By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 4, 2007; 1:50 PM
Back on March 5, several top Justice Department officials were summoned for an emergency meeting at the White House. On the agenda: Going over "what we are going to say" about why eight U.S. attorneys had been summarily fired.
The reason for the urgency: principal associate deputy attorney general William Moschella was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee the next day.
Deputy White House counsel William Kelley sent an e-mail over to Justice early in the afternoon, saying that he had "been tasked" with pulling the meeting together, and that "we have to get this group together with some folks here asap."
The meeting was held at the White House later that day. And who did Kelley mean by "some folks here"? Well, among others, Karl Rove -- the White House's chief political operative, and the man who may very well have set the unprecedented dismissals in motion in the first place.
But after the coaching session, Moschella went out and told Congress that there was no significant White House involvement in the firings, as far as he knew.
Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek: "Now some investigators are saying that Rove's attendance at the meeting shows that the president's chief political advisor may have been involved in an attempt to mislead Congress -- one more reason they are demanding to see his emails and force him to testify under oath. . . .
"Although the existence of the White House meeting had been previously disclosed by the Justice Department, Rove's attendance at the strategy session was not -- until both Moschella and deputy attorney general Paul McNulty talked about it in confidential testimony with congressional investigators last week. . . .
"According to McNulty's account, Rove came late to the meeting and left early. But while he was there he spoke up and echoed a point that was made by the other White House aides: The Justice Department needed to provide specific reasons why it terminated the eight prosecutors in order to rebut Democratic charges that the firings were politically motivated. The point Rove and other White House officials made is 'you all need to explain what you did and why you did it,' McNulty told the investigators.
"The problem, according to the Democratic aide, is that Rove and Kelley never told Moschella about the White House's own role in pushing to have some U.S. attorneys fired in the first place. Moschella followed the coaching by Rove and others -- and made no mention of White House involvement in the firings during his March 6, 2007 testimony to House Judiciary. 'They let Moschella come up here without telling him the full story,' said the Democratic staffer."
The White House response to the news? "'It's perfectly natural that he would be there,' said deputy press secretary Tony Fratto. Asked specifically whether Rove had withheld pertinent information to Moschella, and therefore participated in an attempt to mislead Congress, Fratto replied: 'The White House's role was very limited. I'm not commenting about any meetings."
Blogger Josh Marshall writes: "Remind me. Why do you need to 'agree on clear reasons why each prosecutor was fired' if the reasons were actually clear when you did the firing and if the reasons can be stated publicly? Think about it. Why do Rove and the other heavies from the White House need to tell these guys how important it is to get their stories straight? If I fire someone, I know why I fired them. I don't need to get my story straight unless the real reason can't be stated and I need to come up with a defensible and plausible alternative explanation."
There has already been some indication that administration officials were trying to avoid transparency on the matter. Indeed, it was that very same day, March 5, that Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos sent an e-mail to White House aides explaining one aspect of her communication plan: "We are trying to muddy the coverage up a bit by trying to put the focus on the process in which they were told."
And it's worth noting that to this day, neither the Justice Department nor the White House have gotten their stories straight on why the attorneys were fired. Another reminder of that came yesterday, when former deputy attorney general James Comey, a man widely perceived as having left the Justice Department with his integrity intact, appeared before a House panel.
Paul Kane blogs for washingtonpost.com with a comparison of what Moschella said about the individual firings on March 6 after being prepped by Rove et. al. -- and what Comey said.
Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post about how Comey "lavished praise yesterday on most of the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired after he left the job, testifying that only one of them had serious performance problems."
Eggen writes that Comey's testimony "further undermines assertions by [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales and his aides that dissatisfaction with the prosecutors' work led to their dismissals. It also underscores the extent to which the firings, which originated in the White House, were handled outside the normal chain of command at Justice."
Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers that Comey testified "that although it was his responsibility as the department's second-in-command to supervise the nation's top prosecutors, he was never told that the department and the White House had targeted some prosecutors for replacement.
"Comey's successor, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, told congressional investigators last week that he, too, was kept in the dark about the White House's role in the firings.
"Comey's and McNulty's accounts further undermine claims by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other department officials the prosecutors were fired for professional, not political, reasons."
David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Comey testified a day after Justice Department officials said the agency had opened an internal inquiry into whether Monica M. Goodling, a former senior aide to Mr. Gonzales, had sought to screen applicants for jobs as career prosecutors to determine their political loyalty to the Bush administration.
"In his testimony, Mr. Comey said that the accusation, if true, would be a severe blow to the department.
