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Who's Scripting Gonzales?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 26, 2007; 1:36 PM

Why did Attorney General Alberto Gonzales go before the television cameras two weeks ago and deny that he knew anything about last year's firings of U.S. attorneys, when -- as we just learned from yet another Friday-night document dump -- he approved them during an hour-long meeting in November?

Did that meeting not make an impression? Did he choose to lie about it? Was he secretly drawing a distinction between giving his approval and knowing anything about what he had given his approval for?

Or was he just reading whatever was put in front of him?

It's no secret in Washington that Gonzales is not an autonomous player. His entire career has been as an enabler of George Bush. He does what he's told.

When he was White House counsel, for instance, he was widely seen as being under the thrall of vice presidential counsel David S. Addington on such signature issues as torture and presidential power.

It's not as obvious who has been his minder since he became attorney general two years ago. But presumably either he or, more to the point, the staffers who write his speeches and draw up his talking points still get their marching orders directly from the West Wing.

In his March 13 statement, Gonzales took responsibility for everything that had happened at the Department of Justice, even while depicting himself as a detached CEO who didn't know what his senior aides were doing. He acknowledged that mistakes had been made, but not what they were or who made them.

As I wrote in my March 14 column, the result was that Gonzales took some fire, while at the same time creating a diversion -- by distracting journalists from elements of the scandal that lead directly to the heart of the White House.

And now, with his central talking point exposed as clumsy dishonesty, it's clear that whoever prepped Gonzales and sent him out to face the media was more focused on White House interests than on telling the truth.

Friday Night Document Dump

Dan Eggen writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales met with senior aides on Nov. 27 to review a plan to fire a group of U.S. attorneys, according to documents released last night, a disclosure that contradicts Gonzales's previous statement that he was not involved in 'any discussions' about the dismissals. . . .

"The hour-long November meeting in the attorney general's conference room included Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and four other senior Justice officials, including the Gonzales aide who coordinated the firings, then-Chief of Staff D. Kyle Sampson, records show. . . .

"Spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said last night that there is no 'inconsistency' between the Nov. 27 meeting and Gonzales's remarks. She argued that Gonzales was simply emphasizing at the news conference that he was not involved in the details of Sampson's plans."

The newly released documents have been Web-posted by McClatchy.

Here is the transcript of Gonzales's March 13 press conference.

"As we can all imagine in an organization of 110,000 people, I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls of the Department of Justice, nor am I aware of all decisions," Gonzales said. "Many decisions are delegated."

He repeated: "I never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood."

Eric Lipton and David Johnston write in Saturday's New York Times: "An accumulating body of evidence is at odds with the statements of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that he played little role in the deliberations over the dismissal of eight United States attorneys."

The conflict between what Gonzales said and what the latest documents show has "fed suspicions by some Democrats that the ousters, from the start, may have been orchestrated by the White House, and most particularly, by Karl Rove, the White House political adviser," Lipton and Johnston write.

Ron Hutcheson, Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The latest documents also raise new questions about how involved White House political operatives were in the decision to fire the prosecutors.

"In a Dec. 3, 2006, e-mail released Friday night, Scott Jennings, one of presidential adviser Karl Rove's aides, asked Sampson if he had a list of 'all vacant, or about-to-be vacant, US Attorney slots.' Jennings' request came on a Sunday, so Sampson offered to send it to him the next day. . . .

"The e-mails also show that administration officials struggled to find a way to justify the firings and considered citing immigration enforcement simply because three of the fired prosecutors were stationed near the border with Mexico. While the e-mails don't provide evidence of partisan motives for the firings, they seem to undercut the administration's explanation that the prosecutors were dismissed for poor performance.

"'The one common link here is that three of them are along the southern border so you could make the connection that DOJ is unhappy with the immigration prosecution numbers in those districts,' Tasia Scolinos, a senior public affairs specialist at the Justice Department, told Catherine Martin, a White House communications adviser, in an e-mail.

"'Which ones are they?' Martin replied."

Lara Jakes Jordan notes for the Associated Press that the e-mail from Rove aide Jennings "was written from the Internet domain address of 'gwb43.com,' which is registered to the National Republican Committee."

