Politics & Policy

Durbin, Again

The Illinois Democrat makes another mess for himself.

The story unfolding over George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley’s dispute with Sen. Dick Durbin’s office over John Robert’s religious convictions took a new turn Monday when Charles Hurt of the Washington Times reported on a letter that Turley sent to Durbin’s office in an effort to set the record straight.

Last month, Turley wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which he reported on a meeting that took place between Roberts and key senators, including Durbin. Turley wrote that:

According to two people who attended the meeting, Roberts was asked by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) what he would do if the law required a ruling that his church considers immoral… Renowned for his unflappable style in oral argument, Roberts appeared nonplused and, according to sources in the meeting, answered after a long pause that he would probably have to recuse himself.

The next morning, Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker told Charles Hurt that Durbin never asked that question. He also said the following:

“I don’t know who was [Turley’s] source… Whoever the source was either got it wrong or Jonathan Turley got it wrong.”

Mr. Turley, contacted by The Washington Times yesterday, said his sources were Mr. Durbin and Mr. Shoemaker.

Unfortunately for Shoemaker, he left a taped phone message with Turley the night before the column ran. According to Turley’s letter, Shoemaker “made no objection to the accuracy of the recusal story.” Instead, according to the letter, Shoemaker said in the message that, “The only condition under which you can use [the story] is not to identify our office, not identify Durbin, and to say that this came up in the course of several meetings with several senators.”

The issue of whether Turley could mention Durbin and that specific meeting is one that Turley said he had already discussed with Shoemaker and his editors at the Los Angeles Times: He argued that he had an on-the-record conversation with Durbin and that Durbin’s office didn’t dispute that.

After the column ran and Shoemaker publicly denied Turley’s account, Turley contacted Shoemaker. According to Turley’s letter to Durbin, Shoemaker:

confirmed that [our] conversation was not off-the-record and that you knew that I was working on a piece when we spoke. [Shoemaker] further confirmed that a faith question had been raised but that the recusal answer was to a different conflicts question. I was amazed by that response…

Obviously, there would be nothing newsworthy or notable in a statement from Roberts that he would recuse himself in a standard professional conflict of interest. Moreover, there would be no reason why you would not want a reference to the specific meeting for such an innocuous answer.

Shoemaker would not comment on the record to NRO. All he would say is that Turley got his facts wrong. Others familiar with the meeting, such as Sen. John Cornyn, have said that Roberts never said he would recuse himself from a religious case, and that much no longer seems to be disputed. The question is did Durbin try to use Turley to float some bad information about Roberts that was sure to upset conservatives? There are two alternatives to this explanation:

1. Durbin got confused and gave Turley an inaccurate account of what was said at the meeting, and Shoemaker, also confused, verified that account, or at the very least failed to challenge it; or

2. Turley, a media-friendly professor and legal commentator who has written roughly 500 articles, picked this point in his career to start making stuff up.

The first possibility could have occurred, but then why would Durbin’s office be so quick to disavow his on-the-record comments if he thought they were true? The second possibility also seems most unlikely–especially given the notes, e-mails, and taped messages Turley said he can produce to back up his account.

Without a fuller explanation from Durbin, it looks like he gave Turley some bad information, either on purpose or by accident, and then tried to evade responsibility–first by demanding anonymity after granting an on-the-record interview, and then by calling Jonathan Turley a liar.

Before long, Senator Durbin–who made ill-advised comments about our troops in June–may need to make his second apology of the summer.

Stephen Spruiell reports on the media for National Review Online’s new media blog.

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