Monday, March 19, 2007


Summary of the Gonzales Scandal

The Bush Administration

Fallout from the recent firings of several U.S. attorneys hit the Bush administration like a hurricane last week - and shows no sign of abating any time soon. But why is it such a big deal? Let's take a walk down scandal lane.

Clinton Did It Too?

It's been noted many, many, many times this past week that U.S. attorneys "serve at the pleasure of the president" - and this is true. The president can hire and fire U.S. attorneys whenever he wants. It's also true that "Presidents commonly begin their first term by replacing most, if not all, U.S. attorneys. Presidents Clinton in 1993 and Bush in 2001 replaced nearly all U.S. attorneys in the Justice Department's 93 districts nationwide," according to the Associated Press.

But there's one important thing to know about the president's power to hire and fire U.S. attorneys: aside from the start of his first term, he rarely, if ever, uses it. In fact, the Congressional Research Service reported last month that in the past 25 years, only five U.S. attorneys have been forced to resign mid-term.

All of which makes the Bush administration's recent firing of eight U.S. attorneys - and then claiming that they performed poorly when in fact they'd received positive performance reviews - look more than a tad suspicious. According to the New York Times:

The United States attorney purge appears to have been prompted by an array of improper political motives. Carol Lam, the San Diego attorney, seems to have been fired to stop her from continuing an investigation that put Republican officials and campaign contributors at risk. These charges, like the accusation that Mr. McKay and other United States attorneys were insufficiently aggressive about voter fraud, are a way of saying, without actually saying, that they would not use their offices to help Republicans win elections.

So the attorneys were fired because they either didn't investigate enough Democrats, or because they investigated Republicans - and that's the problem. U.S. attorneys are politically appointed, but they are supposed to remain above politics. These firings appear to be, as John McLaughlin said last week, "a shabby and grave departure from good government."

So that's the why - but what about the who, the how, and the when?

Patriot Acting

Let's recap for a moment. Back in January, Sen. Arlen Specter "confirmed that as Judiciary Committee chairman last year he made a last-minute change to (the Patriot Act) that expanded the administration's power to install U.S. Attorneys without Senate approval," according to TPM Muckraker (and see Idiots 275). Shortly afterwards, Alberto Gonzales defended this provision, telling the Senate Judiciary Commitee - under oath, mind you - that, "I am fully committed, as the administration's fully committed, to ensure that, with respect to every United States attorney position in this country, we will have a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed United States attorney."

Fine - except it appears that Gonzo was lying. Last December, his chief-of-staff Kyle Sampson wrote an email about that very same Patriot Act provision which said, "There is some risk that we'll lose the authority, but if we don't ever exercise it then what's the point of having it?"

Sampson also plotted with a White House aide to install "a former GOP operative and protege of presidential adviser Karl Rove," Tim Griffin, as a U.S. attorney. Sampson wrote, "We should gum this to death, ask the senators to give Tim a chance ... then we can tell them we'll look for other candidates, ask them for recommendations, evaluate the recommendations, interview their candidates, and otherwise run out the clock. All of this should be done in 'good faith,' of course."

Good Faith, My Ass

In fact, the Bush administration had been plotting to fire U.S. attorneys for some time. According to Salon:

A letter written by the Department of Justice in late February informed Congress: "The department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin." Despite this categorical disavowal, a sheaf of internal Justice Department e-mails released this week to Congress under subpoena revealed Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff, writing in mid-December 2006, "I know getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc." Harriet, of course, was Harriet Miers, then the White House legal counsel.

The Justice Department's statement on Karl Rove was simply one part of its coverup. The department's three top officials -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and William E. Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general -- all testified before Congress under oath that the dismissed U.S. attorneys had been removed for "performance" reasons, not because they had been insufficiently partisan in their prosecution of Democrats or because they would be replaced by those who would be. Yet another Sampson e-mail, sent to Miers in March 2005, had ranked all 93 U.S. attorneys on the basis of being "good performers," those who "exhibited loyalty" to the administration, or "low performers," those who "chafed against Administration initiatives, etc."

Meanwhile, according to CNN:

An e-mail from D. Kyle Sampson to former White House counsel Harriet Miers dated January 1, 2006, read, "You have asked whether President Bush should remove and replace U.S. Attorneys whose four-year terms have expired. I recommend that the Department of Justice and the Office of the Counsel to the President work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. Attorneys."

