WASHINGTON – The White House said Tuesday that there was nothing improper about Bush administration political advisers briefing top diplomats about key congressional and gubernatorial races and President Bush's re-election goals.
"You've got political appointees getting political briefings," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday with a dose of sarcasm. "I'm shocked. Shocked."
Snow was asked about political briefings requested by six envoys — all political appointees, who were rewarded with coveted ambassadorial positions in western Europe for their long-standing ties to Bush and the Republican Party.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said the briefings had not violated either the Hatch Act or the department's own "very strict guidelines" that bar partisan political activity by diplomats.
"In this particular case, it was something that they set up with the White House," McCormack said.
Despite the administration's insistence that the briefing was not illegal, some have questioned its propriety, particularly the official State Department channel through which it was requested and the appearance in the presentation of a slide explaining the political strategy of targeting Democrats.
McCormack said he had not spoken to the ambassadors but suggested they may have wanted guidance from the administration's political advisers about how to explain Republican losses in the last congressional elections to their host governments and the public.
"Part of what you're doing as an ambassador overseas is not only engaging foreign publics but also foreign government officials who might have questions about what happened in November 2006 in terms of the American political landscape," he said, adding that the briefing was requested by and provided to only six out of more than 180 ambassadors.
Snow, speaking aboard Air Force One en route to Charleston, S.C., where Bush was speaking, said it's useful for representatives of the administration to be briefed on the goals of the administration."
"It's perfectly legitimate for the White House to say, 'Here are our goals, here are our objectives, this is what your executive branch is doing,"' Snow said, brushing off suggestions that the political briefings were meant to influence the diplomatic corps. "This does not mean that they're out churning for votes. They're not doing fundraisers. ... This is simply a briefing."