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The Gonzales Clown Show

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 20, 2007; 1:16 PM

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took another massive blow to his reputation yesterday, but he also continued doing the White House an enormous service.

As long as Gonzales remains front and center in the furor over last year's mass firing of U.S. attorneys -- as long as his goofy stonewalling continues to distract attention from all the elements of the purge that point so incriminatingly toward the White House -- he simply enhances his position as the ultimate "loyal Bushie."

Absolutely nothing Gonzales said yesterday cast doubt on the theory that some if not all of the prosecutors were fired because they had somehow inspired the wrath of presidential adviser Karl Rove and his staff of brass-knuckled political operatives.

But Gonzales didn't add fuel to the fire, either. It was a classic stalling maneuver. Gonzales was entirely unable to explain to anyone's satisfaction why those U.S. attorneys were fired -- although he comically insisted that he was sure he had made the decision himself, and that it was the right one.

It's no surprise, therefore, that President Bush expressed delight over Gonzales's testimony -- even as some White House aides privately told CNN that he hadn't helped himself at all.

"President Bush was pleased with the Attorney General's testimony today," the White House announced last night. And this morning on CNN, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino was in full spin mode, trying to make the argument that the hearing "proved, once again, that there is no credible allegation of anything improper happening or any wrongdoing."

Today's news coverage is appropriately blistering, but in its focus on the public clown show, and on what was said -- rather than on what was not said -- it is not as incisive as today's commentary. So I'll start with that.

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "If Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had gone to the Senate yesterday to convince the world that he ought to be fired, it's hard to imagine how he could have done a better job, short of simply admitting the obvious: that the firing of eight United States attorneys was a partisan purge. . . .

"At the end of the day, we were left wondering why the nation's chief law-enforcement officer would paint himself as a bumbling fool. Perhaps it's because the alternative is that he is not telling the truth. There is strong evidence that this purge was directed from the White House, and that Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's top political adviser, and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, were deeply involved. . . .

"[I]f we believe the testimony that neither he nor any other senior Justice Department official was calling the shots on the purge, then the public needs to know who was. That is why the Judiciary Committee must stick to its insistence that Mr. Rove, Ms. Miers and other White House officials testify in public and under oath and that all documents be turned over to Congress, including e-mail messages by Mr. Rove that the Republican Party has yet to produce."

The USA Today editorial board writes that Gonzales offered "little new insight into why the eight were fired and who compiled the hit list. And the public had no answer to the central question in this controversy: Are the nation's most powerful prosecutors still independent, or has Gonzales allowed his Justice Department to become a political extension of the White House?

"The attorney general's much anticipated appearance did little to eliminate the perception that he has either lied about his role in the firings or that he was so inattentive he allowed key decisions to be made by youthful underlings."

The Houston Chronicle editorial board writes: "Gonzales' testimony did not sufficiently settle the question of whether he directed the reviews and firings, or largely and irresponsibly delegated the firing of chief federal prosecutors to aides acting under the influence of White House political operatives. He maintained that the prosecutors' firings were not improper, but he couldn't seem to articulate how they came to be fired, or why."

The Boston Globe editorial board writes: "There were no bombshell revelations in yesterday's hearing, but it did provide new evidence of why Gonzales has been so deceitful about the firings. In at least some of the cases, the attorneys -- all Bush appointees -- were being canned for blatantly partisan reasons, either because the administration believed they were prosecuting Republican officeholders too aggressively or not prosecuting allegations of voter fraud by Democrats aggressively enough."

Gonzales "could be trying to conceal not only the partisan nature of the firings but also the fact that Bush and Rove were personally involved in politicizing the US attorney offices," the Globe writes.

"Gonzales's testimony yesterday did little to dampen the well-founded suspicions that this attorney general did let politics pull strings in his department. [Sen. Patrick] Leahy's committee should not relent until it finds out who the puppet master was."

Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate (where the Gonzo-Meter rates today's chance of a Gonzales departure at 95 percent): "If David Iglesias, former U.S. attorney of New Mexico, was really fired for any reason other than party politics, today was the day to disprove that. Gonzales didn't. In fact, he claims that the burden of proof is on the committee to prove he's done something wrong."

She also writes: "One of the finest moments comes when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., busts out a big, big chart. . . . The chart compares the Clinton protocol for appropriate contacts between the White House and the DoJ on pending criminal cases with the Bush protocol. According to Whitehouse, the Clinton protocol authorized just four folks at the White House to chat with three folks at Justice. The chart had four boxes talking to three boxes. Out comes the Bush protocol, and now 417 different people at the White House have contacts about pending criminal cases with 30-some people at Justice. You can just see zillions of small boxes nattering back and forth. It seems that just about everyone in the White House, including the guys in the mailroom, had a vote on ongoing criminal matters."