"'That is the most, in my view, the most serious thing I have heard come up in this entire controversy,' Mr. Comey said. 'If that was going on, that strikes at the core of what the Department of Justice is. You just cannot do that. You can't hire assistant United States attorneys based on political affiliation. It deprives the department of its lifeblood, which is the ability to stand up and have juries of all stripes believe what you say and have sheriffs and judges and jailers -- the people we deal with -- trust the Department of Justice.'"And Then There Were Nine?
Adam Cohen writes in a New York Times opinion piece: "There is yet another United States attorney whose abrupt departure from office is raising questions: Debra Wong Yang of Los Angeles. Ms. Yang was not fired, as eight other prosecutors were, but she resigned under circumstances that raise serious questions, starting with whether she was pushed out to disrupt her investigation of one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress. . . .
"Ms. Yang was investigating Jerry Lewis, who was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. . . .
"Ms. Yang says she left for personal reasons, but there is growing evidence that the White House was intent on removing her. Kyle Sampson, the Justice Department staff member in charge of the firings, told investigators last month in still-secret testimony that Harriet Miers, the White House counsel at the time, had asked him more than once about Ms. Yang. He testified, according to Congressional sources, that as late as mid-September, Ms. Miers wanted to know whether Ms. Yang could be made to resign. Mr. Sampson reportedly recalled that Ms. Miers was focused on just two United States attorneys: Ms. Yang and Bud Cummins, the Arkansas prosecutor who was later fired to make room for Tim Griffin, a Republican political operative and Karl Rove prot?g?.
"It is hard to see what put Ms. Yang on the White House list other than her investigation of Mr. Lewis, which threatened to pull in well-connected lobbyists, military contractors and Republican contributors. . . .
"Congress is conducting closed-door interviews with Justice Department officials. That is important, but hardly enough. It is looking more and more as if the United States attorney dismissals were managed out of the White House. The way to put to rest the questions about Ms. Yang's suspicious departure, and the firings of the other prosecutors, is to require that Ms. Miers, Mr. Rove and other White House officials tell what they know, in public and under oath."Or Maybe Ten?
Frank Morris reports for NPR: "The Justice Department's push to remove U.S. attorneys in 2006 might have been larger than the eight cases that have been discussed in Congress. Other U.S. attorneys' names were on a list the agency compiled in January 2006 -- the prosecutor who replaced one of them was the first to be named under the Patriot Act.
"One of the federal prosecutors on the list was U.S. Attorney for Western Missouri Todd Graves. Graves resigned last year, before the forced dismissals took place. He left several months after refusing to sign off on a voter-registration lawsuit that was filed against the state of Missouri by an acting assistant attorney general, Bradley Schlozman.
"Less than two weeks later, Schlozman was installed to replace Graves under a Patriot Act provision allowing President Bush to place Schlozman in the job without Senate confirmation."
Greg Gordon writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Before the 2006 mid-term elections, Republicans in Missouri talked a lot about voter fraud.
"They filed voter-registration lawsuits, passed a law in Jefferson City requiring voters to show ID cards and fretted that dead people might vote.
"Even White House political guru Karl Rove weighed in, telling a talk-show host a couple of days before the election that he had just visited Missouri, where GOP strategists said they were 'well aware of' the threat of voter fraud.
"The threat to the integrity of the election was seen as so grave that Bradley Schlozman, the acting chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and later the U.S. attorney in Kansas City, wielded the power of the federal government to protect the ballot.
"Now, disclosures in the wake of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys have led to allegations that that Republican campaign was not as it appeared.
"The preoccupation with Missouri was part of a wider effort in several states, critics charge, aimed at protecting the GOP hold on Congress by dampening Democratic turnout. That effort included purges of names from lists of registered voters and tight policing of get-out-the-vote drives by Democrats.
"The Bush administration denies those claims. But they've gotten traction recently because three of the U.S. attorneys ousted by the Justice Department say they lost their jobs because they failed to prove voter fraud allegations."Hate Crime Watch
Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that "the House yesterday approved legislation that would extend federal hate-crime protection to gays and increase penalties against their attackers."
The bill would expand upon "a federal hate-crime law that has existed since 1968 and focuses on race, color, religion and national origin. The bill passed with relative ease, 237 to 180, with 25 Republicans joining 212 Democrats. Fourteen Democrats opposed the bill. . . .
"Under the House bill, the definition of a hate crime would expand to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. Local law enforcement officials would be allowed to apply for federal grants to solve such crimes, and federal agents would be given broader authority to assist state and local police. Federal sentencing guidelines would also be stiffened."
