Fred Thompson Hired by Pro Abortion Group
The big news overnight is the claim by a pro abortion group that it hired Fred Thompson to lobby the first President Bush to soften his stance on a gag rule.
Michael Finnegan broke the story for the LAT (although not before being scooped by The American Spectator):
Fred D. Thompson, who is campaigning for president as an antiabortion Republican, accepted an assignment from a family-planning group to lobby the first Bush White House to ease a controversial abortion restriction, according to a 1991 document and several people familiar with the matter.
A spokesman for the former Tennessee senator denied that Thompson did the lobbying work. But the minutes of a 1991 board meeting of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Assn. say that the group hired Thompson that year.
His task was to urge the administration of President George H. W. Bush to withdraw or relax a rule that barred abortion counseling at clinics that received federal money, according to the records and to people who worked on the matter.
Judith DeSarno, who was president of the family planning association in 1991, said Thompson lobbied for the group for several months.
Former Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), a colleague at the lobbying and law firm where Thompson worked, said that DeSarno had asked him to recommend someone for the lobbying work and that he had suggested Thompson. He said it was “absolutely bizarre” for Thompson to deny that he lobbied against the abortion counseling rule. I talked to him while he was doing it, and I talked to [DeSarno] about the fact that she was very pleased with the work that he was doing for her organization,” said Barnes. “I have strong, total recollection of that. This is not something I dreamed up or she dreamed up. This is fact.”
DeSarno said that Thompson, after being hired, reported to her that he had held multiple conversations about the abortion rule with Sununu, who was then the White House chief of staff and the president’s point man on the rule. Thompson kept her updated on his progress in telephone conversations and over meals at Washington restaurants, including dinner at Galileo and lunch at the Monocle, she said. At one of the meals, she recalled, Thompson told her that Sununu had just given him tickets for a VIP tour of the White House for a Thompson son and his wife. “It would be an odd thing for me to construct that thing out of whole cloth,” DeSarno said. “It happened, and I think it’s quite astonishing they’re denying it.”
Sununu said in a telephone interview: “I don’t recall him ever lobbying me on that at all. I don’t think that ever happened. In fact, I know that never happened.” He added that he had “absolutely no idea” whether Thompson had met with anybody else at the White House, but said it would have been a waste of time, given the president’s opposition to abortion rights.
In response to Sununu’s denial, DeSarno said Thompson “owes NFPRHA a bunch of money” if he never talked to Sununu as he said he had.
Mr. Thompson has also sometimes indicated that he opposes outlawing abortion. Among other things, he has opposed a constitutional amendment banning all abortion — something the Republican platform calls for — again on the grounds that the issue should be up to the states.
In a questionnaire that he answered during his successful 1994 Senate campaign in Tennessee, Mr. Thompson or his campaign staff checked a box stating that he believed abortion should be legal under any circumstance during the first three months of a pregnancy. In a televised debate the same year, Mr. Thompson appeared to tell the moderator that he personally disagreed with outlawing abortion. “Should the government come in and criminalize let’s say a young girl and her parents and her doctor?” Mr. Thompson said. “I think not.”
In addition, the Gannett News Service has reported that another questionnaire submitted during Mr. Thompson’s 1994 campaign contained a handwritten note that stated: “I do not believe abortion should be criminalized. This battle will be won in the hearts and souls of the American people.”
Thompson was a hired gun making a living lobbying Republicans. Trying to convince Sununu to get Bush to soften his stance on a gag rule would not seem to contradict his stated political philosophy and would only offend the most doctrinaire social conservative.
Further, John Hinderaker is right:
[A] lobbyist, like lawyers in general, represents clients. To assume that a lawyer always agrees with the clients he represents is not only juvenile, it tends to undercut the premises on which our legal system is based. A lawyer needs to be able to represent, for example, a man accused of homicide without being labeled pro-murder.
The story here, then, is not Thompson’s hypocrisy but rather his integrity. It seems that we are left with three alternatives:
- DeSarno and Barnes are making this up to hurt Thompson’s reputation.
- Thompson took DeSarno’s money but didn’t actually lobby Sununu, thus committing fraud.
- Thompson’s denial is a lie and Sununu is backing his play with a lie of his own.
Ed Morrissey seems to think the first option is most likely or, at worst, some variation of the second. Now, I don’t know anything about DeSarno and Barnes. Still, it makes no sense for them to put their credibility on the line over something that could be rather easily falsified, especially this early in the process. Why try to derail Thompson before he’s even announced his candidacy? Wouldn’t it be more useful to sling mud later?
As Marc Ambinder puts it, “Which is more credible? Fred Thompson denying that he ever departed from the pro-life orthodoxy? Or literally a half dozen questionnaires, news accounts, and numerous eye-witnesses who insist he did?”
And the notion that Thompson was just a meet-and-greet guy used by the firm to draw in business while peons did the grunt work would be plausible enough were it not for DeSarno’s very explicit descriptions of numerous meetings and conversations with Thompson wherein he recounted his personal lobbying of Sununu. She’s right: It makes no sense for her to make that up out of whole cloth. So, if those conversations took place and yet Thompson is telling the truth now, he is an incredibly unethical attorney and should face censure. (Presumably, the statute of limitations would have run out by now on criminal charges.)
That would seem to leave Option 3. The only glitch there, really, is Sununu. Why would Sununu lie to protect Thompson, to whom he presumably owes nothing? It’s difficult to imagine him serving in a Thompson administration. Further, he was presumably contacted early enough in the process not to have had time to coordinate lies with the Thompson campaign.
It’s all quite bizarre. Perhaps there’s some Option 4 I’m missing. If not, and he can’t somehow prove that, as wildly implausible as it seems, Option 1 is correct (Dan Riehl suggests some places to look), I don’t see how he can be president.
And Kevin Drum is likely right, too: “[T]his is probably just the beginning of ol’ Fred’s troubles. Anyone can look good before the national media starts rooting around and asking touchy questions, but those days are fading fast for Thompson.”
UPDATE: See Thompson Abortion Lobbying Story Has Holes for some important updates.