Gonzales Faces a Pivotal Week
When Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee this Thursday about the firings of eight U. S. attorneys, he must give a rock-solid performance, making every single word count, to ensure his survival as attorney general. After all, it's his shifting explanations, and those of his aides, as to why the prosecutors were fired, that has led him to this point in the first place, the main act in the most juicy political circus in town this week.
In recent weeks, Gonzales has released thousands of pages of documents related to the firings, and current and former senior Justice officials, including Gonzales's former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, have testified under oath in public and met in private with Senate Judiciary Committee members. So there is now a lengthy paper trail that can be used to nail Gonzales on any real or perceived inconsistencies.
Gonzales already has done numerous course corrections about his role in the whole fiasco, both in print and television interviews, in an op-ed page piece in the Washington Post on Sunday, and in his prepared statement for the hearings, submitted to the committee. For example: At his March 13 press conference Gonzales said that he "was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on." In his most recent statement, Gonzales says he "misspoke" and that the statement was "too broad."
One knowledgeable source says that the committee will take aim even at some of Gonzales's corrected statements. For instance, in an interview on March 26 on NBC, Gonzales was asked whether he had largely stayed out of the discussions over which U.S. attorneys to fire until the very end. Gonzales said that while he may have participated in "conversations" about the performance of various U.S. attorneys, he "wasn't involved in the deliberations as to whether or not a particular United States Attorney should or should not be asked to resign." Gonzales then added, "Let me just, I don't recall being involved. Let me be more precise because I know that with respect to this particular topic, people parse carefully the words that I use." And Senate Democrats will do just that on Thursday and try to make the case that in fact, Gonzales was involved in those deliberations.
Gonzales was to have testified Tuesday, but his appearance was postponed because of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Senate Judiciary Committee member Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Monday that Sampson told committee staff members in a meeting on Sunday that Gonzales may have been involved in deliberations about the ousting of San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam. Schumer said Sampson told the staff that Gonzales's statement to the contrary seemed "inaccurate" or at least "not complete." Schumer said that Sampson said that on June 6, senior Justice officials including Sampson; the department's No. 3 official, William Mercer; Gonzales's former counselor Jeffrey Taylor, now the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., and others discussed the potential ouster of Lam.
Mercer has told the committee that Gonzales also was present at that meeting, Schumer said. And Sampson, said Schumer, says he believes Gonzales was there as well. On May 11, Sampson had sent an intriguing E-mail to the White House counsel's office about the ouster of U.S. attorneys whose four-year terms had expired, including Lam.
"The real problem we have right now with Carol Lam," Sampson wrote, "that leads me to conclude we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires." Just one day before that E-mail was sent, Lam's office had alerted the Justice Department that the FBI was soon to execute search warrants on the CIA's No. 3 official, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, in connection with a politically explosive public corruption case involving former Republican Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse says that was a meeting but that it was not about Lam's ouster. Instead, it was about congressional complaints about inadequate immigration enforcement in Lam's district.
Sampson's meeting with the Judiciary Committee staff lasted six hours and covered a wide range of issues.
Schumer pointed out that in the NBC interview on March 26, Gonzales stated that he did not recall a conversation with President Bush that prominent Republicans were unhappy about some U.S. attorneys' perceived lack of commitment to voter fraud cases, in particular U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico.
"I don't remember that conversation," Gonzales told NBC, "but what I'm saying is, is during the process, there may have been other conversations about specifically about the performance of U.S. attorneys." But Schumer says Sampson told the committee staffers Sunday that in early March, before that NBC interview, when he and Gonzales were going over what had happened with respect to all the firings, in preparation for congressional hearings, Gonzales told Sampson he was, in Schumer's words, "aware of specific concerns about Mr. Iglesias, not only from [White House political adviser] Karl Rove, but the president himself." Sampson said that Gonzales relayed the conversation he had had with Bush, back in October, about Iglesias. Roerhkasse said the meeting reference could have been in relation to an October conversation that White House counselor Dan Bartlett told reporters about on March 13, in which Bush "briefly" told Gonzales about congressional concerns about "election fraud matters" and that Bush was just telling Gonzales "to make sure you're on top of that, as well." Bartlett said that there was "no directive given, as far as telling him [Gonzales] to fire anybody or anything like that."
According to Schumer, Sampson also contradicted a statement by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty that U.S. Attorney H.E. "Bud" Cummins of Arkansas had not been removed for performance reasons, as McNulty has testified, but to make way for Rove protégé J. Timothy Griffin. Schumer said Sampson told the committee staff that there were "performance issues" involved with Cummins's termination, and said that Cummins "hadn't distinguished himself." But Schumer said Sampson could not give specifics.
Other knowledgeable sources say Sampson's testimony was not as clear cut as Schumer indicated. According to their version, while Sampson indicated there had been some performance issues with Cummins that placed him on the potential firing list well before Griffin had entered the picture, Sampson said the explanations about the Cummins firing were complex enough that different people could interpret the reasons for the firings differently.
If Democrats on the committee manage to discredit more of Gonzales's explanations, it's unclear if he can survive the hearing, although he has managed to last out the controversy longer than most political pundits have predicted. Even Republican allies of the president have called for Gonzales's ouster.
Citing Gonzales as the "central figure in this investigation," Schumer warned Sunday that this could be Gonzales's last chance.
"Let me be clear: This is a very, very important hearing," Schumer said. "It's make or break for the attorney general."
As political circuses go, this is probably the show most worth watching this week in the nation's capitol, one in which Gonzales clearly has the tight-rope act. On the one hand, Gonzales must defend the decision to fire the U.S. attorneys even while he accepts blame for the botched processes. He also must, one source familiar with the ongoing probe says, "walk the line" between "being too disconnected from key decisions, and taking ownership of something most Senators think was a very bad idea politically." He also must give a credible accounting of himself to explain the shifting stories.
But even though Gonzales may have slashed his own safety net with his obfuscations and inconsistencies, it doesn't necessarily mean that he will fall to his political death.
"The expectations for him are so low," says this source, "that he may actually look pretty good."
On the other hand, if Democratic senators manage to trap Gonzales in one more seemingly inaccurate statement, it's clear that this political circus won't have a happy ending. Instead, Gonzales could get swallowed whole by those bloodthirsty lions poorly disguised as donkeys on Capitol Hill. And there won't be too many circus elephants charging to Gonzales's rescue.