Craig Voices Doubts on Exit

Posted September 4, 2007 at 6:45pm

Sen. Larry Craig (R) opened the possibility of reversing his stated intention to resign from the Senate on Sept. 30 in a voice mail message obtained by Roll Call that the Idaho conservative inadvertently left at a wrong number.

Craig left the digitally recorded message on the recipient’s mobile phone voice mail Saturday morning, about a half-hour before he announced his intention to resign his Senate seat at month’s end. The message was provided to Roll Call by the phone’s owner, who is a Washington, D.C., resident not involved in politics and is not the person the Senator was trying to reach. Craig discussed his forthcoming announcement more as a strategy to rehabilitate his political fortunes than a statement about his looming departure.

“Yes, Billy, this is Larry Craig calling. You can reach me on my cell. [Sen.] Arlen Specter [R-Pa.] is now willing to come out in my defense, arguing that it appears, by all that he knows, that I’ve been railroaded and all of that,” Craig said on the voice mail. “Having all of that, we’ve reshaped my statement a little bit to say it is my ‘intent’ to resign on Sept. 30.

“I think it is very important for you to make as bold a statement as you are comfortable with this afternoon and I would hope you could make it in front of the cameras,” Craig continued. “I think it would help drive the story that I am willing to fight, that I’ve got quality people out there fighting in my defense, and that this thing could take a new turn or a new shape; it has that potential.”

Although it could not be determined who the Senator was trying to reach when he incorrectly dialed the phone number, Craig recently hired Washington, D.C., lawyer Billy Martin, who put out a statement Saturday in support of his new client.

Craig spokesman Dan Whiting confirmed Tuesday that the incoming phone number identified by the cell phone where the voice mail was left is in fact the Senator’s cell number. The cell phone’s owner, who requested anonymity, said Craig’s number has shown up on his phone as a missed call a handful of times over the past several weeks, but said that this was the first time the Senator left a message.

But Whiting dismissed any notion that Craig’s statements on the message suggest that he may be strategizing to clear his name for the purpose of jettisoning his planned resignation and remaining in the Senate. Whiting said Craig delayed his resignation by one month primarily to give his staff time to find other jobs and allow his as-yet-to-be appointed successor to benefit from an orderly transition.

“Larry said what he said on Saturday. He told his staff he intends to resign, and the staff is certainly preparing the office for the next Senator from Idaho,” Whiting said.

Members of Craig’s newly hired crisis-management team have been echoing those sentiments over the past few days.

Still, not everyone is convinced that Craig is leaving. Dennis Mansfield, a Gem State Republican activist who ran for Idaho’s 1st district GOP nomination in 2000, said many Idahoans read Craig’s public remarks Saturday as purposely designed to allow him wiggle room to reverse course if his political standing improves over the next few weeks.

Mansfield, a self-described Craig supporter, said he believes the Senator could regain political strength in Idaho in advance of the Sept. 30 resignation date he set for himself, and cautioned that it is premature to count Craig out.

“I was at the press conference, and I know that when Larry said he intends to resign, that all of us who have any nuanced understanding of language understood he was giving himself 30 days to figure out what to do,” Mansfield said. “He hasn’t lasted 27 years [in Congress] to go down in 27 minutes. I think he should tough it out.”

There were mixed reactions among Republicans Tuesday about the possibility that Craig might rescind his planned resignation, which stemmed from his June arrest in a Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport men’s bathroom sex-sting and his guilty plea last month to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge.

Senate Republican leaders Tuesday appeared eager for the matter to go away, saying they interpreted Craig’s Saturday announcement as “firm.” But the three Idaho Members of Congress who serve with Craig indicated they might support the Senator if he changed his mind and chose not to resign, while Specter was still rallying to the Idahoan’s defense.

“I think this episode is over. We’ll have a new Senator from Idaho at some point in the next month or so,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said at a news conference.

“Sen. [John] Ensign (R-Nev.) believes that Sen. Craig made the right decision to resign, for himself and for the party,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said, speaking for the NRSC chairman.

Craig is up for re-election next year, and while Republicans are dominant in the Gem State, the Craig scandal could hurt the GOP’s standing with social conservatives across the country.

A well-placed Senate GOP leadership aide was even more blunt in describing the feelings of the chamber’s Republican leaders, saying Craig’s possible plan to stick around “smacks of desperation by a man who has just devastated his political career and is just now realizing the ramifications of his actions.”

However, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Reps. Bill Sali (R-Idaho) and Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) signaled through their spokesmen that they would not be opposed to Craig remaining in office. Spokesmen for Crapo and Simpson said their bosses would continue to support Craig, regardless of whether he followed through with his planned Sept. 30 resignation.

“I don’t think we’re in the ‘we wanted him to resign’ camp,” Sali spokesman Wayne Hoffman added. “If he’s comfortable making that decision we support him. But if he feels he has cause to remain in office — and feels he can make that judgement in the best interest of the state — then we support him.”

Specter, who went on “Fox News Sunday” in support of Craig, said Tuesday that the Idahoan’s apparent pariah status within the GOP Conference could change after today’s regularly scheduled Senate Republican Policy luncheon.

“We’ll be having a caucus tomorrow, and I will be awaiting events. I think that when more people take a look at the situation there may well be some second thoughts about it,” Specter said.

Specter on Tuesday said he was not planning on making a plea on Craig’s behalf to the entire conference, despite his belief that Craig’s offense did not necessitate his resignation.

“I don’t have any speech prepared. I’m going to go to lunch and see what happens,” he said.

Even if he doesn’t remain in the Senate, Craig clearly plans to fight to restore his reputation.

Over the weekend, even as he announced he would resign, he put in place a high-powered crisis-management team, including Martin, communications expert Judy Smith of Impact Strategies and attorney Stan Brand, who will handle any Senate Ethics Committee investigation. Craig also hired Minneapolis attorney Tom Kelly.

Even before Craig announced his intention to resign, rumors were swirling in Idaho and Washington that Gov. Butch Otter (R) was poised to appoint Lt. Gov. Jim Risch (R) to the Senate as Craig’s replacement. But Otter’s office said Tuesday that no replacement has been selected and no timeline has been determined for doing so.

A police report first detailed by Roll Call on Aug. 27 revealed that Craig was arrested by a plainclothes police officer around mid-day on June 11 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

That afternoon, law enforcement at the airport were staking out a public restroom, according to the arrest report, investigating complaints of sexual activity when Craig began loitering around the stall occupied by the officer who ultimately arrested him, Sgt. Dave Karsnia.