Why Were They Fired?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 14, 2007; 1:20 PM

President Bush last month complained that the congressional probes into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys were being "drug out . . . for political reasons." White House spokesman Tony Snow yesterday dismissed the issuance of congressional subpoenas to two former White House aides as an attempt to "create some media drama."

But if anyone is to blame for the dragging out of the probes and the drama, it's Bush himself. He and his aides have consistently refused to tell the American people why those federal prosecutors were fired.

Democrats have reason to suspect that at least some of the firings were set in motion by Karl Rove's White House political staff and were intended to affect politically charged cases in ways that would benefit the Republican Party.

Those are serious allegations. But the official White House response has been a non-denial. That U.S. attorneys "serve at the pleasure of the president" is immaterial. And the absence thus far of definitive evidence of wrongdoing at the White House level may be due more to effective stonewalling than to any lack of actual wrongdoing.

There's certainly a growing body of evidence to suggest that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has essentially turned over control of the traditionally independent Justice Department to political operatives.

If Bush wants this media drama to go away -- and if there is, in fact, an innocent explanation for the firings -- then it's in his best interest to come clean, in public, and sooner rather than later. Why wait for a congressional hearing?

But that's not what's happening. Instead, the White House's carefully parsed and entirely unforthcoming statements on this matter are reminiscent of the response four years ago to allegations that White House aides had leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity to reporters.

Back then, Bush could well have demanded an answer from his staffers and then shared it with the American people. He chose not to. Whether he chose not to because he knew that two of his top aides were involved in the leaking is still, to this day, not entirely clear. By stonewalling, Bush was able to postpone that revelation until after getting reelected.

Had the Democrats been in a position to issue subpoenas, things might have turned out differently.

And today, with the White House simply refusing to respond forthrightly to some very troubling charges, it is entirely reasonable for Congress -- and the press -- to ask, over and over again: Why were they fired?

Today's Coverage

The House and Senate Judiciary chairmen yesterday issued subpoenas for former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former White House political director Sara M. Taylor.

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "The decision by two congressional panels to issue subpoenas to the White House yesterday escalates a constitutional showdown over the Justice Department's firing of nine U.S. attorneys that could end up being decided by the federal courts. . . .

"The White House gave no indication that it intends to comply with the demands. 'It's clear that they're trying to create some media drama,' said spokesman Tony Snow, referring to Democratic lawmakers.

"By targeting two former administration officials, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) are hoping that Miers and Taylor might decide to reach accords with the House and Senate committees, regardless of the administration's interests, according to congressional aides. . . .

"Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats are keenly interested in obtaining testimony from presidential adviser Karl Rove but must first question other White House officials. A succession of Justice Department officials have denied responsibility for placing prosecutors' names on the firing lists. . . .

"'We still haven't found out who actually concocted this scheme,' Schumer said. . . .

"One constitutional-law expert said yesterday that the White House is in a difficult legal position, with little ability to refuse the subpoenas. 'They're in the unsustainable position of refusing to explain the increasing evidence of a coverup,' said Charles Tiefer of the University of Baltimore Law School.

"Tiefer, a former deputy House counsel, said the White House does not have standing to try to quash the subpoenas preemptively. That leaves White House counsel Fred F. Fielding with the choice of a negotiated settlement or a showdown in federal court.

"If the White House refuses the subpoenas, Leahy and Conyers could move to hold the White House in contempt, then forward those citations to the full House and Senate for approval. The contempt citations would then be sent to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jeffrey A. Taylor, who is required to empanel a grand jury to consider indictments. Taylor may have to recuse himself because of his involvement in events as a U.S. attorney."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Except in cases involving national security or military secrets, the executive branch enjoys no absolute privilege to withhold documents from Congress. In most disputes, courts balance the interests of the administration to keep the documents private, against the public or congressional interests in learning about the material.

"Some legal experts said they believe that Congress would prevail in any court fight over the U.S. attorney documents.

"'I think if you were to stand back from this and say, "Who has the better argument?", the answer is going to be Congress,' said Peter M. Shane, an expert at the Ohio State University law school on the separation of powers.

"Shane said that conditions the White House has insisted on before making officials available for questioning appear unreasonable. The current White House counsel, Fred F. Fielding, has agreed to permit officials to answer questions from members of Congress but only if the testimony is private, unsworn and there is no transcript.

"'Saying that the investigation can proceed but not with an oath or transcript, I think, is a ridiculous offer,' Shane said. 'If there cannot be a firm record of what is actually said, then it is quite literally a pointless investigative technique. If I were advising the majority counsel on either side, I cannot imagine accepting that offer. It is worse than nothing.'"

