Every Man for Himself

Bush administration discipline slips further.

As George Bush’s tenure winds down, he has started thinking about building his presidential library. Somewhere off the Mission Accomplished Atrium he should put a boxing ring. An administration that came into office boasting of exemplary teamwork looks like it’s going to end in a hail of blame-placing, finger-pointing, and backbiting.

The Justice Department’s White House liaison, Monica Goodling, has refused to testify before the judiciary committee because she is worried she’ll be blamed for the controversy over the eight fired U.S. attorneys. Her lawyer explained in a press release that she would take the Fifth in part because one of her former bosses at the Justice Department was blaming his false testimony on her, claiming that Goodling “did not inform him of certain pertinent facts.”

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, also appears to be worried about the free-floating blame game, but for him it is a reason to testify before Congress. Gonzales publicly blamed his ex-aide for misleading Congress, and Sampson is fighting back. (A leaked memo from the White House obtained by ABC news puts the blame on Paul McNulty, Gonzales’ deputy, for not sticking to his talking points when he testified before Congress.)

The finger-pointing over the U.S. attorney firings comes just a few weeks after a long display of it in the Scooter Libby trial. The defense portrayed the vice president’s former chief of staff as the victim of a plot by his former colleagues to make him take the blame for outing a CIA agent. (Goodling mentioned the Libby example as the specter she fears; Democratic senators cited Libby when referring to Sampson’s role.)  Like the U.S. attorney scandal, Scooter Libby’s trial was a forum for displaying years of bitter acrimony between different parts of the administration.

All administrations produce unhappy people in the second term. At the end of Bill Clinton’s tenure, George Stephanopoulos and Robert Reich wrote memoirs that were unflattering to some of their former colleagues. The Bush team has already had such disgruntled types: Paul O’Neill, David Kuo, and Richard Clarke. What has changed at this point, though, “is that it feels like it’s every man for himself,” says one former senior administration official.

When Libby was first ensnared in the firestorm over prewar intelligence in October 2003, his boss Cheney immediately blamed the White House and CIA, but that was just in private. In those days, and until recently, really, the intergovernmental sniping that did go public was usually in the newspapers and came from anonymous sources. Now it’s all happening in public and in real-time. The Democrats who now control Congress can haul people in to testify, and that increases the incentive to turn on someone before he or she turns on you. The blame-shifting may be your best bet to get out of public, career-ending trouble. This is how prosecutors flip witnesses: We have a criminal justice system that relies far more heavily on plea bargaining than on trials because the incentives almost always line up in favor of ratting somebody out.

Staffers worried about their post-administration jobs are concerned that they’ll lose opportunities in the private sector if their reputations are tarnished and not repaired before Bush is out of office. The president’s low popularity and dwindling time in office mean that he doesn’t have much political capital left to protect anyone outside the White House. And according to Scooter Libby’s lawyers, Karl Rove will sell you out to protect himself.

Hill Republicans don’t want to expend political capital protecting an unpopular administration whose officials are causing self-inflicted wounds. “They’re sick of carrying water for them,” says a veteran Republican strategist. That’s why Gonzales has no strong Republican defenders in the Senate and an increasing number of detractors. When Sampson testifies Thursday, his former boss Orrin Hatch will no doubt reiterate his support to fend off anyone in the Justice Department or White House trying to load onto Sampson undue blame. In this tense environment, if you have the bad luck to be involved in a scandal or potential scandal, you have to be thinking that tomorrow, the fall guy may be you.