

Shouldn't it be a huge story in itself that Ken Mehlman went on national television in the middle of one of the largest political scandals and made completely false claims about the key issue -- what Denny Hastert did or did not do about Mark Foley? People who make up stories that aren't true and then repeat them in order to defend themselves are just outright lying. Why is Mehlman able to do so in such a brazen and obvious way without consequences?

What is even more striking about the whole matter is that Mehlman is lying about extremely recent events that we all remember, including the journalists covering the story. It is so painfully obvious that if Foley resigned only after receiving a hard-core "resign-or-be-expelled" ultimatum from Hastert, that is something we would have heard about immediately, not after a week of Republicans desperately flailing around for something to say in defense of Hastert. And we all remember Hastert's interviews and statements in which he said that he would have taken action against Foley had Foley not resigned. It is just unbelievably clear that he gave no ultimatum to Foley. As Billmon put it:

But now the Rovians have turned the timeline completely on its head, and are claiming Hastert demanded Foley's resignation because of something the Speaker himself says he knew nothing about.

This may seem a trivial matter, given all the other lies, big and small, that have come rattling down the propaganda assembly line over the past six years. Foley himself is just a sideshow geek compared to the three-ring circus that gave us the war in Iraq. But if there's been a more brazen attempt to rewrite history -- last week's history! -- I can't remember it.

True, the Rovians are desperate, but this clearly reflects their belief that they can say anything, any fucking thing at all, and not be called on it by the corporate media, at least not in any kind of time frame that matters. And as far as I can tell, they're right -- they haven't been called on it, except by Think Progress and the wild-eyed bloggers and the other tattered remnants of the left opposition.

This scandal is not and has never been exclusively -- or even primarily -- about what GOP House leaders did in 2003 or 2005 regarding Mark Foley. That is a big part of the story, but bigger still is the blatant lies they have been telling ever since this scandal began. And there is none more deliberate or obvious than that told by Ken Mehlman on Friday to a national television audience.

However immune we have become to misleading statements from political officials, however low our standards of behavior and expectations for our political leaders may have sunk -- no matter how cynical one has become -- shouldn't clear, brazen, outright lies of the type which Ken Mehlman told about the Denny Hastert Ultimatum be considered wrong and intolerable and something for which serious consequences are required?

If we have even the most minimally breathing journalistic life force and the most minimal standards left for behavioral requirements from political officials, this just has to become a huge story. Why should Ken Mehlman be able to go on national television and blatantly lie to everyone about what happened last week at the center of this scandal and not only get away with it, but have nobody really notice?

UPDATE: GOP Congressman Jack Kingston, on Fox News with Chris Wallace this weekend, spread the tall tale:

KINGSTON: Well, I think that if there was a staffer or two who decided to maybe protect Mark Foley for reasons unknown, I think the speaker would do to them what basically he did to Mark Foley, which was, "Get out or be fired," because, you know, the threat to Mark Foley, if he stayed around, he would have been expelled.

If someone wants to call Congressman Kingston's office and ask if it really is true that Denny Hastert gave this ultimatum to Mark Foley and what the basis is for that claim, the contact information is here.

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