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The Rovian Theory

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 23, 2007; 1:50 PM

Why are President Bush's Democratic critics so focused on getting White House political guru Karl Rove's testimony regarding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys?

Because based on Rove's history, the whole thing may well have been his idea -- and may be even more complicated than it initially appeared.

Rovian theory suggests the following: The eight U.S. attorneys were fired not only to purge the Justice Department of some prosecutors who were insufficiently willing to use the power of their offices to attack Democrats and protect Republicans --- but also to install favored people who wouldn't have such scruples. And, thanks to a provision snuck into law by a Bush administration henchman (who has since been granted a job as -- you guessed it -- a U.S. attorney) there would be none of those pesky safeguards to prevent those jobs going to unqualified hacks.

Or, as White House Watch reader Charles Posner wrote to me in an e-mail yesterday: "Dan - I think everyone is looking at the Justice Dept. scandal form the wrong end - it's not the firing, but the hiring that's the crux of the issue. Rove has a plan and a list. The plan is to install partisans in the prosecutors' office in order to target Democratic congressmen. Of course, Rove can hand pick each prosecutor without Congress's involvement as allowed by the secret provisions of the Patriot Act. Now, where's his list?"

The Smoking Gun?

Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "Two months before Bud Cummins was fired as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, a protege of presidential adviser Karl Rove was maneuvering with the Justice Department to take his place. . . .

"Rove and Harriet Miers, then the White House counsel, were keenly interested in putting [Tim Griffin, a Rove aide and longtime GOP operative,] in the position, e-mails reveal. . . .

"Some of the thousands of pages of e-mails released this week underscore the extraordinary planning and effort, at the highest levels of the Justice Department and White House, to secure Griffin a job running one of the smaller U.S. attorney's offices in the country.

"The e-mails show how D. Kyle Sampson, then the attorney general's chief of staff, and other Justice officials prepared to use a change in federal law to bypass input from Arkansas' two Democratic senators, who had expressed doubts about placing a former Republican National Committee operative in charge of a U.S. attorney's office. The evidence runs contrary to assurances from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that no such move had been planned. . . .

"Griffin declined to comment yesterday but said in a previous interview that he was being unfairly maligned by Democrats. He has announced that he will not seek Senate confirmation to become Little Rock's chief federal prosecutor but will remain until a replacement is found."

The Cummins case also suggests that Bush himself, contrary to Tony Snow's insistence yesterday, may indeed have been a party at least to this one firing.

"By July 25, a White House aide wrote to Sampson to ask whether she could begin trying to win over [Arkansas Democratic Senator Mark] Pryor. 'Is that a problem since he has not yet been nominated for U.S. attorney?' the aide wrote, referring to Griffin.

"'If the president has already approved Griffin, then part of our "consultation" (to meet the "advice and consent" requirements of Constitution) would be to tell them we were going to start a BI on Griffin,' Sampson replied six minutes later, using shorthand for a background investigation. 'I assume this has already happened.'"

Eggen and Goldstein also note: "Cummins's dismissal differs from the firings of the seven other ousted federal prosecutors in several respects. Cummins was told he was being removed last June, and the rest were told on Dec. 7. Justice Department officials also have not publicly said Cummins's departure was related to his performance in office, as they have with the others. They acknowledged last month that he was fired simply to make room for Griffin.

"But documents show that Cummins was clearly a target of Sampson's two-year effort to fire a group of U.S. attorneys who did not qualify as what he called 'loyal Bushies.' He was recommended for removal as early as March 2005."

And as Richard A. Serrano wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week: "Still uncertain exactly why he was fired, former U.S. Atty. H.E. 'Bud' Cummins III wonders whether it had something to do with the probe he opened into alleged corruption by Republican officials in Missouri amid a Senate race there that was promising to be a nail-biter."

Another Clue

Eric Lipton writes in the New York Times: "The ousted United States attorney in western Michigan said Thursday that she was told last November that she was being forced out to make way for another lawyer the Bush administration wanted to groom, not because of management problems.

"The federal prosecutor, Margaret M. Chiara, 63, speaking publicly for the first time since leaving office last Friday, said in an interview that a senior Justice Department official had told her that her resignation was necessary to create a slot for 'an individual they wanted to advance.' The identity of the likely replacement was not disclosed, she said.

"'Only after Justice Department officials attributed her firing to poor performance as a manager -- even though her 2005 evaluation praised her management skills -- did she decide to speak out, Ms. Chiara said.'"

Revolving Door Watch

Jennifer Talhelm writes for the Associated Press: "Two of the major players in the ouster of federal prosecutors last year were themselves considered for U.S. attorney jobs, according to documents and interviews.

"Kyle Sampson, who helped orchestrate the firing of eight prosecutors as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff, was the Bush administration's pick to fill Utah's vacant U.S. attorney post last spring.

