The Speaker’s Lobby: Easy Street

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

04 December 2009

The decision should have been obvious.

Perhaps the House Homeland Security Committee erred by inviting Tareq and Michaele Salahi to testify at its hearing Thursday. The panel is investigating how the couple bamboozled its way into last week’s state dinner at the White House.

Had the committee not invited the Salahis, they may have just shown up.

For a couple that would pull out all the stops just to attend the opening of an envelope, the Homeland Security Committee inquiry may be the only event in Washington the Salahis didn’t try to get into.

Reporters wrote exhaustively this week about the email exchange between the Salahis and Pentagon official Michele Jones. The couple badgered Jones to help score an invitation to the state dinner. It’s clear from Jones’ emails to the Salahis that she was skeptical she could get them in and that an invite “doesn’t seem likely.”

In other words, the Salahis knew there was a party. But didn’t know if they were on the guest list.

But for the House Homeland Security Committee, the shoe was on the other foot. Committee members knew they were having a hearing Thursday. But didn’t know if the Salahis would appear.

“I don’t know if they’re not going to (testify),” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said late Wednesday afternoon. “They will continue to consult and will let us know by seven this evening.”

Seven pm came and went with no word from the Salahis. Eight bells, and radio silence. Nine o’clock and nothing.

Perhaps the Salahi’s cell phone died. That’s the excuse they used when they claimed they didn’t receive a voicemail from Jones informing them she failed to secure a White House invite.

Then just before 10 pm Wednesday night, Salahi publicist Mahogany Jones blasted out a message announcing that her clients would not testify Thursday.

“There is nothing further that they can do to assist Congress in its inquiry regarding White House protocol and certain security procedures,” the statement read. “They therefore respectfully decline to testify.”

Think baseball pitcher Roger Clemens wishes he used that line when a House panel dragged him to Capitol Hill to discuss about possible steroid use? And then referred Clemens to the Justice Department for an investigation? How about AIG CEO Edward Liddy? The late Enron CEO Ken Lay?

So at least the Salahis are consistent. When they’re not invited, their manners aren’t Emily Post. And when it’s clear they do have an invitation, as was the case with the Homeland Security Committee, they do répondez s’il vous plaît. Albeit a little late.

A covey of cameras squatted outside the hearing room, primed to document the Salahi’s every move, had they graced the marble corridors of the Cannon House Office Building.

It’s ironic that those who pine to be reality TV stars suddenly grow shy when guaranteed a chance to appear on television for hours at a time.

The Salahis may be masters of boffo theatre. But it was the House Homeland Security Committee that upstaged the duo Thursday.

Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan testified for more than two hours as the lone witness at the hearing. At the end of his testimony, chairman Bennie Thompson shocked everyone in the room by announcing it was time for “the next panel.”

Reporters murmured. Next panel? Are there other witlessness? Surely they’re not coming, are they?

They weren’t. But remember, Capitol Hill is the world’s biggest reality TV soundstage.

Sullivan stood to leave and a Congressional aide swooped to the witness table and snatched up his cardboard name card. She then produced two more printed name cards, bearing the names of the Salahis. And like any good Hollywood set designer, the aide brought over a fresh pitcher of ice water, two cups, a scratchpad and a #2 pencil so the couple could jot notes during their testimony.

As if on cue, the media in the room realized this was the denouement of the production. Photographers grabbed images of the empty witness table, punctuated with the Salahi’s placards. Journalists sitting at the reporter’s table to the side of the room began tongue-in-cheek chatter about the phantom witnesses.

“That’s quite a sari she’s wearing,” quipped one scribe.

“Think she got her hair done in Georgetown,” said another.

This Congressional stagecraft isn’t new. Last year, the House Judiciary Committee executed a similar stunt when former White House advisor Karl Rove repeatedly refused to testify before that panel about the firing of U.S. Attorneys. The Judiciary Committee dressed the witness table in a similar fashion. With one difference. An astute aide politely poured the AWOL Rove a glass of ice water. Photographers focused their lenses on the lonely glass as beads of condensation collected at the base.

Bennie Thompson made it clear that his panel would prepare a subpoena next week to compel the Salahis to testify.

“If they continue to rebuff this committee, they could be subject to contempt of Congress,” Thompson warned.

“The perpetators are not here,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) during the hearing.

“Perpetrators” may have been a kind way to describe the Salahis.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) called the the couple “serial con artists.” Reminiscent of Lily and Rooster in the musical “Annie.” They’re the coniving shysters who sing the sendup tune “Easy Street.”

“You don’t get there, playing from the rule book,” the lyrics go. “You stack the aces. You load the dice.”

For the record, the Salahis face multiple lawsuits. They’re in a legal struggle with Tareq’s father for control of the family winery. The Commonwealth of Virginia is investigating the legitimacy of a charity polo tournament the Salahis host. They reportedly owe a string of money to caterers, hairstylists and limo drivers. Creditors have repossesed the Salahi’s Astin Martin and a boat. A Washington jeweler loaned Michaele $30,000 in jewelry for the state dinner and tried for days to track her down to retrieve it. That’s to say nothing of Michaele describing herself as a former Washington Redskins cheerleader, which the team denies.

One wonders if Norton was speaking of Lily and Rooster or the Salahis at Thursday’s hearing.

“This couple has pioneered a new way to bypass security,” Norton said. “Be a poser. And you’ll get in.”

Of course, it’s easier to be a “poser” in the digital age. 

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) pointed out that various people have probably penetrated the president’s security perimeter “many times.”

“The only reason we know about (this incident) is because the people involved wanted to brag about it and post it on Facebook,” Rogers said.

Of course, after Thursday’s hearing, one Congressional aide who wished not to be identified thought it might be a good idea to check ther Salahi’s Facebook page.

“With them, I bet it says they came up here and testified,” the aide said.

–         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.