THE CLEANSING OF THE PRESIDENT….The main witness to Bill Burkett’s story about the “cleansing” of George Bush’s National Guard files is a fellow former guardsman named George Conn. Burkett claims that he mentioned his concerns to Conn in mid-1997 and a few days later Conn took him on a stroll over to the the base museum building where Burkett caught a glimpse of Bush’s files being tossed away in a trashcan. (My interview with Burkett about this stuff is here.)

On Wednesday Conn declined to comment on Burkett’s charges to the New York Times but did say this via email: “I know LTC Bill Burkett and served with him several years ago in the Texas Army National Guard. I believe him to be honest and forthright. He ‘calls things like he sees them.’”

Yesterday, though, Conn decided to comment further:

Conn says he never saw anyone combing through the Bush file or discarding records. “I have no recall of that,” Conn said. “I have no recall of that whatsoever. None. Zip. Nada.”

Conn’s recollection also undercuts another of Burkett’s central allegations: that he overheard Bush’s onetime chief of staff, Joe M. Allbaugh, telling a Texas Guard general to make sure there were no embarrassments in the Bush record.

Burkett says he told Conn, over dinner that same night, what he had overheard. But Conn says that, although Burkett told him he worried that the Bush record would be sanitized, he never mentioned overhearing the conversation between Allbaugh and General Daniel James III.

This is obviously a major blow to Burkett’s credibility. What’s odd, though, is that it doesn’t actually directly contradict what Burkett told me on Wednesday:

  • After overhearing the “cleansing” conversation in General James’ office, Burkett says he “brought it up” with Conn and later mentioned it “in passing.” Then: “I don’t know in what detail we talked about it, but I know we talked.”

  • Conn agrees that he took a walk with Burkett over to the museum but says he never saw any records being tossed out. But in Burkett’s account to me he was actually pretty clear that Conn never actually said or did anything specific. He just led him in the direction of the trashcan and Burkett looked in and saw some of Bush’s files.

  • I asked Burkett if Conn had brought him to the museum deliberately and he said, “I believe so. And that’s the reason I traced the path, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”

    In other words, Conn never said anything directly about it. Burkett inferred Conn’s intent from what he saw there.

Now, this is all very strange. Three people ? Conn, Dennis Adams, and Harvey Gough ? are on record as agreeing that Burkett spoke to them in 1997 about his concerns that the Bush record was being sanitized. What’s more, Conn agrees that he and Burkett visited the museum together one day. But he denies that Burkett ever mentioned specifically to him what he saw in the trashcan.

So what really happened? I don’t know the truth, but I did speak with both Gough and Conn this morning to get their side of the story. (No luck with Adams yet.) I’ll have a post about that in a few hours.