But the House vote fell short of the 290 needed to override a presidential veto, and the White House yesterday issued a statement in opposition to the bill: "The Administration favors strong criminal penalties for violent crime, including crime based on personal characteristics, such as race, color, religion, or national origin. However, the Administration believes that H.R. 1592 is unnecessary and constitutionally questionable. If H.R. 1592 were presented to the President, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill."
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times: "Under intense pressure from conservative religious organizations to derail the bill, the White House on Thursday called it 'unnecessary and constitutionally questionable,' issuing the latest in a string of veto threats aimed at the congressional Democratic majority. . . .
"Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, said he hoped President Bush would sign the bill.
"'We are not going to stop working on this president,' he said. 'There's time before this goes to the president's desk. I hope that we have an opportunity to engage the White House . . . to talk to him about the kind of legacy he wants to look back upon.'"
And it's worth noting that there are two different kinds of White House veto threats. There's the full-on presidential veto threat, the kind the White House issued over Democratic-backed stem-cell legislation, which flatly stated: "If S. 5 were presented to the President, he would veto the bill."
And there's what the White House calls a "senior advisors veto threat." That's what the hate-crimes bill got. So maybe Bush hasn't entirely made up his mind yet.Speaking of Vetos
The New York Times reports: "President Bush told Congressional leaders Thursday that he would veto any legislation that weakened federal policies or laws on abortion.
"In a two-page letter sent to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Mr. Bush said his veto threat would apply to any measures that 'allow taxpayer dollars to be used for the destruction of human life.'"Iraq Watch
Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) took the Senate floor to join Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) in offering a bill that would sunset the 2002 authorization of military operations in Iraq. It would take away the president's authority to wage war in Iraq five years to the day after it was granted, meaning Bush would be required to convince Congress to reapprove it in October.
"Meanwhile, White House negotiators tasked with hashing out a compromise spending bill are considering a plan that would tie U.S. financial aid to the Baghdad government's progress in meeting certain political goals. But they ruled out linking U.S. troop deployments to such benchmarks, administration officials said. . . .
"House Democratic leaders last night mulled a new proposal, floated by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), that would fund the war effort for three months, through the end of August. Further funding would come only after Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, briefed Congress on military progress and the progress of the Iraqi government in achieving a set of benchmarks, such as quelling sectarian violence, disarming militias and adopting changes to the Iraqi constitution to guarantee equality among ethnic and religious groups."
Kathy Kiely write in USA Today: "'We're going to force a debate on the whole war,' [Clinton] told reporters outside the Senate chamber. 'We want to force the Congress to look at whether the president's authority, which comes from Congress, should be rescinded.'
"The Bush administration accused Clinton of playing presidential politics.
"'Here we go again. The Senate is trying another way to put a surrender date on the calendar,' said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. 'Welcome to politics, '08 style.'"'Mission Accomplished' Watch
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post on the latest twist regarding Bush's four-years-past " Mission Accomplished" moment.
"Bush never actually used the words 'mission accomplished' that day, and the White House has long argued that although it created the banner, it did so only in response to a request by the ship to indicate that its long deployment was over and not to indicate that the mission in Iraq was complete. But that explanation has been undermined by none other than [former secretary of defense Donald] Rumsfeld, who was in charge of the Pentagon at the time.
"In a little-noticed interview with The Washington Post's Bob Woodward published last year in Woodward's book 'State of Denial,' Rumsfeld said the phrase 'mission accomplished' was not about the ship's deployment but in fact was a White House message originally included in Bush's speech. 'I took 'Mission Accomplished' out,' Rumsfeld said. 'I was in Baghdad and I was given a draft of that thing and I just died. And I said, it's too inclusive. And I fixed it and sent it back. They fixed the speech but not the sign.'
"This week, for the first time, the White House publicly disagreed. 'It's not true,' said Dan Bartlett, the president's counselor, who helped organize the Abraham Lincoln event. 'I think he's gotten confused. There was discussion about how to phrase the end of major combat operations' but not whether to say 'mission accomplished.'
"After Woodward's book came out, Bartlett said, he went back to the files. 'I looked at every draft of the speech, every draft that was sent to the principals, the Cabinet secretaries,' he said. 'There was never 'mission accomplished' in any draft of the speech.' Rumsfeld could not be reached for comment yesterday."Crouch Leaving . . . in a Crouch
Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "J.D. Crouch, who is stepping down from his national security post at the White House, is confident history will prove that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.
