Video: The Insider: Jack Abramoff
updated 2/20/2006 12:51:46 PM ET 2006-02-20T17:51:46

First it was the emails sent to “Washingtonian Magazine” by the disgraced lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, saying he met with the president nearly a dozen times and not just for photo ops.  Then came the results of one of those photo ops, the first of a series of images of Mr. Bush and Mr.  Abramoff in the same place at the same time, finally published.

Now perhaps inevitably, evidence of Abramoff‘s possible influence with the president, the link here, Karl Rove.  The near 2002, the interested party, the government of Malaysia.  Its goal, meeting between the president and its prime minister at the time, Mahathir Muhammad.  No easy task, since that prime minister had already been chastised by the Clinton administration for anti-Semitic comments and for having jailed political opponents.

So the Malaysians hired Jack Abramoff and Mr. Abramoff contacted presidential adviser Rove at least four times in an effort to arrange that meeting.  This according to the “L.A. Times” citing a former associate of Mr. Abramoff.

The prime minister got in to see the president May 14, 2002.  Shake hands.  The White House says it happened through normal staffing channels.  The Malaysians, though, paid Mr. Abramoff more than $1 million for his services in 2001 and 2002 according to that same Abramoff associate quoted in the Los Angeles paper.  So mounting evidence that the White House and Abramoff may have had closer ties than previously acknowledged and today 31 Senate Democrats expressing concerns about ties between the Justice Department‘s investigation of Abramoff and the previous White House counsel, namely, Alberto Gonzales, who now happens to be attorney general Alberto Gonzales.  Those 31 Senate Democrats asking him to recuse himself from this investigation.  The Justice Department rejecting that call, saying the attorney general has followed all departmental guidelines.

Trying to judge the significance of all of this, MSNBC‘s David Shuster in Washington joined Keith Olbermann.

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST 'COUNTDOWN':  Do the Abramoff-Bush meetings begin to look different through the prism of a some kind of Abramoff-Rove relationship?

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, the Abramoff-Rove relationship helps explain that when the president says he doesn‘t know Jack Abramoff, doesn‘t remember meeting him, it just seems so implausible.  First of all, Jack Abramoff and Karl Rove got to know each other in the early 1980s when they were both leading up the young College Republicans.  Then when George W. Bush was governor of Texas, Rove and Abramoff saw each other and talked to each other again because Abramoff was lobbying the governor of Texas on an education issue.  And then more recently the White House has acknowledged that Jack Abramoff went into the white house for what officials at the White House describe as staff meetings.  And when you look at all of the people that Jack Abramoff might know on the White House staff, the one staff member it seems would clear him in would be his long time friend and associate, Karl Rove, a close second might be Karl Rove‘s personal assistant, who, by the way, was Jack Abramoff‘s personal assistant.

OLBERMANN:  Yet this same story in the “Los Angeles Times” is quoting a Justice Department official who is said to be familiar with the inquiry saying that the Abramoff-Rove relationship, quote, “had not been a matter of any great significance.”  How do those two statements jibe?

SHUSTER:  Well, there are two issues here.  First of all, as the “L.A.  Times” points out, as far as Malaysia is concerned, if the Justice Department was going to prosecute Jack Abramoff or look after whether he registered as a foreign agent, the law is a little bit complicated and filled with holes.  But as far as Karl Rove is concerned, remember, Jack Abramoff has been dining out Republicans he has been diming out Republicans that he extended favors to, whether it was money or trips or luxury skyboxes.

And the difference between Karl Rove and some of these congressmen who might get indicted is obviously Karl Rove didn‘t attend some of these same sort of functions, but also this was the sort of relationship where, because Jack Abramoff was able to get into the White House and brag about it, Jack Abramoff appears to have gotten more than Karl Rove got from Jack Abramoff.

OLBERMANN:  It would seem natural, David, for Abramoff to brag about, perhaps to even exaggerate his calls to and from Rove, but doesn‘t this move that entire issue from the world of characterizations and boasts and inflations and deflations and into a more mundane and more reliable world of records and sign-in sheets and all that?

SHUSTER:  Absolutely.  That‘s one thing that reporters including this one have been asking the White House for.  We‘ve all asked for the records, these Secret Service logs, to find out exactly when was Jack Abramoff at the White House, who was he meeting with, and how many times it he meet with that person.  The problem is that the White House knows that at the moment they‘re not facing any legal exposure on this issue, and the way for the White House to win this politically is to simply bury the story.  That‘s why they‘ve buried these records about Jack Abramoff‘s visits to the White House and at least for the foreseeable future I wouldn‘t expect the White House to give these records to reporters, because then it becomes a big story all over again.

OLBERMANN:  Now the White House has another issue to fight, even if they‘re going to win it, the Senate Democrats, the 31 Democrats who asked that the attorney general recuse himself from this investigation.  The Justice Department says career lawyers are handling the case.  Are the Democrats grandstanding here?  Are they just opening up another front or is there something to it?

SHUSTER:  There is a little bit of grandstanding there.  It‘s true that Alberto Gonzales as White House counsel might have been aware of Jack Abramoff‘s access or maybe even Jack Abramoff‘s access through Karl Rove or others, but the issue is that the public integrity section at the Justice Department, these career prosecutors, by most accounts are doing a pretty good job and the Democrats have to be careful, as far as if their wish was actually granted and if the Justice Department were to say OK, we‘ll give you your wish, we‘ll give you a special prosecutor, that tends to slow down an investigation, because special prosecutor, then, or special counsel would then have to go outside the Justice Department, assemble a staff, recruit FBI agents to be detailed to that investigation and usually that slows down an investigation by six to eight months.  So I‘m not sure that‘s exactly what the Democrats necessarily want.

OLBERMANN:  As we see from the start of the Libby trial, January 2007, dating to events from spring 2003.

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