Minutes after the news hit that a Texas grand jury had indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on one count of criminal conspiracy in a case of alleged campaign money laundering, I was in a Washington power-lunch restaurant for a prearranged encounter with Eric Dezenhall, a former Reagan administration official who is one of the top crisis management experts in town (and a writer of entertaining novels on politics, the mob, and celebrity). As I sat down at the table, I said, “The obvious question is….” Dezenhall nodded. He knew. But before he could say anything, a message came in on his Blackberry from a reporter for a major newspaper: had Dezenhall yet been retained by DeLay? He had not. He usually does not handle political cases; he prefers corporations and celebrities. But as DeLay was preparing to step down temporarily as majority leader (as is required by a House rule the GOPers tried to eliminate earlier this year), Dezenhall was happy to think aloud about what a damage-control strategy for DeLay might entail.
“The first thing he must do,” Dezenhall said, “is to realize that his objective is to get acquitted, not to look good. He must understand that damage control does not equal damage disappearance. He has to save what is save-able. He might not be able to save everything: his freedom; his political career, and his financial prospects. His life has changed; he has to focus on acquittal.” At the same time, he added, DeLay has “to stick with his brand and fight back savagely.” And will he depict himself as a martyr being crucified because of his devotion to the conservative cause? I asked. “What does he have to lose at this stage?” Dezenhall answered. “He has to dig in, stay in character and depict the indictment as unholy and agenda-driven. Show contrition? Nah, that’s total horseshit.”
Dezenhall also noted that from this day on, DeLay’s target audience is the to-be-named-later jury that will hear the criminal case against him: “He and his advisers have to concentrate and what will work with a Texas jury. A media roadshow involving someone in a legal case never pays dividends. And DeLay is sufficiently divisive and that does not lend himself well to a careful TV interview. What does pay off is whipping up the preexisting prejudices of the the jury pool.” While Dezenhall said that DeLay ought to “speak up within the confines of his brand,” he noted that DeLay “is always vulnerable to coming off looking mean, and mean does not go well with juries.” (Before DeLay became majority leader, Representative Curt Weldon, a GOP hawk, once observed, “We need someone who can go on national TV and present a good, positive image of the Republican Party and not a mean-spirited image.”)
DeLay’s team, Dezenhall continued, may also consider playing the leak game. With DeLay indicted on a conspiracy charge, it could be that Travis County DA Ronnie Earle flipped one of the coconspirators. There are several ways of establishing a conspiracy charge–say, obtaining memos or emails that lay out the conspiracy–but one clear way is by obtaining the testimony of one of the schemers. If Earle does have an insider spilling all, DeLay will need to undermine that witness–perhaps before any trial. This could lead to a “media game,” Dezenhall said. “Things are leaked to get the person or people who were flipped. This will be done through leaks to the media. The point from DeLay’s perspective is, don’t love me, but hate him.” Above all, Dezenhall added, DeLay has to proceed with the understanding that he “cannot get people to change their fundamental perception of him.”