Who Is John Podesta?
John Podesta gets a hug from Hillary at a 2011 CAP forum in Washington, DC.
Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America
By Micah Morrison
“They [the White House] need to focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress.”
So spoke John Podesta in an interview last fall with Politico, shortly before being named White House counselor. Podesta quickly apologized for the Jonestown jibe and his return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where he previously served President Clinton, was greeted with deferential nods from the press. “Well respected in political circles both as a strategist and policy thinker,” noted the AP. “One of the Democratic Party’s most seasoned political and policy operatives,” declared the Washington Post.
In 2003, Podesta founded the Center for American Progress. By all accounts, it has been a roaring success, serving as a left-wing answer to the Heritage Foundation and a government-in-waiting during the Bush darkness. According to recent data, CAP’s assets top $44 million; its advocacy unit, the CAP Action Fund, holds about $6 million. Podesta also is a co-founder with his brother, Tony, of the lobbying firm now known as the Podesta Group; started in 1988, the Podesta Group in 20l3 reported over $27 million in lobbying fees.
In 2005, the New York Times noted that Podesta was one of a “tight-knit group of advisers” forming Hillary Clinton’s inner circle as she pondered a presidential run. He supported Mrs. Clinton in the 2008 primary season, but soon was on board with Barack Obama, directing his presidential transition team. In 2011, Podesta resigned as president of CAP and was replaced by Neera Tanden, a longtime Hillary Clinton aide. According to the Post, Podesta remains “an influential voice in the Clinton political orbit, informally advising Hillary Rodham Clinton in the year since she stepped down as secretary of state.” In his current White House position, Podesta is reported to be focusing on environmental issues, particularly climate change, and particularly policies that can be put in place by executive action, without Congressional approval.
The Podesta biography also includes a long history of scandal-management and cover-up for the Clintons. Podesta now says he will serve only a year as counselor to President Obama, but if the going gets tough, expect an extended tenure. Slamming House Republicans as “a cult worthy of Jonestown” is a signal that Podesta will not go quietly into the night.
Podesta played a role in managing many of the scandals that surrounded the Clintons, including Mrs. Clinton’s amazing profits trading cattle futures, Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, impeachment, and perhaps most tellingly, the Travel Office affair. In May 1993, a senior administration official, David Watkins, fired all seven members of the White House Travel Office to make way for Arkansas cronies of the Clintons. A picaresque enterprise with lucrative connections to the airline charter business, the Travel Office handled travel arrangements for the White House press corps—it operated literally on the fly and ran its business in much the same way.
President Clinton simply could have asked for the resignations of the Travel Office employees. Instead, in actions directed in part by Mrs. Clinton, the employees were driven from office, cashiered as crooks and lowlifes. Travel Office Director Billy Dale’s experience was especially harrowing: indicted on embezzlement charges, he faced up to 20 years in prison. His career in ruins, he twisted in the wind for more than two years until a jury cleared him of all charges, returning a verdict after deliberating less than two hours.
White House officials had unleashed “the full powers of the federal government against the seven former workers,” the Republican-led House Government Reform and Oversight Committee concluded after a lengthy inquiry. “The extraordinary might of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice—not to mention the prestige of the White House itself—were brought to bear.” In a detailed final report, the committee rebuked the White House for conducting “an enormous and elaborate cover-up” of the Travel Office affair.
In 1993, Podesta served as Assistant to the President and Staff Secretary. As concerns over abuse of power in the Travel Office affair mounted and the White House fought a public-relations nightmare, Podesta was appointed to conduct an internal inquiry that became known as the White House Management Review. Podesta’s report would become the White House’s first line of defense in the Travel Office affair. It depicted Mrs. Clinton as little more than a bystander in the Travel Office events.
Others had a different view. “The much-heralded White House Management Review proved to be nothing more than a whitewash,” noted the Oversight Committee. It “minimized Mrs. Clinton’s role in the Travel Office firings and omitted testimony of witnesses indicating a larger role by Mrs. Clinton. It also failed to note that senior White House aides had initially withheld information about Mrs. Clinton’s involvement in the firings.”
The Oversight Committee reported that a “pattern developed throughout the course of the review: information unflattering to the Travel Office employees was included in the report, exculpatory information was not.
