Speaker John Boehner helped quiet the storm around Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s admission that he addressed a white supremacist conference in 2002 by throwing his full confidence behind the number-three ranking Republican on Tuesday. Three days into the story, however, the facts of the Scalise speech are only getting murkier, with some accounts suggesting he may never have even addressed the gathering in the first place.
Boehner is taking a big bet that nothing catastrophic is going to come out down the line. Few national Republican leaders seem willing to make the same wager. Of the top presidential prospects for 2016, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is the only one who’s commented so far, and he has a strong state interest in the story. Msnbc reached out to reps for Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie on Tuesday for comment. None offered a response nor have they publicly addressed the topic elsewhere — and Democrats are starting to poke them on the issue.
"Do you really think it’s appropriate to have Rep. Scalise remain a part of Republican leadership, or will you let your silence speak volumes?” Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee wrote in a press release challenging 2016 hopefuls to weigh in on the issue.
Putting all the political gamesmanship aside, the actual facts of Scalise’s brush with white supremacists have only gotten weirder as more information comes to light. Here are the two biggest questions that Scalise has yet to address.
What really happened at that conference?
There’s not much concrete information when it comes to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) conference organized by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke that Scalise says he addressed. What little details we do have are in dispute and come from, well, white nationalists.
The initial accounts of Scalise’s appearance came from comments on neo-Nazi message board Stormfront in 2002 and 2004. Blogger Lamar White Jr. this week unearthed posts in which a user described Scalise speaking to the EURO event about tax issues. The Republican acknowledged on Monday that he maybe — but not definitely — attended the event, as he couldn’t remember it and was speaking to many groups at the time. Only on Tuesday in a follow up statement did he say he was at the EURO conference.
David Duke, who spoke remotely at the event, told the press he wasn’t sure if the lawmaker attended the event, but that Scalise was invited based on the congressman’s relationship with Duke’s former campaign manager Kenny Knight. Knight told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he and Scalise were friends and neighbors. (He later donated $1,000 to the Congressman’s House campaign.) Knight said he “asked him to be the first speaker before the meeting kicked off” and that he only discussed local tax issues.
But maybe Scalise’s initial memory lapse wasn’t wrong after all. Knight and his then-girlfriend Barbara Noble told Slate later that day that he had been misunderstood before and that Scalise only addressed a neighborhood association he brought to the same venue hours before the conference began, although a portion of the audience were conference attendees. Noble said there were no signs referring to the later EURO event in the area at the time, so Scalise may not have understood what he was getting into.
So we’re in a weird situation now. Is it possible Scalise admitted to speaking to a white supremacist gathering without actually speaking to one? Despite repeated requests from msnbc, Scalise’s office has yet to respond to Knight’s account of the event.
Wait, what was Scalise doing with David Duke’s top aide in the first place?
Good question. Supporters of Scalise have highlighted Knight’s account to the press as evidence the white supremacist conference story was overblown. But it’s not exactly great news for Scalise if David Duke’s own consigliore is going around bragging about how buddy-buddy the two were and that he arranged a local speaking slot for him based on their friendship.
Knight told the Post that he and Scalise talked politics but never discussed “the Jewish question” in their conversations, so there’s that. Some observers in the state have also suggested that, in the context of Louisiana politics, courting Duke voters on less noxious areas of agreement wasn’t so unusual. (Scalise himself talked about doing so in a 1999 Roll Call article).
Conservatives have complained, and not entirely without merit, that it’s unfair for Democrats to treat Scalise’s ties to Duke as disqualifying while also dismissing President Barack Obama’s association with former Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers as a quirk of local Chicago politics. But that’s a question for the public to decide: Just as Obama answered questions about Ayers, Scalise needs to do the same about Knight — and soon — if this episode is going to go away.
Once again, msnbc has reached out to Scalise’s office repeatedly to ask for clarification about the congressman’s relationship with Knight and Duke and received no response. Knight didn’t immediately respond to a phone message requesting an interview.