"Pat Rogers, an Albuquerque, N.M., attorney who has represented the state Republican Party and party officials for several years, raised his concerns about his state's U.S. attorney, David Iglesias, with high-level Justice Department officials, among others.

"After Iglesias was fired late last year, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., recommended Rogers for the job, along with three others, in January. . . .

"Rogers said he didn't ask to be nominated for U.S. attorney, and he took himself out of the running after the Justice Department contacted him to set up an interview earlier this winter. . . .

"Sampson was the Bush administration's choice for Warner's replacement. But Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett backed former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer Brett Tolman.

"The contest resulted in a standoff of sorts. Bush ultimately picked Tolman last summer."

And who is Brett Tolman? None other than the staffer for Senator Arlen Specter who snuck that provision into the Patriot Act that allows Bush to appoint interim U.S. attorneys indefinitely -- thereby allowing him to circumvent the traditional process that calls for approval by home-state senators and requires Senate confirmation.

Rove's E-mails

Alexis Simendinger writes in a National Journal story (subscription required): "White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove may have forfeited potential claims of executive privilege over the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys-- if he communicated about the latter outside the White House e-mail system, using his Republican National Committee e-mail account or RNC equipment. Or at least that's a legal possibility posed by rapidly advancing electronic technology and the evolving work habits of busy White House officials. . . .

"According to one former White House official familiar with Rove's work habits, the president's top political adviser does 'about 95 percent' of his e-mailing using his RNC-based account. Many White House officials, including aides in the Political Affairs Office, use the RNC account as an alternative to their official government e-mail addresses to help keep their official and political duties separate. Although some White House officials use dual sets of electronic devices for that purpose,

Rove prefers to use his RNC-provided BlackBerry for convenience, the former official said. . . .

"Some White House officials, including Rove, use the RNC's gwb43.com e-mail domain (an abbreviation for George W. Bush 43). Communications originating from that RNC domain written by White House political affairs aide Scott Jennings to officials in the Justice Department appeared in the first batch of e-mails given to the House and Senate Judiciary committees last week. The Jennings e-mails stamped with the RNC domain, as well as e-mails from then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers and her deputy sent through the official White House system, were captured on Justice Department servers. . . .

"White House and RNC spokespeople did not respond to National Journal questions about Rove's use of the RNC e-mail system and the preservation of communications he created on its equipment."

Rove's Relationship to the Truth

Joe Conason writes in Salon: "The proposal to interview the president's chief political counselor without an oath or even a transcript is absurd for a simple and obvious reason. Yet the White House press corps, despite a long and sometimes testy series of exchanges with Snow, is too polite to mention that reason, so let me spell it out as rudely as necessary right here:

"Rove is a proven liar who cannot be trusted to tell the truth even when he is under oath, unless and until he is directly threatened with the prospect of prison time. Or has everyone suddenly forgotten his exceedingly narrow escape from criminal indictment for perjury and false statements in the Valerie Plame Wilson investigation? Only after four visits to the grand jury convened by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, and a stark warning from Fitzgerald to defense counsel of a possible indictment, did Rove suddenly remember his role in the exposure of Plame as a CIA agent.

"Not only did Rove lie, but he happily let others lie on his behalf, beginning in September 2003, when Scott McClellan, then the White House press secretary, publicly exonerated him of any blame in the outing of Plame. From that autumn until his fifth and final appearance before the grand jury in April 2006, the president's 'boy genius' concealed the facts about his leak of Plame's CIA identity to Time magazine correspondent Matt Cooper.

"There is no reason to believe that Rove would ever have told the truth if Fitzgerald had not forced Cooper to testify before the grand jury and surrender his incriminating notes, with a contempt citation and the threat of a long sojourn in jail. Indeed, there is no reason to think that even knowing Cooper had testified would have made Rove testify accurately. He failed to do so from July 2005 until April 2006, after all. But in December 2005, Fitzgerald impaneled a new grand jury and started to present evidence against him. . . .

"By now the porous brainpans of the Washington press corps not only seem to have excused Rove's leaking and lying about Plame's CIA position, but also to have erased that disgraceful episode from their memories. The president and all his flacks can stand before the public and act as if Rove should be treated like a truthful person whose words can be believed -- and not as someone who lies routinely even in the direst of circumstances. "

James C. Moore, co-author of "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential," writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Whether Rove chats or testifies, Congress will surely be frustrated. Asking Rove questions is simply not an effective method of ascertaining facts. Reporters who, like me, have dogged the presidential advisor from Texas to Washington quickly learn how skilled he is at dancing around the periphery of issues. Any answers he does deliver can survive a thousand interpretations. Few intellects are as adept at framing, positioning and spinning ideas. That's a great talent for politics. But it's dangerous when dealing with the law. . . .