Podesta went digging for dirt in confidential personnel files. “In seeking derogatory information on the Travel Office employees, Podesta reviewed their personnel files,” the Oversight Committee reported. The files “circulated around the White House for several weeks” until a senior official in the personnel office “made an urgent call for them to be returned.”
Concerns over the Podesta-led inquiry protecting Mrs. Clinton were not entirely a partisan matter. Podesta’s own deputy, Todd Stern, wrote in notes later obtained by investigators, “if you give answers that aren’t fully honest (e.g., nothing re HRC) you risk hugely compounding the problem by getting caught in half-truths. You run risk of turning this into a ‘cover-up.’”
Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster, a close Clinton associate and former law firm partner of Mrs. Clinton, was deeply involved in the Travel Office affair. His goal: protect the First Lady. “Defend management decision, thereby defend HRC role whatever it is, was in fact or might have been misperceived to be,” Foster wrote in a note to himself shortly before he committed suicide, pitching the White House into another crisis.
Numerous reports have detailed Foster’s mounting concerns over Whitewater and the Travel Office. “At the time of his death,” noted the final report of the Senate Special Committee on Whitewater, “Vincent Foster was intimately involved in two brewing scandals—Travelgate and Whitewater—touching on President and Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Foster played a central role in both the firing of the Travel Office staff and subsequent attempts to conceal Mrs. Clinton’s true role in the firings.”
Mrs. Clinton denied playing a role in the Travel Office firings. In a sworn statement, she told the Government Accountability Office that she “did not know the origin of the decision to remove the White House Travel Office employees” and that she had “no role in the decision to terminate the employees.” She repeated the denials in testimony before Congress and an independent counsel inquiry.
In 1996, the case took a new twist when a self-described “soul cleansing” draft memo surfaced from Arkansas insider David Watkins, the White House official who had fired the Travel Office employees. The memo, not dated and marked “Confidential,” apparently was written for then-White House Chief of Staff Thomas “Mack” McLarty. It noted that Foster “regularly informed me that the First Lady was concerned and desired action—the action desired was the firing of the Travel Office staff.”
Watkins—who himself was dismissed from his White House post in 1994 for improper use of a government helicopter—wrote that he had directly spoken to Mrs. Clinton about the Travel Office. She expressed “her desire for swift and clear action to resolve the situation,” Watkins noted in the memo.
“We both knew that there would be hell to pay,” Watkins wrote, if “we failed to take swift and decisive action in conformity with the First Lady’s wishes.”
With the Watkins memo, the ante went up on the Travel Office affair. Had Mrs. Clinton lied under oath?
In 2000, a report by Independent Counsel Robert Ray concluded that Mrs. Clinton had given “factually false” testimony about the Travel Office firings. In other words, she had lied. Contrary to her statements, and contrary to the Podesta review, she had played a central role in the Travel Office firings. But Ray declined prosecution, saying that the evidence did not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Mrs. Clinton’s statements had been made with the requisite criminal intent.
Questioned by congressional investigators about the Clintons’ role in the Travel Office firings, Podesta suffered a severe bout of memory loss. The Oversight Committee report noted that “Mr. Podesta recalls nothing of the interview with the President, whether he discussed the President’s knowledge of the firings, or whether he asked about the President’s complicity.” The report cited 264 instances when Podesta “had difficulty recalling key events under oath.”
The cover-up had succeeded. For Podesta, it was a defining moment. Before, he was just another obscure White House aide. After, he was a made man in Clintonland: he had upheld the omerta surrounding the Clintons, protected the First Lady, fended off Congress and the press.
Soon he would be given an even more important task: Whitewater. Congress, the press and prosecutors were digging into the Clintons’ Arkansas land deals amid allegations of widespread fraud, corruption and cover-up. According to a December 1994 memo known as the White House “Task List,” Podesta would be assigned a key role in Whitewater. Under the heading “White House Whitewater response effort,” is the notation, “Podesta damage control effort.”
In 1997, Podesta was promoted to White House deputy chief of staff. In 1998, he was appointed chief of staff. He presided over the tumultuous final years of the Clinton presidency, a tenure marked by the Lewinsky debacle, impeachment, and a scandal over presidential pardons. Back in the White House now, Podesta is a bellwether for the final Obama years, a political street fighter steeped in scandal management and a loyalist serving two masters—the man who is president, and the woman who would succeed him.