Another Aide Steps Aside

Two of Gonzales's most important staffers -- both of them young and eager Republican loyalists with strong ties to the White House -- have now stepped aside. The first, of course, was Sampson. The second was Gonzales's White House liaison.

Eggen reported in The Post on Saturday: "The Justice Department also said yesterday that Monica Goodling, a senior counselor to Gonzales who worked closely with Sampson on the firings, took an indefinite personal leave from her job on Monday. A Justice official said that she is still employed there but that it is not clear when she will return."

Goodling, who is in her early 30s, graduated from Messiah College and the Pat-Robertson founded Regent University Law School. TPM Muckraker's Paul Kiel documents some of Goodling's involvement in the purge.

What the White House Thinks

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "White House officials continued to defend Mr. Gonzales, saying the e-mail messages did not directly contradict anything he had said and noting that he had not disputed that at the end of the process he signed off on the final list of prosecutors to be dismissed. President Bush said in his Saturday radio address that he strongly supported Mr. Gonzales in the decision to oust the prosecutors, though he has said he believes that more explanation is necessary."

Here's that radio address, which was actually recorded Friday, before the document dump.

Michael Isikoff and Richard Wolffe write for Newsweek, however, that "behind the scenes, things remain tense between the White House and Justice over the U.S. attorney mess. A senior White House aide (who asked not to be ID'd talking about personnel matters) told Newsweek that Gonzales still needs to 'demonstrate competence and confidence.'"

McKay Watch

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "John McKay of Washington state, who had decided two years earlier not to bring voter fraud charges that could have undermined a Democratic victory in a closely fought gubernatorial race, said White House counsel Harriet Miers and her deputy, William Kelley, 'asked me why Republicans in the state of Washington would be angry with me.' . . .

"McKay's disclosure of an explicit White House question about the damage his decision caused to his standing among party loyalists added new detail to his previous statement that Miers accused him of having 'mishandled' the voter fraud inquiry."

Cummins Watch

Fired Arkansas U.S. attorney Bud Cummins tells CBS's Face the Nation: "We do serve at the pleasure of the president. But in this case, it looks like the authority was delegated down through Harriet Miers, Karl Rove, Judge Gonzales and all the way down to a bunch of 35-year-old kids who got in a room together and tried to decide who was the most loyal to the president."

Framing the Issue

Late last week, the new White House line of defense on the firings themselves begin to emerge.

Charles Krauthammer summed it up in his Washington Post opinion column on Friday: "If the White House decides that a U.S. attorney is showing insufficient zeal in pursuing voter fraud -- or the death penalty or illegal immigration or drug dealing -- it has the perfect right to fire him. There is only one impermissible reason for presidential intervention: to sabotage an active investigation. That is obstruction of justice. Until the Democrats come up with real evidence of that -- and they have not -- this affair remains a pseudo-scandal. Which would never have developed had Gonzales made the easy and obvious case from day one."

The Washington Post editorial board chimed in today: "The president was entitled to replace any he chose, as long as he wasn't intending to short-circuit ongoing investigations."

But removing prosecutors for not being sufficiently partisan -- when, once appointed, they are supposed to do their jobs without fear or favor -- is unprecedented and certainly worth exposing and debating. If the fired prosecutors were indeed fired because they weren't partisan enough, then what sorts of hacks are they going to be replaced with? What sort of chilling effect does this send? And what does this say about what the rest of the U.S. attorneys are having to do to keep their jobs?

Josh Marshall, the liberal blogger who has driven this story from the beginning, explains: "This isn't about the AG's lies. It's not about the attempted cover-up. It's not about executive privilege and investigative process mumbojumbo.

"This is about using US Attorneys to damage Democrats and protect Republicans, using the Department of Justice as a partisan cudgel in the war for national political dominance. All the secrecy and lies, the blundering and covering-up stems from this one central fact."

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "Whatever one thinks of how convincing the available evidence is thus far, nobody who has an even basic understanding of how our government functions could dispute that the accusations in this scandal are extremely serious. Presumably, even those incapable of ingesting the danger of having U.S. attorneys fired due to their refusal to launch partisan-motivated prosecutions (or stifle prosecutions for partisan reasons) at least understand that it is highly disturbing and simply intolerable for the Attorney General of the U.S. -- the head of our Justice Department -- to lie repeatedly about what happened, including to Congress, and to have done so with the obvious assent and (at the very least) implicit cooperation of the White House. Even the most vapid media stars should be able to understand that.