And Joe Conason writes in Salon: "The answer to Nixonian misconduct is no different now than it was during Watergate. Force the appointment of a special prosecutor and then put all of these public servants under oath in front of a grand jury."

The Coverage

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, told by President Bush to repair relations with Congress over his handling of the U.S. attorneys affair, instead suffered new and withering criticism from senators of both parties Thursday, including questions about his judgment, candor and fitness to serve."

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales came under withering attack from members of his own party yesterday over the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys, facing the first resignation demand from a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and doubts from others about his candor and his ability to lead the Justice Department. . . .

"'While the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred,' Gonzales said. 'It would be improper to remove a U.S. attorney to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. I did not do that. I would never do that.'

"Yet the attorney general, who spent the past three weeks preparing for his testimony, struggled to recall key details of his involvement in the firings, including a pivotal conversation with President Bush."

David Johnston and Eric Lipton write in the New York Times: "In more than five hours of often-combative testimony, Mr. Gonzales, grim-faced, clasping his hands and hunched over, struggled to offer a coherent explanation for the dismissals. He apologized for his mistakes in what he said was a flawed process, but defended the removal of eight United States attorneys as proper. . . .

"Expressing annoyance, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the committee, pressed Mr. Gonzales about whether he had, as he has previously said, approved the dismissals sometime late last year.

"'Well, how can you be sure you made the decision?' Mr. Leahy asked.

"'Senator, I recall making the decision from this -- I recall making the decision,' Mr. Gonzales replied.

"'When?' Mr. Leahy responded.

"'Senator,' Mr. Gonzales replied. 'I don't recall when the decision was made.' . . .

"At the end of the hearing, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the panel, said, 'I think we have gone about as far as we can go,' adding, 'We have not gotten really answers.'"

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The hearing was billed as Gonzales's chance to explain the contradictions, omissions and falsehoods in his response to the firings. But instead of contrition, the attorney general treated the committee to a mixture of arrogance, combativeness and amnesia. Even his would-be defenders on the Republican side were appalled. . . .

"Explaining his role in the botched firing of federal prosecutors, Gonzales uttered the phrase 'I don't recall' and its variants ('I have no recollection,' 'I have no memory') 64 times. . . .

"For much of the very long day, the attorney general responded like a child caught in a lie. He shifted his feet under the table, balled his hands into fists and occasionally pointed at his questioners. He defended his actions: 'The decision stands.' He denied responsibility: 'This was a process that was ongoing that I did not have transparency into.' He blamed the victims: 'Poor judgment . . . poor management.' He blamed his subordinates: 'When there are attacks against the department, you're attacking the career professionals.'

"Mostly, though, he retreated to memory loss."

Ron Hutcheson, Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Both sides had weeks to prepare for the Senate showdown, but the question-and-answer session produced little new information about the reasons behind the firings or any White House involvement. . . .

"Gonzales was particularly vague about the extent of White House involvement in the firings and who came up with the idea of a prosecutor purge. 'There are clearly some things I don't know about what happened, and it's frustrating to me, as head of the department, to not know that still today,' he said. 'I think that was my plan.'"

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales testified yesterday that when he approved the firings of seven U.S. attorneys on a single day late last year he did not know why two of the prosecutors were on the list."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee put the onus squarely on President Bush to keep his longtime Texas friend without political support or to rid his administration of a sharp thorn that works itself in deeper each day."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "the people he desperately needed to come to his rescue -- fellow Republicans -- proceeded one by one to throw him overboard. . . .

"It was no surprise that the Democrats on the panel skewered Mr. Gonzales. But it was also apparent that even Republicans had serious doubts about his fitness for the job. . . .

"[F]eeling saddled by the war in Iraq and still blaming Mr. Bush for their loss of control of Congress last year, they have little desire to defend the administration on a matter rooted in questions of competence and the politicization of law enforcement. . . .

"Democrats seemed gleeful as they watched Republicans go after one of their own, even as their central assertion -- that the White House had let politics interfere with law enforcement -- was subsumed by questions about Mr. Gonzales's job performance."

White House Reaction

The White House reaction to the hearing was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Perino said as much in the morning gaggle yesterday.

"Q So is it fair to say that no matter what the testimony, no matter what the back-and-forth, that the President plans to stick with Attorney General Gonzales?

"MS. PERINO: I think -- yes. I think the President has full confidence in the Attorney General and whenever that changes for any public servant, we'll let you know, and I see no indication of that."

But here is Suzanne Malveaux on CNN last night describing the White House reaction to Wolf Blitzer: "Well, Wolf, publicly they are saying, of course, the president stands by Gonzales. That he did a terrific job today. That he explained himself. He answered those questions and it showed that there was no wrongdoing from the attorney general.