"If Rove winds up under oath before Congress, members will get a command performance by a man with masterful communications skills. They can expect to hear artful impressions, bits of information and a few stipulated facts.

"But they should not expect the truth."

Make Your Choice

And here's a priceless soundbite from press secretary Tony Snow's interview on ABC News yesterday morning:

Diane Sawyer: "Why not let Karl Rove go up there and show he has nothing to hide? Testify, under oath, and with a transcript? Let everyone see it?"

Tony Snow: "This is what I love, this Karl Rove obsession. Let's back off. First, the question is: Do you want Karl Rove on TV, or do you want the truth?"

Diane Sawyer: "Why can't you have both?"

Time to Deal?

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Congress called a timeout Thursday in its confrontation with the Bush administration after a Senate committee voted to authorize subpoenas to compel White House officials -- including political advisor Karl Rove -- to testify about why eight U.S. attorneys were fired last year. . . .

"[M]embers of Congress said they would not issue any subpoenas for at least a week, a move that allows time for negotiations in what had become a rapidly escalating constitutional showdown. . . .

"The cooling of rhetoric on both sides seemed to reflect a political calculation that each could be damaged if the confrontation were to proceed further and land in court. Courts have rarely intervened in such disputes between the legislative and executive branches of governments, and Democrats acknowledge that a legal battle could outlast the 22 months left in President Bush's term."

Reynolds also notes: "At the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, the administration's allies were unusually taciturn and eschewed taking a roll call vote that would have put them on the record as supporting the administration.

"One of them, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, actually voted with the Democrats in favor of subpoena power and made a point of noting his vote in the record."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes for the Associated Press: "The brokering has already begun. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania floated a compromise with Bush's counsel Fred Fielding... The White House said Fielding would pass the proposal to Bush."

Here's a letter from House Judiciary Committee Democrats to Fielding: "We write this because your proposal will not facilitate a full and fair inquiry. We believe the failure to permit any transcript of our interviews with White House officials is an invitation to confusion and will not permit us to obtain a straightforward and clear record. Also, limiting the questioning (and document production) to discussions by and between outside parties will further prevent our Members from learning the full picture concerning the reasons for the firings and related issues. As we are sure you are aware, limitations of this nature are completely unsupported by precedents applied to previous Administrations -- both Democratic and Republican."

To Review

USA Today summarizes what we know about each of the eight firings.

I just checked, and in none of those cases has Bush actually sent a nomination for a replacement to the Senate. All eight positions are currently filled with actings or interims.

Fitzgerald Stays Mum

Matt O'Connor writes for the Chicago Tribune: "U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald on Thursday carefully sidestepped the political firestorm over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys but conceded he's been the butt of ribbing from friends over a mediocre rating from the Justice Department.

"'Look, it really is not that big a deal to me,' Fitzgerald said at a news conference announcing the latest public corruption indictment under his leadership. 'I just do my job.' . . .

"James Comey, a close friend and a former deputy attorney general who appointed Fitzgerald special counsel in the leak probe, agreed that it has been 'the source of great merriment' among Fitzgerald's friends.

"'I called him when it came out, and he said "I'm just an average guy having an average day," Comey said. 'He just laughed about it. It doesn't require its own rebuttal. It's sort of like saying, "Derek Jeter is an average shortstop."'"

The Talking Point That Won't Die

David G. Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Three weeks ago, Justice Department officials settled on a 'talking point' to rebut the chorus of Democratic accusations that the Bush administration had wrongly injected politics into law enforcement when it dismissed eight U.S. attorneys.

"Why not focus on the Clinton administration's having 'fired all 93 U.S. attorneys' when Janet Reno became attorney general in March 1993? The idea was introduced in a memo from a Justice Department spokeswoman.

"The message has been effective. What's followed has been a surge of complaints on blogs and talk radio that it was the Clinton administration that first politicized the Justice Department.

"The facts, it turns out, are more complicated."

No Oversight Role?

Press secretary Tony Snow repeatedly advanced a dubious talking point yesterday in his tour of the morning shows -- and again at his press briefing.

Think Progress has some quotes from the morning shows: "There's another principle, which is Congress doesn't have the legislative -- I mean oversight authority over the White House," Snow told CNN. "First, the White House is under no compulsion to do anything. The legislative branch doesn't have oversight," he told MSNBC. "Congress doesn't have any legitimate oversight and responsibilities to the White House," he told Fox News.

Here he is on ABC: "The executive branch is under no compulsion to testify to Congress, because Congress in fact doesn't have oversight ability. So what we've said is we're going to reach out to you -- we'll give you every communication between the White House, the Justice Department, the Congress, anybody on the outside, any kind of communication that would indicate any kind of activity outside, and at the same time, we'll make available to you any of the officials you want to talk to . . . knowing full well that anything they said is still subject to legal scrutiny, and the members of Congress know that."

