TOPICS > Politics

Senators Call for Craig to Resign After Bathroom Arrest

August 29, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Idaho Senator Larry Craig plans to be back at work in Washington when Congress returns from summer break next week; that word came this afternoon from a Craig spokesman, as the senator fought to save a political career that spans four decades.

But this week’s revelation that Craig was arrested in June for making a sexual advance to an undercover police officer in a Minneapolis airport men’s room today triggered the first calls from colleagues for his resignation. Senate Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Norm Coleman of Minnesota joined House Republican Peter Hoekstra of Michigan urging that Craig step aside immediately.

And a White House spokesman said the president was “disappointed” in Craig’s behavior and hoped the Senate Ethics Committee would do its work quickly “in the best interests of the Senate and the people of Idaho.”

SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), Idaho: While I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct at the Minneapolis airport or anywhere else…

RAY SUAREZ: Craig yesterday denied any wrongdoing, but in August he did sign a guilty plea stating that he, quote, “engaged in conduct which I knew or should have known tended to arouse alarm or resentment.”

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in hopes of making it go away.

RAY SUAREZ: The three-term senator said he had hoped to keep the episode out of the newspapers, especially the Idaho Statesman, which had conducted an eight-month investigation into similar charges against Craig.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: In pleading guilty, I overreacted in Minneapolis because of the stress the Idaho Statesman investigation and the rumors it has fueled all around Idaho.

RAY SUAREZ: The Statesman published its story yesterday, which included a May 14th interview with Craig, in which he denied several previous trysts with men. Responding to one anonymous claim that he “cruised,” or followed, a man around a Boise sporting goods store in 1994, Craig told the paper…

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: I’m not gay, and I don’t cruise, and I don’t hit on men.

RAY SUAREZ: The senator then went on to say.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: I don’t go around anywhere hitting on men. And, my god, if I did, I wouldn’t do it in Boise, Idaho.

RAY SUAREZ: Craig also denied a claim from a gay blogger last fall that he had sexual contact with another man in a bathroom at Washington, D.C.’s, Union Station. The revelations have forced Craig to resign as co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R), Massachusetts: Very disappointing. He’s no longer associated with my campaign, as you can imagine. He resigned just today. And, you know, he was one of those who was helping my effort, and I’m sorry to see that he has fallen short.

Reactions from Idaho

RAY SUAREZ: A popular political figure in Idaho, Craig also served as the fourth-highest ranking Republican in the Senate from 1996 until 2002. He's been a longtime opponent of gay rights, voting in favor of a federal ban on same-sex marriage several times in recent years.

Now, we hear from the reporter who investigated and wrote yesterday's Idaho Statesman story. Dan Popkey is the politics and government columnist for the newspaper.

And, Dan, it's been one full day since Senator Craig came before the cameras. What's the reaction been in Idaho?

DAN POPKEY, Columnist, Idaho Statesman: I guess somber, crestfallen even. People trusted Larry Craig. He had responded to rumors like this for decades. And, you know, most Idahoans who were in the political elite, anyway, and had heard these stories believed him. And they're sad.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, he's been in Congress since 1980, in Idaho politics for even longer. What are elected officials saying, if they are saying anything, on the record?

DAN POPKEY: Well, not much. The governor today said that people make mistakes and they need to be given room to recover from them and heal. The governor himself speaks from his own experiences having a DUI that was very public.

The rest of the congressional delegation has been fairly quiet. Senator Crapo, his junior colleague, said, you know, remember, this guy has done a lot of good things for Idaho. Let's cut him a little slack, in essence.

Regretting the guilty plea

RAY SUAREZ: As we heard earlier in the broadcast, Senator Craig blames the Idaho Statesman in part for having to go public and for making the guilty plea, which he says he now regrets. What was the nature of the investigation into his past that your paper was doing?