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "Congressional investigators have largely completed their interviews of Justice Department officials and assembled thousands of pages of departmental documents. Yet they still cannot definitively answer such basic questions as who initiated the effort to oust the nine prosecutors, how the nine were selected and whether their dismissals were motivated by a desire to push a political agenda, like accelerating investigations of Democrats or protecting Republican elected officials from scrutiny, as some members of Congress have asserted.

"The inquiry has at least made clear that Ms. Miers and Ms. Taylor, among others at the White House, helped orchestrate the effort, despite an early statement by the Bush administration denying such a role.

"Ms. Miers, starting as early as March 2005, was exchanging e-mail with D. Kyle Sampson, the attorney general's former chief of staff, discussing prosecutors who could be removed. . . .

"Ms. Taylor, the e-mail has shown, played an important role in the appointment of J. Timothy Griffin, a former aide to Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, as the interim United States attorney in Arkansas. He replaced H. E. Cummins III, one of the prosecutors removed."

In a joint press release from the two chairmen, Leahy said: "The White House cannot have it both ways -- it cannot stonewall congressional investigations by refusing to provide documents and witnesses, while claiming nothing improper occurred. The involvement of the White House's political operation in this project, including former Political Director Sara Taylor and her boss Karl Rove, has been confirmed by information gathered by congressional committees. Some at the White House may hope to thwart our constitutional oversight efforts by locking the doors and closing the curtains, but we will keep asking until we get to the truth."

Conyers said: "Let me be clear: this subpoena is not a request, it is a demand on behalf of the American people for the White House to make available the documents and individuals we are requesting to help us answer the questions that remain,' said Chairman Conyers. 'The breadcrumbs in this investigation have always led to 1600 Pennsylvania. This investigation will not end until the White House complies with the demands of this subpoena in a timely and reasonable manner so that we may get to the bottom of this."

In a letter to Fielding, Leahy wrote: "The White House's continued stonewalling leads to the obvious conclusion that the White House is hiding the truth because there is something to hide. "

And in a summary of findings thus far, the Democrats reported:

"Mr. Sampson, who has testified that he 'aggregated' the list of U.S. Attorneys to be fired, was in frequent contact with White House officials about multiple versions of proposed lists of possible U.S. Attorneys for dismissal and potential replacements over the course of nearly two years, sending draft lists for review in March 2005, January 2006, April 2006, and several drafts in September 2006 through the firings on December 7, 2006. . . .

"The evidence gathered so far also shows significant White House involvement -- including by Mr. Rove -- in the decision to dismiss David Iglesias as U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico. We have learned from the testimony of the Attorney General and Mr. Sampson that Mr. Rove directly complained to the Attorney General about concerns that prosecutors were not aggressively pursuing voter fraud cases in districts in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and New Mexico. . . .

"Since the firings of these U.S. Attorneys for political reasons became public, there has been an effort to minimize, and in some instances, cover up, the role of White House officials. According to documents and the testimony of Mr. Sampson, the Attorney General was upset after the February 6, 2007, testimony of Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty because Mr. McNulty's testimony put the White House involvement in the firings into the public domain. Former Justice Department White House Liaison Monica Goodling recently told the House Judiciary Committee that she was told not to attend a briefing by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty on the firings to the Senate Judiciary Committee in February, 2007, because of the concern that her presence might prompt Senators to ask questions about White House involvement."

Scooter Libby Watch

As of my deadline, no definitive word from district court on Scooter Libby's fate. (Although Firedoglake is liveblogging, as usual.)

Matt Apuzzo wrote this morning for the Associated Press: "The federal judge who oversaw I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's CIA leak trial said Thursday that he received threatening letters and phone calls after sentencing the former White House aide to prison."

If Judge Reggie B. Walton decides that Libby will not remain free pending his appeal, his defense team is expected to file an emergency motion with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. That request would go the three judges serving on a "special panel."

Who would be on that panel? Given the highly political nature of the case -- and the bench -- that could be significant. But there's no way to know. Mark Langer, the clerk of the appeals court, told me this morning that the court never divulges which judges are serving on the special panel until their order is issued.

Presumably at least one of the judges on the circuit -- Brett Kavanaugh, who served in the White House with Libby -- would have a clear conflict of interest. Langer said there is a recusal process that either automatically or voluntarily removes judges from the special panel.

Meet the New Guy

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Ed Gillespie, a high-dollar Washington lobbyist and longtime go-to guy for President Bush and the Republican Party, is replacing Dan Bartlett as White House counselor in the president's inner circle. . . .

"Funny and well-liked by reporters, Gillespie has played many roles for Bush, in addition to being

Republican National Committee chairman during the 2004 elections that sent Bush back to the White House and retained GOP majorities in the House and Senate.

