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McNulty Gets Knife in the Back

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; 3:16 PM

The orders from the White House to any number of embattled senior administration officials appear to be the same: Hunker down, admit nothing, offer no appearance of panic and whatever you do, don't resign.

The penalty for violating those orders came more clearly into focus this morning. Just hours after Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty announced his resignation, his boss publicly stabbed him in the back.

McNulty, widely considered to have played only a supporting role in the controversial firings of U.S. attorneys last year, did his bosses the kindness yesterday of citing "financial pressures" as his reason for abruptly ending his long career in public service in the midst of a scandal.

But Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wasted no time in planting the knife. Although Gonzales has previously been vague to the point of cluelessness about the genesis of the firings, suddenly this morning the ambiguity was gone.

"The deputy attorney general has unique position at the Department of Justice. Most of the operational authority and decisions are made by the deputy attorney general. He is the chief operating officer," Gonzales said in a question-and-answer session at the National Press Club.

Gonzales acknowledged that Kyle Sampson -- a young political operative who was then his chief of staff -- had technically provided him with the list of who should be fired. But, Gonzales said: "The one person I would care about would be the views of the deputy attorney general because the deputy attorney general is the direct supervisor of the United States attorneys. And in this particular case, Mr. McNulty was a former colleague of all of these United States attorneys and so he would probably know better than anyone else about the performance and qualifications of our United States attorney community.

"And so at the end of the day, my understanding was that Mr. Sampson's recommendations reflected a consensus view of the senior leadership of the department -- in particular the deputy attorney general. And the day of Mr. Sampson's testimony [before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 29] . . . I went back to the deputy attorney general and I asked, 'Paul, do you still stand behind the recommendations?' and he said 'Yes' and so -- for me that is the most important -- his views would be the most important."

Later, Gonzales added: "At the end of the day, the recommendation reflected the views of the deputy attorney general. He signed off on the names and he would know better than anyone else. . . . The deputy attorney general would know best about the qualifications and experiences of the United States attorney community, and he signed off on the names."

Why Did He Resign?

McNulty's citing of "financial realities" brought on by his "college-age children and two decades of public service" was a classic Washington white lie, of course. The real reason for his resignation? Probably a combination of some or all of the following:

* He realized he had dishonored himself and the department;

* He realized there was no way he could personally be effective any longer;

* He realized the entire current leadership of the department was no longer effective;

* He could no longer tolerate working for Gonzales;

* His public-service career goals -- the attorney generalship or a federal appeals court appointment -- were no longer attainable;

* He knew the next attorney general would fire him.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty announced his resignation yesterday after 18 months on the job, becoming the fourth senior Justice Department official to quit amid the controversy surrounding the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys last year. . . .

"McNulty became a central figure in the furor after he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in February that the White House played only a marginal role in the dismissals -- a characterization that conflicted with documents later released by Justice and with subsequent testimony.

"He also said most of the prosecutors were fired for 'performance-related' reasons. That statement angered many of the former U.S. attorneys, most of whom had sterling evaluations and had remained largely silent about their departures. . . .

"McNulty has told congressional investigators that D. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales's chief of staff, and Monica M. Goodling, then the department's White House liaison, did not brief him fully before his testimony.

"Sampson and Goodling have resigned. Michael A. Battle, the senior Justice official who carried out the prosecutor firings, has also quit. . . .

"'Mr. McNulty's resignation is a sign that top-level administration at the Justice Department may be crumbling under the pressure of ongoing revelations, and what is yet to be disclosed,' said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). 'With this news and as we press on with our investigation, we look forward to his cooperation.'"

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "The departure of another senior aide at the Justice Department appeared to leave the attorney general in a somewhat more isolated position. But with President Bush's support, Mr. Gonzales has so far fended off demands by Democrats and some Republicans who have called on him to resign. . . .

"[F]riends said that Mr. McNulty had long chafed in his role as second in command under Mr. Gonzales and had realized that the furor over the prosecutors had probably ended his hope to be named to a seat on a federal appeals court.

"Mr. McNulty, whose affable presence was said by friends to conceal an aggressively conservative approach to legal issues, had been shaken by the intensity of the storm over the removals and the sometimes sharp personal criticism directed at him from the White House and former Republican allies.

"At times, Mr. McNulty found himself pushed aside by D. Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Mr. Gonzales, who granted Mr. Sampson wide-ranging authority, especially in personnel matters.

"Mr. McNulty blamed himself for failing to resist the dismissal plan when Mr. Sampson brought it to him in October 2006, according to associates. He took one prosecutor off the removal list but acquiesced to the removal of seven others, according to Congressional aides' accounts of his private testimony to Congress on April 27."