"Crouch, who has been President Bush's deputy national security adviser for more than two years, said the president never will be swayed by opposition to the war. Instead, Crouch said, Bush will use his resolve to help convince a broad section of Americans that it's important to be in Iraq."
Bush issued a statement on Crouch's departure this morning: "He was at the forefront in devising and implementing the new strategy to help build a peaceful, stable, and secure Iraq."Opinion Watch
Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Is George W. Bush even trying to make sense anymore? . . .
"Okay, I know that most of the president's off-the-wall locutions are dangerous only to the English language. But to the extent that carelessness of speech reflects carelessness of mind, much more is at stake. The Commander Guy's rationale for sending more U.S. troops to fight and die in Iraq is as elusive as his reason for starting the war in the first place. He says his goal is victory, but he can't explain coherently what victory would look like, much less how to get there."
Jay Bookman writes in his Atlanta Journal-Constitution opinion column: "Any claim that President Bush is committed to victory in Iraq is contradicted by the facts. He is instead committing us to slow defeat, a defeat timed to come after he leaves office, on another president's watch so another president takes blame.
"And if the current president has to purchase another 20 months in Iraq with the lives and limbs of our soldiers, and with the continued degradation of a military that we may need again in the not-so-distant future -- well, he is apparently willing to make that deal."Oversight Watch
Is oversight partisan? I would argue that the lack of oversight is partisan; oversight is simply Congress doing its job.
But according to Yochi J. Dreazen, writing in the news section of the Wall Street Journal, Democratic investigations of the Bush administration's case for invading Iraq 'are part of the party's attempt to capitalize on the growing public opposition to the Iraq war and further weaken President Bush's hand in his current showdown with Congress.'
The heart of his story? The echoing of what has become an essential Republican talking point. Dreazen warns that 'the probes could prove politically perilous for the Democrats . . . if people were to view the inquiries as partisan fishing expeditions or attempts to simply embarrass White House officials.'
For some political journalists, used to splitting the difference on any story that has two sides, there's a temptation to treat the issue of oversight the same way. But as journalists, it is entirely appropriate for us to be biased in favor of oversight -- until or unless it becomes pretty clearly gratuitous.
To warn darkly of overreach just as the Democrats are restoring a modicum of investigatory muscle to the legislative branch -- after a long period during which a Republican Congress refused to fulfill one of its most basic duties -- does a tremendous disservice to a public that deserves answers to questions that have gone unasked for much too long.Getting Physical
Here's an AP photo montage of some of press secretary Tony Snow's wild gestures during yesterday's press briefing.
Snow was trying to bat away questions about the Iraqi Parliament's controversial plan to take a two-month summer vacation.
"I just think at this particular juncture, trying to draw broad conclusions about something that is rumored possibly to happen in two months is a great parlor exercise, but it is not a particularly useful diplomatic exercise," Snow said, before launching into a very physical parody of an overwrought press corps: "Oh, I know -- 'Everybody , everybody is talking about it!' -- ' Surely you all will talk about this'? No," he said.Dog Watch
Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin writes in the Examiner about White House spokeswoman Dana Perino's husband -- and his brush with the law.
"Perino's husband, British businessman Peter McMahon, was walking their dog Henry -- leashless -- in Lincoln Park just east of the Capitol.
"According to the original complaint, obtained by Yeas & Nays, Officer Stephen Smith of the Park Police asked him to 'gain control of' Henry, an 8-year-old Vizsla breed, and 'put him on a leash.'
"McMahon replied that he didn't have a leash, so Smith issued him a violation notice, complete with a $25 fine. 'Why don't you go chase down some squirrels,' McMahon then suggested to the officer."
McMahon was given a ticket, which he apparently tried but failed to pay. "Early last month, McMahon returned from business overseas to discover that Smith had requested a warrant for his arrest, which a judge issued.
"So on April 12, off McMahon went to the Park Police headquarters to pay the fine in person, when he was thrown in jail for the whole day."
As for Henry the dog, he has other tricks beside getting his master arrested. As Mark Silva wrote in the Chicago Tribune in March: "When Perino says, 'Tell us what you really think about John Kerry,' Henry fetches one of her flip-flops."Why Bush Didn't Make the List
Why was Bush dropped from Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world?
AFP reports: "'I think Bush by this point in his presidency probably has less influence than the position should grant him automatically,' Time's Deputy Managing Editor Adi Ignatius told AFP, explaining the decision to ditch Bush.
"'He's a lame duck . . . but his influence is below that of a normal lame duck figure. We just thought Bush was at a low ebb in terms of his influence.'"