"And yet so many of them do not."

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "By trying to recast the controversy as a partisan catfight, the president has temporarily diverted attention from the central issues in this inquiry: whether any of the eight fired U.S. attorneys were asked to step down for political reasons; whether political aides in the White House played an important role in the firings; and whether replacing independent-minded prosecutors was a way of influencing ongoing or future investigations.

"In the broadest sense, this is about whether the Bush administration has illegitimately politicized the justice system."

Voter Fraud

What may very well have cost some of the fired attorneys their jobs was that they weren't as tough on "voter fraud" as the White House wanted.

Greg Gordon, Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor write in McClatchy Newspapers with some important context: "Under President Bush, the Justice Department has backed laws that narrow minority voting rights and pressed U.S. attorneys to investigate voter fraud - policies that critics say have been intended to suppress Democratic votes.

"Bush, his deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, and other Republican political advisers have highlighted voting rights issues and what Rove has called the 'growing problem' of election fraud by Democrats since Bush took power in the tumultuous election of 2000, a race ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Since 2005, McClatchy Newspapers has found, Bush has appointed at least three U.S. attorneys who had worked in the Justice Department's civil rights division when it was rolling back longstanding voting-rights policies aimed at protecting predominantly poor, minority voters.

"Another newly installed U.S. attorney, Tim Griffin in Little Rock, Ark., was accused of participating in efforts to suppress Democratic votes in Florida during the 2004 presidential election while he was a research director for the Republican National Committee. He's denied any wrongdoing."

Rove's Motivation

In fact, if you believe that the whole purge was Karl Rove's idea (see my Friday column) then the McClatchy team exposes what could be his central motivation: "Last April, while the Justice Department and the White House were planning the firings, Rove gave a speech in Washington to the Republican National Lawyers Association. He ticked off 11 states that he said could be pivotal in the 2008 elections. Bush has appointed new U.S. attorneys in nine of them since 2005: Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico. U.S. attorneys in the latter four were among those fired.

"Rove thanked the audience for 'all that you are doing in those hot spots around the country to ensure that the integrity of the ballot is protected.' He added, 'A lot in American politics is up for grabs.'"

Blogger Hilzoy proposes another possible 2008-related Rove motivation: "It's not surprising, at the beginning of a Presidential campaign season, for the Republican party to send its chief opposition researcher -- the guy responsible for digging up dirt on political opponents -- to the very state where Hillary Clinton, one of the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination, spent most of her adult life. But it's completely out of line for them to send their chief opposition researcher to Arkansas as a US Attorney with subpoena power."

Justice Politics

Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times that "suspicions that the White House's partisan political priorities may have made their way into Justice Department decision-making have grown in recent weeks.

"Not only have two of eight recently fired U.S. attorneys complained that in specific cases they felt pressure to make decisions that would advance Republican political interests, but last week several former career officials in the Justice Department said they had felt similar pressures on voting rights cases.

"'The political decision-making process that led to the dismissal of eight United States attorneys was standard practice in the Civil Rights Division years before these revelations,' Joseph D. Rich, recently retired head of the division's voting rights section, said in a sparsely attended House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing last week."

The liberal Center for American Progress is out with a major new report on civil rights enforcement under the Bush administration, which concludes: "The Bush administration continues to use the courts and the judicial appointment process to narrow civil rights protections and repeal remedies for legal redress while allowing the traditional tools of the executive branch for civil rights enforcement to wither and die."

Politicization Watch

Scott Higham and Robert O'Harrow Jr. write in The Washington Post: "Witnesses have told congressional investigators that the chief of the General Services Administration and a deputy in Karl Rove's political affairs office at the White House joined in a videoconference earlier this year with top GSA political appointees, who discussed ways to help Republican candidates.

"With GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan and up to 40 regional administrators on hand, J. Scott Jennings, the White House's deputy director of political affairs, gave a PowerPoint presentation on Jan. 26 of polling data about the 2006 elections.

"When Jennings concluded his presentation to the GSA political appointees, Doan allegedly asked them how they could 'help 'our candidates' in the next elections,' according to a March 6 letter to Doan from Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Waxman said in the letter that one method suggested was using 'targeted public events, such as the opening of federal facilities around the country.'"