James Gordon Meek and Kenneth R. Bazinet write in the New York Daily News that "sources said the deputy attorney general was angry at being linked to the prosecutors' firing and felt he could no longer work under Gonzales."

Richard Serrano writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Some Justice insiders said relations between Gonzales and McNulty had grown tense since the scandal over the firings blew up a few months ago. The men have never been particularly close; McNulty was not Gonzales' first choice to be his deputy. They also come from different traditions: McNulty's history is as a Capitol Hill staffer, whereas Gonzales came from Texas with Bush."

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "McNulty, who has served 18 months as the Justice Department's second-in-command, announced his plans at a closed-door meeting of U.S. attorneys in San Antonio. He told them he would remain at the department until late summer.

"'I thought this made a lot of sense,' McNulty told The Associated Press in a phone interview after talking to the prosecutors. 'The U.S. attorneys have been very supportive. I've got a good relationship with them, and they were very kind, and I appreciate that.'"

Robert Schmidt writes for Bloomberg: "The resignation of Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty may give Democrats a further opening to embarrass the Bush administration over the firing of eight federal prosecutors.

"Democrats vow to keep pressing their investigation of the firings by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. A confirmation hearing for McNulty's successor would give them additional leverage to make the White House answer questions about the firings."

AFP reports that the resignation "has invigorated Democrats who want to see more heads roll in a deepening scandal over the sacking of federal prosecutors."

Evan Perez writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that McNulty's move "may reignite pressure on his boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, just as some of the controversy over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys appeared to be waning."

From CNN yesterday afternoon:

Wolf Blitzer: "What's the White House saying about all of this?"

Kelli Arena: "The White House is saying, 'Look, we don't think this is connected to this U.S. attorney issue. We're going to take him at his word. He says it's for personal reasons. Let it be.'"

Some McNulty Background

Massimo Calabresi wrote for Time last week about the real reason administration officials were mad at McNulty dating back to his Feb. 6 congressional testimony. In an e-mail sent Feb. 7, 2007, by Gonzales' spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, Roehrkasse "told two top Gonzales aides that the Attorney General was 'extremely upset' that his deputy, Paul McNulty, had told the Senate Judiciary committee the day before that one of the attorneys, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, had been fired to make room for an aide to Karl Rove.

"'When the Roehrkasse e-mail came to light, he told the press that Gonzales had been upset because he believed that 'Bud Cummins' removal involved performance considerations.' But on April 15, Congressional sources tell Time, Gonzales' former chief of staff Kyle Sampson told a different story. During a private interview with Judiciary Committee staffers Sampson said three times in as many minutes that Gonzales was angry with McNulty because he had exposed the White House's involvement in the firings -- had put it's role 'in the public sphere,' as Sampson phrased it, according to Congressional sources familiar with the interview.'"

And in today's Times, Johnston writes that it wasn't just Gonzales who was angry on that count: "White House aides complained privately that Mr. McNulty's testimony gave Democrats a significant opening to demand more testimony from the Justice Department and presidential aides. Several aides said he should have been combative in defending the dismissals."

But after his initial testimony, McNulty didn't exactly go out of his way to set the record straight. Quite the contrary.

Michael Isikoff wrote in Newsweek last week that McNulty attended the controversial emergency White House meeting on March 5 at which Karl Rove and other aides discussed what Justice officials should tell Congress about the firings.

And Murray Waas wrote in the National Journal on May 3 that McNulty's chief of staff "told congressional investigators that phone calls he placed to four fired U.S. attorneys -- calls that three of the prosecutors say involved threats about testifying before Congress -- were made at McNulty's direction....

"At least one member of Congress has questioned whether the phone calls might constitute obstruction of justice."

Opinion Watch

Josh Marshall blogs for Talking Points Memo: "If I were Gonzales and the White House, I'd see McNulty's departure as a very unwelcome development. Behind the scenes, supporters of McNulty and Gonzales have been increasingly at odds as the scandal has progressed -- with McNulty's supporters saying he wasn't kept in the loop and that that the Gonzales clique is made of crooks and the Gonzales supporters (read: Sampson, Goodling, Elston, et al.) saying McNulty let the cat out of the bag in his testimony earlier in the year. . . .

"A lot of this is tea leaf reading, trying to figure out who's spilling and who's not. But it's hard to figure where McNulty gets less forthcoming once he's no longer part of the administration."

