Presidency

Stonewalling and “Fast and Furious”

John Sides Jun 21 '12

This is a guest post from Brandon Rottinghaus:

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The House oversight committee has voted along party lines to hold Eric Holder in contempt, and John Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel says that the White House’s decision to use executive privilege “implies that White House officials were either involved in the Fast and Furious operation or the cover-up that followed.”

If he is right, he is only partially right.  In a recent article, Scott Basinger and I examine when presidents “stonewall” during a scandal.  We suggest that this occurs in three scenarios:

  • the president himself is involved in the scandal;
  • when the media believe the scandal to be significant, regardless of whether the president is involved or not; or
  •  when it is improbable that the truth would otherwise be revealed and the president will not suffer much political damage if the media pursue the scandal.

In the case of “Fast and Furious,” this implies that either:

  • the President is involved (which seems doubtful but unknown) and the White House is protecting him;
  • the White House thinks that the media believe the scandal to be important and the White House wants to end the story by closing information avenues; or
  • the White House does not believe that the stonewalling will hurt the President’s reputation since the “truth” is (more or less) known.

I suspect that that the White House’s reasoning is the last of those.  A year and a half of inquiry from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hasn’t seemed to hurt the president’s popularity directly, and the White House likely believes that all the truth about Operation “Fast and Furious” has already come to light (including a damaging misleading claim that the Justice Department did not allow “gun walking” which had to be taken back later).  The White House seems confident to claim executive privilege and take their chances with some bad press.