On September 13, 2006, Sampson e-mailed Miers lists of federal attorneys "In the Process of Being Pushed Out" and those "We Now Should Consider Pushing Out."

And according to the New York Times:

Late in the afternoon on Dec. 4, a deputy to Harriet E. Miers, then the White House counsel and one of President Bush's most trusted aides, sent a two-line e-mail message to a top Justice Department aide. "We're a go," it said, approving a long-brewing plan to remove seven federal prosecutors considered weak or not team players.

The message, from William K. Kelley of the White House counsel's office to D. Kyle Sampson, the chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, put in motion a plan to fire United States attorneys that had been hatched 22 months earlier by Ms. Miers. Three days later, the seven prosecutors were summarily dismissed. An eighth had been forced out in the summer.

Ma Mama Weer All Hazee Now

Once the emails were released (more on that in a minute) it became quite clear that despite their denials, the Bush administration was up to their necks in the plot. And suddenly they were having a hard time getting their stories straight. Would you be surprised to learn that the plan wasn't "hatched 22 months earlier by Ms. Miers" after all?

The White House dropped its contention Friday that former Counsel Harriet Miers first raised the idea of firing U.S. attorneys, blaming "hazy memories" as e-mails shed new light on Karl Rove's role. Support eroded further for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Presidential press secretary Tony Snow previously had asserted Miers was the person who came up with the idea, but he said Friday, "I don't want to try to vouch for origination." He said, "At this juncture, people have hazy memories."

Ah, "hazy memories." Isn't it amazing how all these supposedly brilliant people suddenly develop chronic amnesia at the most inconvenient moments?

Mind you, Alberto Gonzales had a different excuse last week, claiming that he was simply too stupid to know what was going on. Gonzales held a press conference to defend himself, and according to the Washington Post:

"I am responsible for what happens at the Department of Justice," he posited, but "I ... was not involved in any discussions about what was going on."

That's right: the attorney general would have us believe that he had no idea his chief-of-staff was coordinating this effort with the White House. Completely incompetent or lying his butt off? You be the judge.

What The Hell Is

As the emails came to light, astute observers noticed that many of them were sent from "" email addresses. And what is Strangely enough, the domain is owned by the Republican National Committee, which means that White House staffers appear to have been using RNC email addresses to conduct official White House business. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, this is a violation of the Presidential Records Act:

In light of e-mails released by the House Judiciary Committee this week in response to the on-going U.S. Attorney firing scandal, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter today to Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), asking for an investigation into whether the White House has violated its mandatory record-keeping obligation under the Presidential Records Act (PRA).

One email, sent to Justice Department Chief of Staff D. Kyle Sampson from J. Scott Jennings, White House Deputy Political Director, uses an email account,, on a server owned by the Republican National Committee. This raises serious questions about whether the White House was trying to deliberately evade its responsibilities under the PRA, which directs the president to take all necessary steps to maintain presidential records to provide a full accounting of all activities during his tenure.

The White House may have been trying to deliberately avoid its responsibilities? Why, I find that almost impossible to believe! These are the people who pledged to return honesty and integrity to Washington, remember?

Stale Rove

But it's okay - Karl Rove has got a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this:

White House adviser Karl Rove lashed out today at Democrats' vocal criticism of the administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

Democrats are calling on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign over the Justice Department's handling of the firings, but Rove accused them of trying to create a scandal where there isn't one.

"Now we are at a point where people want to play politics with it," said Rove, "and that's fine."

Curious. The White House collaborated with the Justice Department to fire U.S. attorneys for purely political purposes, but we're only now at a point where "people want to play politics with it?" Methinks Karl Rove needs a new meme. And to think they used to call him a genius.

Bedtime For Gonzo

So what's next? Well, along with many Democrats, several prominent Republicans have called for Gonzales's resignation, and even Our Great Leader has mumbled something about being "not happy." Considering that Bush's strongest criticism of useless public servants is usually something along the lines of, "Heck of a job," or "Here, have this Presidential Medal of Freedom," being "not happy" must be the kiss of death.

Will Gonzo still be Attorney General when the Top 10 rolls around next week? Don't bet on it.

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