Andrew Cohen blogs for washingtonpost.com: "Like his boss the Attorney General of the United States, McNulty knew or should have known that the White House-inspired plan to politicize the Justice Department was wrong; knew or should have known that good, honest, smart federal prosecutors all across the country were unconscionably being sacked in favor of partisan cronies; knew or should have known that the Justice Department is not supposed to be a political fiefdom to be manipulated at the whim of party loyalists or bureaucratic hacks. Even more so than Alberto Gonzales, McNulty, a former federal prosecutor himself, should have stood up for the independence and authority of the prosecutors who were fired. . . .

"The relatively quick derailment of the McNulty Express -- which had been on a fast track to a federal judgeship or more -- is another sign that this U.S. Attorney scandal is bigger and deeper than Administration apologists would try to have you believe. It strips away another layer of protection from the Attorney General himself and reveals even more than before deep and intense fault lines at the Justice Department. And if McNulty truly is upset with the way Gonzales and Company treated him after the controversy broke, then it is possible that we will soon see McNulty come back to Capitol Hill for another round of testimony, this time as a private citizen given (I believe) a grant of immunity. If that happens, watch out."

Wolfowitz Watch

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "A World Bank committee charged Monday that Paul D. Wolfowitz violated ethical and governance rules as bank president by showing favoritism to his companion in 2005. In response, the Bush administration mounted a last-ditch global campaign to save Mr. Wolfowitz from being ousted from office....

"Vice President Dick Cheney said in an interview with Fox News in Jordan before the committee's findings were released that Mr. Wolfowitz was 'one of the most able public servants I've ever known' and that 'he's a very good president of the World Bank, and I hope he will be able to continue.'

"White House and Republican officials said that from the beginning, President Bush has seen the controversy over Mr. Wolfowitz as a proxy fight waged by liberals at the bank opposed to Mr. Bush's policies, and that he would not toss him or Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales overboard just because opponents want them out."

Ashcroft's bedside stand

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program was so questionable that a top Justice Department official refused for a time to reauthorize it, sparking a battle with top White House officials at the bedside of an ailing attorney general, a Senate panel was told Tuesday.

"Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that he refused to recertify the program because Attorney General John Ashcroft had reservations about its legality just before falling ill with pancreatitis in March 2004.

"Comey, the acting attorney general during Ashcroft's absence, said then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card responded by trying to get Ashcroft to sign the recertification from his bed at George Washington University Hospital.

"During that dramatic meeting, also attended by Comey, Ashcroft lifted his head off the pillow and appeared reluctant to sign the document, pointing out that Comey held the powers of the office.

"Gonzales and Card then left the hospital room, Comey said.

"'I was angry,' Comey told the panel. 'I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general.'"

The Secret Cheney

From the transcript of Vice President Cheney's short session with reporters on the way back from his Middle East trip: "I apologize in advance for the fact that I won't talk about my conversations with the folks I visited with. That's why they talk to me."

Cheney on Supporting the Terrorists

From Cheney's interview with Fox News's Bret Baier:

"QUESTION: On the debate about Iraq at home, do you believe that someone who opposes the war wants terrorists to win?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think they have to be responsible for the consequences of the policy recommendations they make. If, in fact, they advocate complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, then they are, to some extent, accountable for what would happen when that policy followed, what happens inside Iraq, what kind of encouragement that might give to al Qaeda. . . .

"So if you're going to be a public official advocating withdrawal from Iraq, you, in fact, are also saying that what you're recommending is validating the al Qaeda strategy."

Iraq Watch

Greg Jaffe and Yochi J. Dreazen write in the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush Administration continues to wrestle with many difficult policy questions on Iraq, from how hard to push Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to how best to end Iraq's civil war.

"But there are fewer and fewer senior administration officials looking for answers.

"In recent weeks, two Iraq hands have announced plans to step down, each citing the desire to pursue other interests. Meanwhile, the White House hasn't found anyone willing to serve as a 'war czar,' with day-to-day responsibility for implementing administration policy toward Iraq and Afghanistan. At the Pentagon, a key architect of the 'surge' is likely to leave soon for a promotion to a new State Department job, which would be focused less on Iraq, while the Pentagon's top policy official has devoted an increasing amount of time to missile defense and less to Iraq in recent weeks. . . .

"Lack of political progress over the past year has been cited as a reason for the continuing bloodshed. But senior military officials and others who work closely with the Pentagon say Washington's failure to adequately support efforts to build an effective Iraqi government is making an already tough situation more intractable."

Privacy Board Watch

John Solomon and Ellen Nakashima write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration made more than 200 revisions to the first report of a civilian board that oversees government protection of personal privacy, including the deletion of a passage on anti-terrorism programs that intelligence officials deemed 'potentially problematic' intrusions on civil liberties, according to a draft of the report obtained by The Washington Post.