"Now, privately, there was a lot of concern here from folks here in this building behind me, talking to other prominent Republicans, sources involved in those discussions saying, even two senior White House aides describing Gonzales' testimony as going down in flames, not doing himself any favors. One prominent Republican source saying the testimony was watching a clubbing of baby seal here.

"They were very troubled by what they heard. They also went on to say that they were shocked that he did not win over Democrats and perhaps that he lost Republicans as well. What does this mean? Well they say the White House is simply in a wait and see mode to see how the public responds, to see members of congress respond, specifically those Republicans."

The Rove Factor

David Jackson writes for USA Today: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sat alone at the witness table Thursday, but another prominent official hovered over his Senate committee hearing: Karl Rove.

"The name of President Bush's longtime political guru surfaced repeatedly from Senate Democrats seeking to tie him to the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys.

"Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, devoted his first question to Rove, citing testimony that Rove passed along complaints about prosecutors who 'were not being aggressive enough against so-called voter fraud.'

"Gonzales, who said he made the final decisions on dismissals, recalled a single conversation with Rove in the fall of 2006. The White House deputy chief of staff 'mentioned to me concerns that he had heard about pursuing voter fraud, election fraud' in New Mexico, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, Gonzales testified. . . .

"White House spokesman Tony Fratto called the Democrats' 'fascination' with Rove 'disturbing and a little bit weird.'

"'If they can mention Karl Rove, they think they have something, even if it's clear that nothing improper occurred,' Fratto said."

Vietnam Revisited

Peter Baker and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "President Bush warned Thursday that pulling out of Iraq too soon would trigger a bloodbath akin to that of the Cambodian killing fields of the 1970s, while Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid declared that it is too late to stay because the war has already been lost. . . .

"Reid cast Iraq as another Vietnam and Bush as another Lyndon B. Johnson, while the president described dire consequences if the past repeats itself.

"'I want to remind you that after Vietnam, after we left, millions of people lost their life,' Bush said [in Tipp City, Ohio] when an audience member asked about comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. 'The Khmer Rouge, for example, in Cambodia. And my concern is there would be a parallel. . . . The same thing would happen. There would be the slaughter of a lot of innocent life. The difference, of course, is that this time around, the enemy wouldn't just be content to stay in the Middle East; they'd follow us here.'

"His comments came a day after Reid raised the Vietnam War during a closed-door White House meeting. Reid expanded on that in a Senate floor speech and a news conference on Thursday. 'I believe myself that . . . this war is lost and the surge is not accomplishing anything as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq,' he said, referring to the roughly 230 people killed on Wednesday in the worst death toll since Bush ordered more U.S. troops to Iraq in January.

"Reid said he reminded Bush during their Wednesday meeting that Johnson refused to acknowledge that the United States was losing in Vietnam and sent more forces into battle -- at the cost of thousands of U.S. lives. The senator said he warned the president that Iraq will be his legacy, as Vietnam was for Johnson.

"'I know that I was like the odd guy out yesterday at the White House,' Reid said. 'But I, at least, told him what he needed to hear, not what he wants to hear. I did that, and my conscience is clear.'"

Bush Without a Script

I wrote in Tuesday's column about how Bush's public campaign to push back against Congressional demands for withdrawal from Iraq is becoming highly reminiscent of his failed effort two years ago to win support for a radical overhaul of Social Security.

That became even more the case yesterday when Bush took up the role of talk-show host again, in a town-hall style session held in front of a friendly, invitation-only audience.

Here is the transcript. As was the case during Bush's Social Security barnstorming, Bush has apparently read enough speeches on the subject now that he -- and/or his aides -- feel he can work without a script.

The main topic was the war, but unscripted Bush tends to wander all over the place, especially when he has softball questions to work with.

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Speaking at a 90-minute, town-hall-style meeting in a high school gymnasium, Mr. Bush said he would not buckle to polls showing opinion cutting against him on a variety of issues, and conveyed his belief that he would be vindicated by history."

Here's a short excerpt from the transcript (Bush's whiny answers to each of the questions he was asked were on average just under a thousand words long.)

"Q Mr. President, I admire your stay-to-it-iveness -- (inaudible) -- not using polls and focus groups. But I have to ask you personally, with respect to economics, with respect to the war, with respect to the war on terror and Iraq, and immigration, when you go to bed at night and you see these polls -- everybody and their brother does a poll now -- how does it make you feel?

"THE PRESIDENT: That's an interesting question. You know, I'm -- I've been in politics long enough to know that polls just go poof at times."

But of course the polls aren't going poof; they're going kablooey. They have been for a long time, and on the seminal issues of his presidency.

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: " Strange things sometimes come out of

President Bush's mouth. 'Polls just go poof.' 'Remember the rug?'

