Fred Thompson backs off lobbying denial
By: Mike Allen
July 12, 2007 03:38 PM EST
Fred Thompson is backing off his flat denial that he once lobbied for an abortion-rights group. He now says he doesn’t remember it, but does not dispute evidence to the contrary.
The climb-down could be a significant embarrassment for a prospective candidate with a plain-spoken appeal and who has courted the GOP’s anti-abortion base, although Thompson and his advisers had signaled for several days that it was coming.
Realizing that opponents in both parties are mining his legal career for damaging ammunition, Thompson also is engaging in a bit of preemption. He writes in a column posted Wednesday by the conservative Power Line blog: “[I]f a client has a legal and ethical right to take a position, then you may appropriately represent him as long as he does not lie or otherwise conduct himself improperly while you are representing him. In almost 30 years of practicing law I must have had hundreds of clients and thousands of conversations about legal matters. Like any good lawyer, I would always try to give my best, objective and professional opinion on any legal question presented to me.”
The abortion-rights issue arose when the Los Angeles Times reported last week that Thompson had “accepted a lobbying assignment” from the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, which wanted the administration of President George H.W. Bush to relax a restriction on federal payments to clinics that offered abortion counseling.
Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo told the Times in an e-mail: “Fred Thompson did not lobby for this group, period.” The Times said minutes from a board meeting of the group suggested otherwise.
On Thursday, Corallo offered a less sweeping comment about Thompson and the group: “He has no recollection of doing any work for this group. And since he was of counsel and not a member of the firm, it was not unusual for the firm’s partners to trot their clients in to meet him, get his views and even some advice.”
So the difference may boil down to how you define “lobbying.” It has been clear for several days that Thompson was not going to stick with a complete denial. When an Associated Press reporter asked him about the matter this weekend at the Young Republicans National Convention, he deflected with one of his folksy observations: “I’d just say the flies get bigger in the summertime. I guess the flies are buzzing.”
Then in an interview with Sean Hannity that was reported by Thomas B. Edsall of The Huffington Post, Thompson was even more evasive: “You need to separate a lawyer who is advocating a position from the position itself.”
The former “Law and Order” actor has an anti-abortion voting record as a U.S. senator from Tennessee, but some statements he made early in his political career have led some conservatives to question whether he once had favored abortion rights.
The lobbying controversy illustrates the harsh scrutiny that awaits Thompson when he formally kicks off his campaign, and shows the difficulty of trying to answer high-stakes questions without a full campaign infrastructure.
Thompson aides say they do not believe the brouhaha has hurt him with Republican voters. “Consider the source,” said one Thompson adviser. “Conservatives don’t pay much attention to liberal groups that say they want to help, and tell them why their guy isn’t as great as they think.”
The lobbying story is one of several recent pieces criticizing Thompson, and advisers are now considering pushing back his announcement even further. They had planned to schedule the announcement before an Aug. 5 debate in Des Moines, Iowa, but now are considering jumping in even later than that.
The advisers say they realize how searing the scrutiny will be and want to be ready. And they want to have more of their staff in place. Thompson has to convince skeptics he’s ready for the race and ready for the job, and hopes that a top-flight campaign operation will help make that case. The announcement date will be based on factors that include IRS regulations governing when Thompson will have to disclose the millions of dollars he has already raised.
Thompson says in the Power Line column that he had “half dozen or so lobbying clients.” His column concludes: ‘I’m certainly not surprised that such a diverse career is being mined by others. As we get further into this political season we will undoubtedly see the further intersection of law, politics and the mainstream media.”
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