And here he is a bit later, at yesterday's briefing, toning it down slightly:

"MR. SNOW: There are -- in this particular case, the Department of Justice -- the Congress does have legitimate oversight responsibility for the Department of Justice. It created the Department of Justice. It does not have constitutional oversight responsibility over the White House, which is why by our reaching out, we're doing something that we're not compelled to do by the Constitution, but we think common sense suggests that we ought to get the whole story out, which is what we're doing."

Guantanamo Watch

Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "In his first weeks as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates repeatedly argued that the detention facility at Guant?namo Bay, Cuba, had become so tainted abroad that legal proceedings at Guant?namo would be viewed as illegitimate, according to senior administration officials. He told President Bush and others that it should be shut down as quickly as possible. . . .

"Mr. Gates's arguments were rejected after Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and some other government lawyers expressed strong objections to moving detainees to the United States, a stance that was backed by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, administration officials said. . . .

"The outcome suggests that Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Gonzales remain committed to a detention plan that has become one of the most controversial elements of the administration's counterterrorism program. . . .

"Mr. Gates's challenge has sent a ripple through the White House, because it forced officials to confront the question of whether Mr. Bush was actually moving to fulfill his stated desire to close the detention facility. Officials who advocate shutting down Guant?namo, including some at the Pentagon and the State Department, said an underlying motivation of those who want to keep the center open is that closing it would be seen as a public admission of an incorrect policy -- something the Bush administration is loath to do."

Cover-Up Watch

Andrew Zajac blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales advised President Bush to approve security clearances for Justice Department lawyers in an internal investigation connected to the administration's controversial domestic spying program, but he was overruled by the president, who refused to grant the clearances, according to a DOJ letter to a leading congressional critic of the surveillance program.

"Bush's refusal to approve the clearances effectively idled the investigation.

"Gonzales' stance, while admirable, didn't go far enough, said Jeff Lieberson, spokesman for Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a New York Democrat who has been prodding the administration to investigate the legality of the eavesdropping operation.

"'Gonzales should have stood up to the president. He should have followed in Elliot Richardson's footsteps and resigned,' said Lieberson. Richardson, of course, was the attorney general who in the October 1973 'Saturday Night Massacre' quit rather than obey President Nixon's order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox."

Murray Waas wrote last week in the National Journal that Gonzales knew he would be a target of the inquiry at the time he counseled Bush.

In a letter to members of Congress, acting assistant attorney general Richard A. Hertling writes: "Within the Department of Justice, OPR [the Office of Professional Responsibility] sought assistance in obtaining security clearances to the Terrorist Surveillance Program to conduct its investigation. This request reached the Attorney General. The Attorney General was not told that he was a subject or target of the OPR investigation, nor did he believe himself to be. The Attorney General did not ask the President to shut down or otherwise impede the OPR investigation. The Attorney General recommended to the President that OPR be granted security clearances to the Terrorist Surveillance Program. The President made the decision not to grant the requested security clearances."

Farewell to a Dream?

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush's dream of leaving an enduring Republican majority as his political legacy is slipping from his grasp.

"His own popularity has plummeted as Americans have turned against his war in Iraq. Last November, he lost control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and with them he lost the power to control the capital's agenda and shield his administration from embarrassing investigations. The news media, too, have largely turned against him.

"Now, a new poll released Thursday confirms that the country's underlying political landscape has turned sharply against Bush's party and toward the Democrats on bellwether issues such as the use of military force, religion, affirmative action and homosexuality."

"'Over the past five years, the political landscape of the nation has shifted from one of partisan parity to a sizable Democratic advantage,' the Pew [Research Center] analysis said. 'But the change reflects Republican losses more than Democratic gains.'

"'That's due to dissatisfaction with the White House,' [center director Andrew] Kohut added in an interview."

FEC Watch

Matthew Mosk writes in The Washington Post: "The three Democrats on the Federal Election Commission revealed yesterday that they strongly believe President Bush exceeded legal spending limits during the 2004 presidential contest and that his campaign owes the government $40 million."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart finds a "transcript" of Tony Snow's deepest, darkest confessions.

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on the specter of Nixon; Mike Luckovich on Bush's pleasure.

Bush's Peeps

Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle: "Finally, some good news for President Bush, and just in time for Easter. A candymaker survey of 800 Americans has declared him the public figure most in need of Peeps, the largely inedible marshmallow birdies polluting Easter baskets since 1953."

According to the poll results, Bush won in the category of "male public person or celebrity is most in need of Peeps" with 26 percent of the vote.

In the female category, Britney Spears won by an even larger margin.

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