"When Bush went to Ohio on Thursday to talk about terrorism, he ended up musing about marriage and chicken-plucking plants, the agony of death and his Oval Office rug, which resembles a sunburst."

Julie Mason, blogging for the Houston Chronicle, speaks I am quite sure for many of the reporters who have to listen to everything the president says, when she asks Bush to stop telling the same stories over and over again.

"Bush's speech made reference to both the amazing story of the president's friendship with former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and the tale of how Bush ended up with a yellow rug in the Oval Office.

"Both of these hoary old chestnuts have been in the presidential repertoire for too long, and need to be neatly packed and stowed for transport to the GWB presidential library, immediately."

The Unraveling

Two of Bush's key arguments took big hits yesterday. Bush has long maintained that as the Iraqi army gains strength, the U.S. army can start to pull out. And recently, he has been insisting that a delay in getting war funding approved would have nearly immediate harmful effects on the army.

But Nancy A. Youssef writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Military planners have abandoned the idea that standing up Iraqi troops will enable American soldiers to start coming home soon and now believe that U.S. troops will have to defeat the insurgents and secure control of troubled provinces.

"Training Iraqi troops, which had been the cornerstone of the Bush administration's Iraq policy since 2005, has dropped in priority, officials in Baghdad and Washington said.

"No change has been announced, and a Pentagon spokesman, Col. Gary Keck, said training Iraqis remains important. 'We are just adding another leg to our mission,' Keck said, referring to the greater U.S. role in establishing security that new troops arriving in Iraq will undertake. . . .

"President Bush first announced the training strategy in the summer of 2005.

"'Our strategy can be summed up this way,' Bush said. 'As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.'"

And Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "The Pentagon says it has enough money to pay for the Iraq war through June, despite warnings from the White House that troops are being harmed by Congress' failure to quickly deliver more funds. . . .

"The Army is taking a series of 'prudent measures' aimed at making sure delays in the bill financing the war do not harm troop readiness, according to instructions sent to Army commanders and budget officials April 14."

Army Comptroller Nelson Ford "said the accounting moves are 'similar to those enacted last year' when [the Republican] Congress failed to deliver a war funding bill to Bush until mid-June."

She Said He Said

Michael Abramowitz and Lois Romano write in The Washington Post: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told colleagues yesterday that she was incredulous after President Bush pulled her aside at the end of a meeting Wednesday and told her he did not criticize her recent trip to Syria.

"After all, Bush and other senior administration officials and top Republicans had slammed the speaker publicly for meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But in a private meeting with Democratic lawmakers yesterday, Pelosi said Bush told her in an unsolicited comment that it was actually the State Department that criticized her. . . .

"Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino, who was at the White House meeting Wednesday, took issue with Pelosi's account of the conversation in the Cabinet Room, which came at the end of talks largely devoted to funding the Iraq war. Perino said that Pelosi started the conversation about the Syria trip and that she never heard Bush back off his criticism."

Here's Bush on April 3: "We have made it clear to high-ranking officials, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, that going to Syria sends mixed signals."

Here's Vice President Cheney on April 5, talking to Rush Limbaugh: "I think it is, in fact, bad behavior on her part." And here he is again on another radio show on April 13: "[F]or the Speaker to go to Damascus and meet with this guy and treat him with the respect and dignity ordinarily accorded the head of a foreign state we think is just directly contrary to our national interest."

Virginia Tech

Bush seems to see the mass shooting at Virginia Tech as an opportunity for religious revival. Here he is in Tipp City yesterday:

"One of the things I try to assure the families and the students and the faculty of that fine university was that there are a lot of people around our country who are praying for them. It's interesting here in Tipp City, the first thing that happened was a moment of silence, a moment of prayer, to provide -- at least my prayer was, please comfort and strengthen those whose lives were affected by this horrible incident. It really speaks to the strength of this country, doesn't it, that total strangers here in Ohio are willing to hold up people in Virginia in prayer. And I thank you for that. And my message to the folks who still hurt in -- at Virginia Tech is that a lot of people care about you, and a lot of people think about you, a lot of people grieve with you, and a lot of people hope you find sustenance in a power higher than yourself. And a lot of us believe you will."

Putting Things in Perspective

From Dana Perino's interview with CNN's John Roberts this morning:

John Roberts: "The hearing yesterday, would you say that 'brutal' would be an accurate way to describe it?"

Perino: "Well I didn't have an opportunity to see the whole hearing, I've heard different, varying accounts, I would think brutal might refer to Alec Baldwin's voicemail message that he left to his daughter."

The Big Dinner

C-SPAN will be airing live coverage of the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner program on Saturday night from the Washington Hilton.

Cartoon Humor

David Horsey on Gonzales's startling revelation.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart explains: "Alberto Gonzales doesn't know what happened. But he assures you what he doesn't remember was handled properly."

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