DAN POPKEY: Well, let me start off by saying that we were very careful, cautious, methodical about this. We didn't publish anything about this, unlike other media. When it was -- you mentioned the blogger earlier. When the blogger's report was published on the Web in October, we did some work but we declined to publish anything, because we didn't want to rely on somebody else's anonymous sources.

We did, however, put a lot of work into it and thought that this was newsworthy, if it were true, or if we could disprove it, because of its long history as part of the mythology of Idaho politics.

So you mentioned eight months in the open there. Actually, I've spent about five months since October, divided my time doing other things. And I've talked to about 300 people. I've run down dozens and dozens of leads. We published yesterday the accounts of three people who I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous -- one of them is the union station, rail station toilet incident, I guess, in which the gentleman says that he had sexual contact with Senator Craig.

The other two were cruising situations or a hit -- you know, one was in 1967 at the University of Idaho, where the senator was student body president and president of his fraternity house. And the person I spoke with said that he believed that he had been hit on.

In 1994, at the REI store here in Boise, a different man said that Craig had cruised him, followed him around the REI, and that this was a gay man who said that it was clear that it was an invitation to sex.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, let me understand. In the presentation of these stories in the Statesman, do you merely repeat what these men said? Or does the story itself conclude that what they say is credible?

DAN POPKEY: We repeat what they said, but, I mean, the fact that we published it obviously suggests that we believe they're credible, and we do believe they're credible.

But I need to emphasize this: Our decision to publish was made only after the arrest and the guilty plea. It was the guilty plea and news of the guilty plea that added weight to the claims of these three men that we didn't have before. And we had made the decision after that May 14 interview that you ran those excerpts from.

We made the decision that we couldn't publish anything at that time because we weren't comfortable, given the senator's very vociferous denials of these claims, of putting this in the paper when what we had were three men who wouldn't put their names out there and the senator was denying it. That changed with his guilty plea.

Denying homosexual allegations

RAY SUAREZ: One thing that didn't change, he not only denied yesterday but denied in a long sit-down with your newspaper that these encounters ever happened in the first place, didn't he?

DAN POPKEY: Oh, yes, absolutely, denied them and denied any homosexual conduct in his lifetime. But when we read the police report, we read the document in which he pleaded guilty, that was the trigger, I suppose, for us publishing.

RAY SUAREZ: You describe the mood in Idaho as "somber." Does the existence of the guilty plea really change this qualitatively from just rumors that have swirled around Senator Craig in the past?

DAN POPKEY: Yes. I mean, there were a lot of very long faces, and it's very hard, I think, for people to understand why he would have pleaded guilty to something that he now says he didn't do.

I mean, you just read the document. It's very plain. It says that, "I am pleading guilty to something I did. I am not innocent." And that's just -- it's very sobering to people here.

And it does change it from the scurrilous rumors that have been passed around, and many of the rumors are false. We've run them down. And that was part of our thinking, as well. Far more of the leads turned out to be dead-ends or inconclusive or false than they did to lead to these three cases I just described.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Larry Popkey, before we go, have you been able to determine in your reporting whether Senator Craig's intention to revisit or reopen in some way the Minnesota case is even legally feasible?

DAN POPKEY: We've talked to attorneys in Minnesota who say it's very, very unlikely that he can overturn, unwind this conviction. That's what they say. We'll see. I think it's going to be very interesting to watch how he responds.

And if I can, if we've got time, one thing that I think Idahoans are asking themselves today is: Can Larry Craig be effective? He was very effective. He brought home the bacon into Idaho as an Appropriations Committee member. He's really had a major impact on public policy in this state of historic proportions.

But with his colleagues starting to peel away, with his losing his seats on the Appropriations Committee -- you didn't mention this, but the Republican conference asked him to leave the committees upon which he sits that helps Idaho. And this is a big blow for Idaho, as a small Western state that relies on the Congress to deliver subsidy and protect our water and so forth.

RAY SUAREZ: Larry Popkey, thanks for joining us.