E-Mail Watch

Regular White House Watch readers will know I've been mighty curious about the use of outside e-mail accounts by White House staffers in the course of doing official business. (See my March 15 and 16 columns.)

And as I wrote in Friday's column, National Journal's Alexis Simendinger has taken up the issue as well.

Here's her fruitless attempt to get some answers from Tony Snow at Friday's press briefing:

"Q: Clarification, is the President prepared as part of his offer to turn over all materials and emails that were created on the RNC domain, which is primarily --

"MR. SNOW: As I said, all responsive documents will be provided.

"Q: So he has the authority to tell the RNC to turn it over?

"MR. SNOW: I'm not going to get into the vagaries of document production, because that is an issue for lawyers to go into. But any documents that would be generated, that would be germane to the inquiry, would be provided.

"Q: Whether or not they were created on this system here --

"MR. SNOW: Like I said, I don't want to get into the technical issues."

And several bloggers and e-mailers have now pointed out that last year's report on convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff from the Democrats on the House government reform committee documented that Abramoff's people were aware that their friends in the White House didn't want any e-mails sent to their White House e-mail addresses.

In a February 7, 2003, e-mail to Abramoff, his associate Kevin Ring described how an e-mail from Abramoff to Rove aide Susan Ralston had gotten forwarded to a White House e-mail address by mistake. Yet another Abramoff associate warned that "it is better not to put this stuff in writing in their e-mail system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc." Abramoff replied: "Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her rnc pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system."

The e-mails are on page 14 of this document.

And the House government reform committee today announced: "Citing evidence that senior White House officials are using RNC and other political email accounts to avoid leaving a record of official communications, Chairman Waxman directs the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney '04 Campaign to preserve the emails of White House officials and to meet with Committee staff to explain how the accounts are managed and what steps are being taken to protect the emails from destruction and tampering."

War on Terror Watch

Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in The Washington Post's Outloook section: "The 'war on terror' has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration's elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America's psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us."

Snow's Cancer Scare

Holly Bailey blogs for Newsweek that at his Tuesday press briefing, Snow responded to questions about Gonzales's future with bleak talk: "'When I answered yesterday, do you know who's going to be [attorney general] at the end of the term -- as a cancer survivor, I don't know if I'm going to be alive at the end of this term,' Snow said. 'So when you try to put together a question about what's going to happen for the two years, you don't know.'

"Turns out there was a reason he was so serious. On Friday, Snow announced during his daily press briefing at the White House that he will undergo surgery on Monday to remove a growth in his lower abdomen. Snow, who survived a near-fatal bout with colon cancer two years ago, said the tests show the growth to be negative for cancer but that he and his doctors have decided to remove it anyway 'out of an aggressive sense of caution.'"

Here's Snow on Friday: "I'll be out for a few weeks, because it's still -- you know, they're going to cut me. And it will take me a little while to heal up. So I'll come back here a little lighter -- (laughter) -- in, oh, I don't know, a few weeks, maybe three or four weeks. Dana Perino will be handling the responsibilities from behind the podium."

Impeachment Watch

The Associated Press reports: "Some lawmakers who complain that President Bush is flouting Congress and the public with his Iraq policies are considering impeachment an option, a Republican senator said Sunday.

"Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a frequent critic of the war, stopped short of calling for Bush's impeachment.

"But he made clear that some lawmakers viewed that as an option should Bush choose to push ahead despite public sentiment against the war."

Robert Kuttner writes in his Boston Globe opinion column: "The House of Representatives should begin impeachment proceedings against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales."

Lame Duck Watch

Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times: "Most American presidents suffer lame-duck status to some degree or other during the final stretch of their second term, progressively losing influence and the ability to achieve results. But for George W. Bush, who still has 22 months left in office, the prospects are starting to look worse than that."

And yet, Luce writes: "Mr Cheney is still a live force. Many believe the vice-president remains inured to the normal checks and balances of Washington politics, in spite of having lost a number of recent internal administration battles to Ms Rice. In particular, they point to Mr Cheney's unwavering desire for regime change in Iran - which, in spite of Tehran's own growing internal divisions, remains committed to uranium enrichment."

Cartoon Watch

Ben Sargent on Bush's truth problem; Rex Babin on the pleasure of the president.

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