"He was a senior communications adviser to Bush's first campaign for president, spokesman during the 2000 recount in Florida and communications director for the 2001 inaugural. He was tapped to guide Samuel Alito through his confirmation to the Supreme Court, after doing the same for former White House counsel Harriet Miers. She eventually withdrew her nomination after a conservative revolt.

"Gillespie's name has surfaced nearly every time there was a significant opening looming in the Bush White House. When it seemed political guru Karl Rove might be forced out because of the CIA leak investigation, for instance, Gillespie was speculated to be one choice as a possible replacement. Same for when former chief of staff Andrew Card was leaving."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "In Gillespie, Bush is gaining one of Washington's top Republican strategists and someone who has been a key ally outside the administration since the beginning of his term."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "in picking him, Mr. Bush did not reach for someone who will shake things up. . . .

"Ever the optimist, he predicted the president's fortunes would turn. 'I believe we are on the cusp of a pendulum swing,' Mr. Gillespie said."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "The new Bush adviser will enter the White House with recent lobbying ties to dozens of companies seeking the federal government's help on everything from proposed acquisitions to patent disputes. . . .

"Some consumer advocates criticized Bush's decision to put Gillespie in his inner circle, saying they thought the interests of average citizens would be trumped by those of corporate America.

"'It's very disappointing that the president, given his lack of public support these days, has not reached out for someone more independent who has a better understanding of the needs of people,' said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a liberal government watchdog group."

A reader from Kalamazoo asked this interesting question in my Live Online discussion yesterday: "You think this could lead to changes in Iraq policy down the road, given how fearful the Republicans are of being tied to the war . . . ? Seems like E.G. would be keenly attuned to the real-world implications for the GOP come 2008."

Iraq Watch

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "Three months into the new U.S. military strategy that has sent tens of thousands of additional troops into Iraq, overall levels of violence in the country have not decreased, as attacks have shifted away from Baghdad and Anbar, where American forces are concentrated, only to rise in most other provinces, according to a Pentagon report released yesterday. . . .

"Iraq's government, for its part, has proven 'uneven' in delivering on its commitments under the strategy, the report said, stating that public pledges by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have in many cases produced no concrete results.

"Iraqi leaders have made 'little progress' on the overarching political goals that the stepped-up security operations are intended to help advance, the report said, calling reconciliation between Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni factions 'a serious unfulfilled objective.' Indeed, 'some analysts see a growing fragmentation of Iraq,' it said, noting that 36 percent of Iraqis believe 'the Iraqi people would be better off if the country were divided into three or more separate countries.'"

Nancy A. Youssef writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The report was the eighth produced under a congressional requirement that the Pentagon report quarterly on the situation in Iraq. It was notable from its predecessors in its candor. It was the first report issued since Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense."

John Burns writes in the New York Times: "Two explosions on Wednesday that appeared to have been set by Sunni extremists with links to Al Qaeda toppled the twin golden minarets that were most of what remained of one of Iraq's most revered Shiite shrines after a devastating bombing by Al Qaeda last year.

"That bombing 16 months ago proved a watershed, engulfing the country in a wave of sectarian killing that pushed Sunnis and Shiites toward civil war. . . .

"The new attack on the shrine came at what American commanders acknowledged to be a now-or-never point in the war here, with only months for the fresh troops deployed here to begin driving down insurgent attacks. Without significant progress by September, when the top American military commander here is to report to the president and Congress, the generals appear to have little prospect of holding off pressure at home for withdrawal."

An Act of Desperation, Indeed

Amazingly, some administration officials tried to spin the bombing as a good sign.

As Burns reports: "A statement by Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American officials in Iraq, described the attack as a new effort by Al Qaeda to provoke sectarian conflict. Putting a positive construction on an event that appeared to have shaken the Americans more than any event in recent months, the two officials said, 'It is an act of desperation by an increasingly beleaguered enemy seeking to obstruct the peaceful political and economic development of a democratic Iraq.'"

And consider this extraordinary exchange with Tony Snow at yesterday's White House briefing:

"MR. SNOW: Well, I think, again -- a couple of things. It does fit a pattern that we see throughout the region, which is that when you see things moving towards success, or when you see signs of success, that there are acts of violence. . . .

"What you have seen in the last couple of months -- it's well documented -- is, increasingly, Iraqis are turning against al Qaeda. And that has been one of the sort of heartening developments. You've not only seen it in Anbar Province, but you've seen it elsewhere.

"So one of the responses one might expect for al Qaeda at a time like this -- when the Iraqi people are turning against them as foreign fighters, essentially invading the country and trying to commit acts of bloodshed against innocents in order to blow the country apart -- that it would be one of those acts of desperation once again to try to get the Iraqis to fight one another, rather than training their sights on al Qaeda.

