Even in his absence from Washington, Rep. Anthony Weiner’s sex scandal continued to dominate political conversation Monday, undermining Democrats’ efforts to change the subject to the debt ceiling, jobs or anything not involving lurid pictures of the embattled New Yorker.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) had hoped the combined efforts by Democratic leaders Saturday would force Weiner out of office — and the scandal revolving around his sexually charged online activity off the front pages — but it was clearly not going away.
The Ethics Committee on Monday launched a preliminary investigation into Weiner’s actions, and President Barack Obama weighed in for the first time. “If it was me, I would resign,” Obama told NBC on Monday after White House spokesman Jay Carney called the flurry of revelations a “distraction.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor called on Pelosi to strip Weiner of his position on the Energy and Commerce Committee if he continues to resist resigning.
“I’ve called on him to resign. I called on him to resign early,” the Virginia Republican said during his weekly meeting with reporters. “I’d hope ... they’d move towards stripping him of his committees” should Weiner stick around, Cantor said.
“I think his leaders should do everything they can to bring him to that point, if he’s not there already,” Cantor added.
A clearly frustrated senior Democratic House aide argued the situation is now providing Republicans such as Cantor with a perfect opportunity to knock Democrats off message.
“The bottom line is that Rep. Weiner should resign and the GOP is engaged in a pathetic attempt to grab headlines in order to distract from their no-jobs agenda,” the aide said.
And the fault for that lies squarely with Weiner, a crisis communications expert and a Member who has weathered a scandal of his own, said.
Weiner made “terrible strategic mistakes at the outset. He should have clearly come clean in the beginning,” said Marina Ein, a crisis communications expert and founder of Ein Communications.
Ein noted that Americans have always reacted negatively to sex scandals involving married politicians, unlike in European nations, where sexual mores are less puritanical.
“The fact that Americans are shocked, shocked, shocked when married people act this way hasn’t changed since 1776,” Ein said. “The Congressman had every reason to believe this would be taken seriously.”
Rather than try to bury the story by claiming he had been hacked by conservative opponents, Ein argued, Weiner should have moved proactively to address the scandal and fully acknowledge his wrongdoing.
“Had he done that and prepared his colleagues better for this, he might not be standing where he is right now,” she said.
The House unanimously agreed Monday to grant Weiner the two-week leave he requested in order to seek treatment. He was not seen publicly on the Capitol complex Monday. But new images were published on a gossip website depicting a partially nude Weiner taking photos of himself in the mirrors at the House gym.
Rep. Barney Frank, himself the subject of a sex scandal in the 1980s, agreed with Ein that Weiner should have come forward quickly.
“Given my own situation, where I was myself guilty of actions that were inappropriate, I don’t set myself up to judge other people,” said the Massachusetts Democrat, declining to say whether Weiner should resign. “I think this is a case where humility on my part is important.”
Frank added, “The chamber will have to vote on it at some time. I don’t think I should be a commentator on ethical behavior.”
In 1989, Frank asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate his relationship with a male prostitute, Steve Gobie, who had lived and operated out of his Capitol Hill town house.
Frank said Weiner’s situation is more analogous to Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) sexual scandal. Vitter’s phone number was found in the records of a prostitute known as the D.C. Madam. The Massachusetts Democrat said no serious ethics inquiry ever moved against Vitter, who easily won re-election last fall.
Frank said he spoke with Weiner before the New York Democrat held a wide-ranging press conference admitting “inappropriate” behavior with at least six women via Twitter and Facebook. Frank said Weiner told him what his lawyers were advising before the truth came out. “I told him lawyers are great for keeping you out of jail; they are not a good source for keeping public opinion,” Frank said.
In his case, Frank moved early to discuss the sex scandal.
“I had a press conference early on and told people what had happened,” Frank said, noting that he was vindicated by the Ethics Committee. At the time, Frank said he was embarrassed but wanted to tell the truth because there were far worse accusations against him that were later refuted.
“You can’t deny the false accusations without acknowledging the true ones,” Frank said. He acknowledged the situation of his former colleague ex-Rep. Gary Condit (R-Calif.), who did not address allegations in the Chandra Levy murder because he wanted to avoid admitting his affair with the then-intern.
Frank said his decision to come out also helped in his decision to discuss the situation. Gobie came forward alleging Frank was involved in several improprieties two years after Frank decided to publicly discuss his sexual orientation.
“There had already been a change in my life that was going to keep this thing from occurring,” Frank said, noting that it was easier to have relationships after coming out. “While I was closeted, I found it very difficult as a prominent gay man not acknowledging that — to meet people, have these relations.”
In his situation, Frank said the Democratic leadership was “fairly supportive” of him and that the leaders and a significant number of Republicans helped rebuff an effort by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to increase the reprimand to censure.
On Monday, New York Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs refused to follow national Democrats’ lead, telling Roll Call that calling for Weiner’s resignation wouldn’t do any good.
Jacobs said he understands why Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) went after Weiner in rapid succession over the weekend.
“But what I have to do is work internally, if you will, to see how we can resolve this the best way possible. I don’t see any benefit of me at this time coming out with any announcement as to exactly what actions he should take,” he said.
Jacobs said Weiner’s situation is “already as bad as it can get, and all we’re doing is adding more icing to a very distasteful cake.”
“The feeding frenzy’s got to stop,” he said.
Steve Peoples contributed to this report.