The Reluctant Executioner

Kyle Sampson cuts down his ex-boss, Alberto Gonzales.

Kyle Sampson tried to stand by his man today. But he just couldn’t. His former boss of seven years, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, zoomed so far into outer space this month in claiming that he had nothing to do with last year’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys that Sampson could only leave him to orbit. Sampson was sweaty, nervous, and soft-spoken—nowhere in evidence was the cavalier swagger of the aide who wrote e-mails a few short months ago about replacing one prosecutor without waiting for his “body to cool.” And that made his testimony about Gonzales all the more damning for its apparent reluctance.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., teed up the first big moment of the morning. On March 13, as he reminded Sampson, Gonzales held a press conference in which he (rashly) said that he “was not involved in any discussions about what was going on” regarding the firing of the prosecutors. Then last Friday, the White House released e-mails showing that Gonzales went to a meeting on November 27 that was all about the firings. How did Sampson account for the contradiction?

“I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate,” Sampson said, sounding unhappy but firm. A few minutes later, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., prodded him to elaborate. How many times had Sampson and Gonzales discussed the dismissals? “The attorney general was aware of this process from the beginning in early 2005,” Sampson answered. They discussed it several times during the course of 2006, both when “leaders” at the Department of Justice were contributing names to the purge list over the summer, in Sampson’s telling, and when the list was finalized in late fall.

So, Sampson and Gonzales spoke about the firings at least five times? Schumer asked.

“I spoke with him every day,” Sampson said. “At least five, yes.”

It could only have been odd for Sampson to call up that intimacy while he was doggedly undermining the man he used to have it with. He did try to sync his account with Gonzales’ efforts to dial back his own blanket denials of involvement. “I think the attorney general has clarified his earlier statements,” he told Schumer. Sampson also said he couldn’t remember the November 27 meeting clearly enough to offer much detail about it. (Never mind that November isn’t exactly ancient history.)

But what Sampson did recall “tells us quite a lot,” as Schumer put it. Sampson was sure that the attendees included himself, Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, and Monica Goodling, the department’s White House liaison, who went on extended leave last week and has taken the Fifth rather than testify before Congress. Sampson said the meeting lasted about 20 minutes. He was sure Gonzales had spoken.

And Sampson was also sure that he’d shared information about the process of determining which prosecutors should go with his higher-ups. This also contradicts Gonzales, who said at that soon-to-be-regretted press conference, “So far as I knew, my chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers.” Asked if he’d mentioned names of specific prosecutors to Gonzales before the firings, Sampson said he had. And no, he couldn’t explain how Gonzales could say that he’d had no part in the selection process. Sampson didn’t dream up the firings on his own, he didn’t plan them himself, and he sure didn’t carry them out. “The decision-makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president,” he said, in what may become the day’s sound bite.

Sampson tried to sound equally confident about resolving the ragged ends he himself left trailing. None of the prosecutors was forced out for improper reasons, he swore—the DoJ never ousted a single U.S. attorney in order to interfere with a pending prosecution. The Democrats pushed back hardest about former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wanted to know what Sampson meant when he referred to “the real problem” with Lam, in an e-mail he wrote just a day after she broadened her investigation of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham to include other Republicans. “The real problem,” Sampson said, “was her office’s failure in bringing immigration cases.” Later, he similarly tried to explain away a past e-mail reference to “loyal Bushies” by saying that he had in mind prosecutors who were loyal not to the president himself, but to his “policies and priorities.”

None of this went over well with the Democrats running the hearing. They all thanked Sampson for showing up to testify voluntarily. And they must have liked the ammunition they were getting against Gonzales. Still, for all the professed appreciation, the senators went after their witness. They bore down on the discrepancy between 1) a Dec. 19, 2006, e-mail in which Sampson wrote that getting Tim Griffin appointed as U.S. attorney in Arkansas “was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.”; and 2) a Feb. 23, 2007, letter he drafted on behalf of the DoJ that stated, “The Department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin.”

How could Sampson reconcile the e-mail and the letter? Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., wanted to know.

Sampson had only lame answers. “At the time I drafted that letter, I was not aware of Karl Rove having expressed an interest in Tim Griffin being appointed,” he said. (Meanwhile, the DoJ apologized for the letter before the hearing, saying it may have provided “inaccurate and incomplete information” about Rove’s role to Congress.)

So, what was the basis for Sampson’s referral to Rove in the December e-mail? Schumer followed up when it was his turn at bat. “A conversation with Scott Jennings [Rove’s deputy]?”

“Yes,” Sampson answered. “I talked to Scott Jennings and Sara Taylor”—another Rove aide—”and I assumed because it was important to them, it was important to Karl.”

But then you still drafted the February 23 DoJ letter? Schumer pressed. “Don’t the two seem to be in contradiction?”

Sampson offered only a longer version of his earlier lameness. “When I drafted the letter in February 2007, I remember thinking to myself, am I aware that Karl Rove is interested in Tim Griffin being appointed? I thought to myself, I’m not aware Mr. Rove has that interest. For all I know, I’m not even sure he knows about this. I knew people who work for him are interested.” This, of course, makes no sense. Karl Rove’s deputies don’t run around axing prosecutors behind his back. Their job is to do what he tells them to do.

Sampson hit another rough patch when Schumer questioned him about an idea he said he came up with on his own—to include Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney in Chicago, on the dismissal list. At that time, Fitzgerald was prosecuting Scooter Libby, the vice president’s former chief of staff. Sampson hastened to say that when he floated firing Fitzgerald—mid-Libby affair—with White House Counsel Harriet Miers and her deputy, William Kelley, they “looked at me as if I had said something totally inappropriate, and I had.”

But that wasn’t enough for Schumer. He wanted to know if Miers or Kelley had condemned Sampson, or suggested taking him off the prosecutor-dismissal beat. Sampson said no. Apparently no one questioned his performance until the DoJ’s handling of the firings went awry last month. At that point, it was Sampson who lowered the boom on himself. “I failed, so I resigned,” he said. Maybe that’s his real message, however unwillingly delivered, to Alberto Gonzales.