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Can President Obama Revoke the Medal That George W. Bush Gave to Bill Cosby?

On the heels of the latest revelations about disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, reporters grilled the White House about revoking Cosby's Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The disintegration of comedian Bill Cosby's entire comic legacy came that much nearer to completion this week when it was revealed that Cosby admitted, in a 2005 legal deposition, that he procured drugs for women with whom he intended to have sex. That admission corroborates a major common element among the 36 women (to date) who have lodged allegations of rape and sexual assault against Cosby, and it has swept all but the most deluded holdouts out of the Cosby defenders camp.

The revelations have also spurred a petition, by the sexual violence victims' advocacy group PAVE, that seeks to strip Cosby of the Presidential Medal of Freedom that then-President George W. Bush awarded him in 2002. During that ceremony, President Bush had high praise for Cosby, but as the video of the presentation shows, the award itself seemed to know better. After several attempts to get it to stay around Cosby's neck, President Bush finally just had to hand it off to him:

"Bill Cosby is a gifted comedian who has used the power of laughter to heal wounds and to build bridges. 'I don't think you can bring the races together by joking about the differences between them,' he said. 'I'd rather talk about the similarities, about what's universal in their experiences.' By focusing on our common humanity, Bill Cosby is helping to create a truly united America."

At Wednesday's White House daily briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest was pressed to respond to PAVE's demand. Earnest told ABC News' Jim Avila and AURN's April Ryan that he wasn't even sure if that were possible, while reinforcing President Obama's accomplishments and continued fight to combat sexual assault:

"I don't know whether or not it's legally possible to do so, but I'll see if I can get an answer to the question that you asked."

It's not the first time the issue has been raised. In November, The Hill's Judy Kurtz reported that a former White House official called rescission of Cosby's award "unlikely," but wouldn't rule out the possibility because, as Avila pointed out to Earnest, there is no precedent for such an action.

However, it's not that difficult a question to wrestle with. It's true that there is no existing provision to revoke the award in either of the Executive Orders that established it. However, since the award is only governed by executive order, and gives the president complete discretion over selecting the award's recipients, it seems fairly obvious that such a procedure could easily be established via another executive order.

This is surely not lost on Josh Earnest, who has yet to respond to followup questions, but it is an answer better avoided for the time being. There's no political benefit to being seen as defending Cosby, but creating a process to rescind presidential awards carries a host of potential problems. While there may be wide agreement over Cosby, such a move could open the door to future politicization of the process. For example, what kind of fight would there be if President Bernie Sanders decided to strip former Secretary of State Colin Powell of both of his Medals of Freedom? What if President Trump decides to claw back Ted Kennedy's?

Eventually, however, they will have to answer, since the Cosby petition will almost certainly reach the 100,000-signature threshold required to force a response from the White House. My guess is that the White House will cite the potential to prejudice future court proceedings as a reason not to act.

Update: As predicted, the White House is avoiding this issue like the plague it is. On Thursday, Jim Acosta and April Ryan followed up with Earnest, who not only continued to claim not to know if it's legal for President Obama to rescind the medal, but also pretty much refused to even find out:

"I'm not gonna promise an answer to that, I don't know that I'll have one, but if I do, I'll let you know."

It's actually a really simple question to answer, but there's every chance it never will be, even when and if the White House is forced to respond to the petition. As I said yesterday, the precedent involved is more trouble than it's worth, but so is explaining why you won't set it in this case. If the petition reaches 100,000 signatures, the White House response will skirt this particular angle, bet on it.