"Q This could actually be read, then, as a sign of success for the American --

"MR. SNOW: I don't think you ever call an act of terrorism and act of success. What you have to do is to realize that maybe al Qaeda is understanding that it does not have the kind of freedom of motion or action that it used to. Not only have there been the apprehensions and killing of key members of al Qaeda within Iraq, but, again, most significantly, the Iraqi people themselves -- tribal leaders in Anbar, insurgents and others -- are now making it clear to al Qaeda that they look upon al Qaeda as the enemy of peace and security in Iraq and they're going after them."

Poll Watch

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Americans give the Republican Party their most negative assessment in the two-decade history of the Journal/NBC survey, and by 49% to 36% they say the Democratic Party more closely shares their values and positions on the issues. . . .

"The party's woes can be partly traced to the political decline of President Bush. His approval rating in the Journal/NBC survey has fallen to its lowest ever, 29%, while 66% of Americans disapprove of his performance. . . .

"The poll hardly brings reassurance for the Democrats, who control both the House and Senate. Amid political gridlock on domestic issues and inconclusive debates over Iraq, the approval rating for Congress stands lower than Mr. Bush's, at 23%."

Mark Murray writes for NBC News: "Back in April, 75 percent of Republicans approved of Bush's job performance, compared with 21 percent who disapproved. Now, only 62 percent of Republican approve, versus 32 percent who disapprove."

Brian Williams had this to say on the NBC Nightly News: "We are in a volatile period in modern American history. The mood of this nation, which was after all founded on optimism and a promise of a better life, has turned decidedly grim and downright angry on some subjects."

Added Tim Russert: "This is bleak. People think Washington is broken."

Immigration Watch

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush, hoping to salvage immigration overhaul legislation, has agreed to an upfront infusion of money for federal border security efforts in a concession designed to win over skeptical conservatives.

"Bush supports setting aside all the fees and penalties in the bill solely for tougher security on the border and workplace enforcement, White House press secretary Tony Snow said Thursday.

Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times: "The debate over President Bush's immigration bill and opposition to it as an 'amnesty' proposal have invigorated otherwise dispirited conservative interest groups and forged an anti-Bush unity on the right not seen since the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers."

Dinner Watch

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush says polls don't matter to him, but his slumping popularity appears to be influencing fellow Republicans in a way that hurts -- money. Bush's yearly fundraising dinner for Republican congressional candidates on Wednesday generated $15.4 million -- no small amount, but almost half as much as the $27 million the event brought in last year. Bush raised $23 million at the same dinners in 2005 and 2004."

Maybe it would help if he came up with some new material. Here is the text of his speech.

Baptists Watch

Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush may have low approval ratings overall, but he can still bring a crowd of Southern Baptists to their feet.

"Conservative white evangelical Protestants remain his most loyal base -- a point driven home on Wednesday when he made a televised address to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio and received multiple standing ovations."

Here's the text of his remarks.

European Trip Redux

Sidney Blumenthal writes for Salon: "Bush's procession through Europe was a pageant of contempt, disdain, delusion, provocation and vanity masquerading as a welcome respite from his troubles at home."

Watch Watch

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News: "A day after the buzz about whether President Bush's watch was stolen while he was greeted by enthusiastic supporters in Albania, the president today went out of his way to display his time piece to reporters in the Oval Office when he announced his pick of Ed Gillespie as his new counselor.

"'I have never seen such a ludicrous story,' Bush said. 'Unbelievable.'

"Spokesman Tony Snow insisted the watch Bush wore today was the same one he had on in Albania. Snow previously said the watch disappeared from Bush's wrist because he put it in his pocket."

Nevertheless, it's a story that just keeps on giving.

Philip Jackman writes in Toronto's Globe and Mail: "When George W. Bush, the most powerful man on the planet, wades into a crowd of ecstatic Albanians who are yelling 'Booshie! Booshie!' you know you're entering some kind of black news hole that warps the very fabric of political reality and twists the space-time continuum. Or should that be the space-Timex continuum?"

He quotes Tony Snow telling Fox News: "There was no Albanian timepiece heist. It, in fact, was just another case where people are loving the President."

Goodbye, Gonzo Meter

Slate announces the retirement of its Gonzales death watch: "When we first launched this enterprise, we truly believed that the sun rose in the east and gravity worked. We were wrong. As we have increasingly observed, most notably on the days the AG testified before Congress, some mystical alchemy provides that the worse he does, the better his chances become of remaining in office. At this point, just about nothing Gonzales does could cause the president to fire him."

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