Gonzales: The Texan Who Can't Shoot Straight
He may be from Texas, but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may come to be viewed as the sheriff who couldn't shoot straight.
Over the past three months, Gonzales's explanations and those of his top politicos as to why eight U.S. attorneys were fired in the middle of Bush's second term have changed, and changed, and changed. The first lone-wolf iteration, as it were, was that Gonzales's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, had come up with the plan without Gonzales's say-so, after nixing an idea for a broader purge from then White House counsel Harriet Miers to fire all 93 U.S. attorneys.
Initially, Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, and others defended the firings, saying they were done purely for poor performance reasons. But then, confronted with Sampson's candid E-mails, which amounted to the proverbial trail of bread crumbs leading straight to the White House doorstep, Gonzales's aides had little choice but to deviate from that fairy tale and acknowledge that, well, politics was in fact at the root of the firings, stemming from a desire to reward blue-chip Bush loyalists who were helpful to his re-election campaign. But, said one Justice official, it was "both fresh blood and performance."
Even then, in a hastily staged press conference, Gonzales held his ground, saying that only weak prosecutors were fired and that it was the right decision. While offering the usual classic Washington smorgasbord of mea culpas"I am accountable," "I accept responsibility," "Mistakes were made," and so onGonzales threw Sampson to the wolves. "Naturally, when questions came up with respect to the evaluation of performance of U.S. attorneys," said Gonzales in response to a question, "it would be Kyle Sampson who would drive that effort. Yes, ma'am."
Gonzales then vowed to fix the problem and learn from his mistakes.
End of story?
Well, not quite.
Late Thursday, the Justice Department released more E-mails that meant more bad news for Gonzales: One E-mail indicated that Sampson had recommended early in 2005 removing up to 20 percent of "underperforming" prosecutors but retaining the other 80 percent who were "loyal Bushies." The E-mails also revealed that Bush's political adviser Karl Rove asked the White House counsel's office in early January 2005 whether it was going to move forward with a plan to fire all 93 prosecutors. At the time, Gonzales was in transition from the White House counsel job to the attorney general job and was prepping for Senate confirmation hearings.
The E-mails show that in December 2004, Sampson and Gonzales had "briefly" discussed the U.S. attorney removal plan. One E-mail lists four reasons from Sampson that getting rid of all 93 was a bad idea. Justice Department spokesperson Tasia Scolinos issued a statement that Gonzales "has no recollection of any plan or discussion" to replace the U.S. attorneys when he was still White House counsel. Scolinos said the E-mail occurred during the weeks Gonzales was preparing for his confirmation hearing. "And his focus was on that." Anyway, such discussions would have been "appropriate and normal," Scolinos said, because the White House was "considering different personnel changes administrationwide."