Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House, knows well how the Washington game of target and destroy is played.
Long before he admitted on Monday to accidentally speaking before a 2002 conference organized by white supremacists, the Louisiana Congressman was playing offense and winning. His target was Van Jones, a former Obama Administration official who had worked on clean energy initiatives. “The last green jobs czar we had left in disgrace because he expressed comments embracing communism and actually tried to blame the government, the American government, for September 11th attacks,” Scalise said in 2011.
The facts surrounding Jones’ views on the Sept. 11 attacks were far less cut and dry. Jones’ name had been added to a 2004 online petition that suggested President George W. Bush “may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext for war.” When the petition surfaced, Jones said the document “does not reflect my views now or ever.” He said his name had been added by mistake, and he had never read the document. But as the game is played, Jones lost the round. He was tagged as the Obama Administration official who had signed a truther petition, and resigned his job.
More than five years later, Scalise finds himself in the same uncomfortable position. He attended a 2002 event organized by a group called the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO, which was founded by David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Around the time of his speech, EURO’s website had pictures of the Confederate flag, promised to “protect American and Southern heritage,” and included a link called “Understanding Jewish Supremacism.”
Like Jones, Scalise says this is all a misunderstanding. He says he detests the “kind of views” peddled by EURO and did not know about the group at the time, and attended the event by mistake. “I didn't have a scheduler back then,” he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday. I was without the advantages of a tool like Google.”
As of yet, no definitive evidence has surfaced to demonstrate any differently. There were reports in the press at the time about the toxic nature of the meeting, but no indication that Scalise read them before he attended. A Louisiana blogger uncovered a contemporaneous description on a white supremacist listserv from someone who claimed to have heard the remarks. "Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, under-funded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent give-away to a selective group based on race," the account reads. But its veracity is unconfirmed.
A 1999 report in Roll Call surfaced, with Scalise saying of Duke that he was unelectable, and “the novelty has worn off,” while at the same time saying they embraced many of the same conservative views. Later, in 2004, Scalise condemned Duke more directly. “David Duke is an embarrassment to our district and his message of hate only serves to divide us," Scalise told a local business trade publication.
But as with Jones, the case of Scalise is quickly moving beyond the evidence-gathering phase. The details often don't matter if the soundbite stings. The game is not played for justice, but to win.
Just as Jones became the Obama official who signed the 9/11 truther petition, Scalise has become the Republican leader who attended the white supremacist conference. Jones ended up getting a job as a liberal pundit for CNN. Scalise's fate is now in the hands of his Republican colleagues.