"One of the panel's five members, Democrat Lanny J. Davis, resigned in protest Monday over deletions ordered by White House lawyers and aides. The changes came after the congressionally created Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board had unanimously approved the final draft of its first report to lawmakers, renewing an internal debate over the board's independence and investigative power. . . .

"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino called the editing 'standard operating procedure,' saying it was appropriate because the board remains legally under the supervision of the Executive Office of the President...

"Davis wrote that he was 'concerned that there may be current and developing anti-terrorist programs affecting civil liberties and privacy rights of which the board has neither complete knowledge nor ready access.'"

Davis's change of mind is a dramatic turnaround. Up until now, to the great disappointment of civil libertarians, he had been a supporter of the board's pro-administration pronouncements.

Energy Watch

Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush responded Monday to the Supreme Court's rebuke of his administration for refusing to regulate greenhouse gases by rehashing a plan from his State of the Union speech to boost ethanol and tinker with fuel efficiency standards."

Steven Mufson and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "With gasoline prices spiraling to record highs last week and a recent Supreme Court ruling requiring executive action to restrict global warming gases, President Bush yesterday ordered four federal agencies to draw up regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks by the end of his administration.

"But Democrats, environmentalists and some energy experts said the president was simply delaying measures that he has the power to impose now. . . .

"'In effect, the president asked his agency heads to share ideas and come up with a plan that is due three weeks before he leaves office,' said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the new House select committee on climate change. Markey said that 'will leave motor vehicle fuel economy stuck in neutral until Bush's successor takes office.'"

First Lady: Smoking?

Laura Bush yesterday spoke out about women and heart disease, and noted that quitting smoking is hard.

That apparently emboldened Sanjay Gupta of CNN to ask the first lady one of the great unspoken Washington questions: Does she still smoke? Mrs. Bush said she does not. But note that she did not say how she quit -- or when.

Here's the transcript. Gupta tells Wolf Blitzer: "I wanted to get right to it. Because there's been a lot of rumors about whether she was a smoker, and whether she still is a smoker. I decided to just ask her. This is what she said.

"GUPTA (on camera): Were you a smoker at one time?

"LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: That's right. I used to smoke.

"GUPTA: Do you smoke anymore?

"BUSH: No, I don't smoke anymore.

"GUPTA: How did you quit?

"BUSH: It was very hard to quit and smoking is very difficult to quit. I want to encourage people to not pick it up. It's very difficult to quit.

"One of the good ways, I think, one of the easier ways to quit is the way the president did, when he smoked, which is when he was back in graduate school. That was, he took up running. And I think once you get up and exercise, smoking becomes counterproductive, and then it's easier to quit."

Bush, the GOP Albatross

Catherine Dodge and Laura Litvan write for Bloomberg: "Many Republicans blame Bush's pursuit of the Iraq war for putting them in the minority in 2006 and fear further losses in 2008. Increasingly, they're looking past Bush at a perilous future. . . .

"The longing for a break with Bushism is a far cry from the hopes the Texan stirred with his 2000 victory. Casting himself as a party-builder, Bush envisioned a political realignment that would make Republicans the nation's ruling majority.

"Instead, he's poised to leave office as one of the country's most unpopular leaders, at home and abroad, with his party weaker than he found it. . . .

"David Carney, White House political director under President George H.W. Bush, said that 'to continue to go on and rally around the Bush flag is going to get us nowhere.' . . .

"'You'd have to go back to Jimmy Carter, who became totally ineffective in times of crisis and whom no one respected,' to find a president regarded as poorly by his party as Bush, said Edward Rollins, a Republican consultant and former Reagan campaign manager.

"Hamstrung by an unpopular war and 35 percent approval ratings, 'there is nothing Bush can do to get his numbers back up,' Rollins said. 'He has no good will.'"

TV Watch

The New York Times reports that: "In 'Spying on the Home Front,' tonight on PBS's 'Frontline,' Hedrick Smith doesn't merely re-sound the familiar alarm that public officials are rooting through our mail and phone records. He suggests that the domestic surveillance begun by the Bush administration after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, redefines the legal standards on which the United States was founded. Old standard: Law enforcement's job is to seek out a specific suspect and/or investigate a specific crime. New standard: Everyone is a suspect, and the crimes will be specified when those in charge are good and ready."

The Conductor in Chief

I asked yesterday if anyone had seen the video of Bush conducting the symphony that was playing at the celebration of Jamestown's 400th anniversary over the weekend.

C-SPAN has video of the entire event; Bush's takeover of the symphony starts around the 39:45 mark.

And of course Jon Stewart decided to show the video on his show last night -- along with a mock Bush narration: "I'm the Decider. That's right. I'm gonna decide when the oboe comes in. I'm the decider. I want trombones. Hee hee hee."

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