Pressure on Rep. Weiner unrelenting, for now
Amid reports of salacious new details involving Rep. Anthony Weiner’s online flirtations, Democrats in Washington and New York signaled their unease and wrestled with a vexing question: Can we make this mess go away?
The answer on Tuesday appeared to be: not anytime soon, unless Weiner resigns.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi formally called Tuesday for an ethics investigation into whether Weiner used government resources to send explicit photos and whether he violated the House code of conduct, which requires members to “reflect creditably on the House.”
A senior Democratic aide said Pelosi’s request “builds on the pressure on him to go.” Separately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was asked what advice he would give Weiner. “Call somebody else,” Reid replied.
Weiner’s stumble came just as Democrats were beginning to feel that they were regaining their footing after November’s GOP landslide.
“Anyone who is getting in the way of Democrats taking back the majority will be thrown overboard. There is no tolerance for this anymore — especially from Pelosi,” said a Democratic strategist with close ties to House leadership.
Political pressure is a key factor in determining whether a politician will muddle through a scandal or be forced out, said crisis management consultant Eric Dezenhall. Though many politicians think they can talk their way out of a scandal, public apologies at this point do little, he said.
The key for Weiner to hold onto his seat will be his ability to work the “inside game,” Dezenhall said. “His focus now should be his wife, his Democratic colleagues and his constituents.”
Weiner has considerable work to do on two of those three fronts.
There was little evidence of support from colleagues. The combative passion and sharp sarcasm that made him a favorite of the left has also earned him the reputation as a media hound and showboat. In his seventh term in the House, he holds no leadership position in the party.
Weiner also faces the cold-eyed stare of New York’s political class, a group he’s never completely won over.
Already, New York’s political cognoscenti were debating whether Weiner could rehabilitate his image in time for next year’s election. If not, Democrats probably could consider using redistricting to force him out. New York will lose two of its 29 seats in Congress — one Democratic, the other Republican.
“It could be acceptable to a lot of Democrats if his district was divided up to help surrounding Democrats enlarge their districts,” said George Arzt, a longtime political observer and former advisor to New York Mayor Ed Koch.
The news conferences mercifully ceased Tuesday, and the teary apologies moved behind closed doors. But enterprising gossip websites kept churning new information about Weiner’s alleged texts to a variety of women, identified as a porn star, a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, a Washington state journalism student and a single mom from Texas.
As the revelations flow, the Democrats who would be in position to point him out the door are the Queens Democratic boss, Rep. Joseph Crowley, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Charles E. Schumer and possibly former President Clinton. Weiner has especially close ties to Schumer, whom he once worked for and sees as a mentor, and Clinton, who last year officiated at Weiner’s wedding to Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But politicians who survive such scandals are the ones who’ve resisted the pressure, hunkered down and waited for the ethics committee to weigh in — hoping that the heat of the scandal subsides during the months-long investigation.
Former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was scolded for improper conduct six months after news broke of his arrest in a Minneapolis airport restroom on suspicion of lewd conduct. Though he annoyed his colleagues by refusing to resign his Senate seat, he served out the rest of his term.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) faced pressure to resign when his phone number surfaced in a prostitution ring investigation in 2007. Vitter held out and remains in the Senate after being reelected in November.
Bill Clinton, the ultimate survivor, beat impeachment charges related to an extramarital affair with an intern and, in a full transformation, is now among the most popular political figures in the country.
It is still far from clear whether Weiner, an ambitious, noisy congressman with dreams of being mayor of New York, will succumb or survive. Schumer believes the stricken lawmaker should continue to serve until his constituents decide otherwise, a spokesman said.
But Dezenhall says a difference between Weiner’s case and many previous sex scandals is the apparent abundance of evidence. A digital trail of bad decisions — photos, emails, and tweets — could lead to weeks of embarrassing and distracting headlines.
Others said they were doubtful about Weiner’s ability to hold on to his seat because of his botched handling of the denials, the confession and the awkward news conference in which he said he would take responsibility for his actions.
“The overwhelming majority of people in this country believe in redemption,” said Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel to Clinton and runs a public relations and lobbying firm. “But you don’t get to redemption until you not only say, ‘I’m sorry,’ but also say, ‘I’m going to fix it. I’m going to deal with this and lead a better life.’ Weiner didn’t do anything that said that.”
Weiner said he would not resign. He would cooperate with the House Ethics Committee inquiry. He would stay with his wife.
Abedin has not spoken publicly about the incident. She was scheduled to leave late Tuesday for a seven-day trip to the Middle East and Africa.
Hennessey and Mascaro reported from Washington and Baum from New York.