Al, the President’s Man

Alberto Gonzales is bloodied by his trip to the Senate.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

Right before we break for lunch in Alberto Gonzales’ star turn before the Senate judiciary committee, he repeats, for about the fifth time, some crazy hokum about how anyone who criticizes the actions of the Justice Department folks involved in the recent unpleasantness is in fact “attacking the career professionals.” At which point Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., about loses it. “That’s like saying anyone who disagrees with the president’s policy on the war is attacking the soldiers,” he bellows. For Gonzales to even try to turn this hearing into a referendum on the career professionals at DoJ is preposterous. The issue here is what his craven, unhinged staff tried to do to the serious career professionals, and everyone here—except Gonzales—seems to recognize that.

Everyone but the attorney general also seems to recognize that the time for half-formed, one-sentence justifications for the firings of eight U.S. attorneys is long past. If David Iglesias, former U.S. attorney of New Mexico, was really fired for any reason other than party politics, today was the day to prove that. Gonzales didn’t. In fact, he claims that the burden of proof is on the committee to prove he’s done something wrong. Even Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., opines that some of his reasons sounded “made up.” But Gonzales comes armed with no files, e-mails, lists, or charts to back up his claims that these firings were warranted.

The other unfortunate trope of the morning is the attorney general’s incessant invocation of the “consensus judgment of the senior leadership” and the “collective concerns of the senior leadership” as the basis for all these U.S. attorney firings. Every time he’s asked who made the ultimate decision here, Gonzales trots back to the fuzzy gray oracle of “senior leadership.” That fits almost perfectly with Kyle Sampson’s repeated claim last month that he never made a decision; he was merely the “aggregator” of everyone else’s recommendations and say-sos. How gloriously mechanical: The “consensus judgments of the senior leadership” are fed to the “aggregator,” who in turn passes them along to the AG who, as he claims, made a final decision without reviewing any criteria for the firing or any written document. It seems that at no point in this “process” or “project” did any human brain fire an actual neuron that triggered the message to terminate an actual U.S. attorney. Sen. Dianne Feinstein picks up on this theme toward the end of the day when she notes, “We still don’t know who selected the individuals on that list. Somebody had to. A human being had to.”

The beauty of blaming this mess on the “process”—as opposed to a human—is that it allows the attorney general to consistently say that even where that “process” should have been more rigorous, the outcome would have been the same. He testifies that if he had to rethink “the process”: 1) Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty would have been more involved; 2) he would have told Kyle Sampson with whom to consult and which factors to use to evaluate the prosecutors; and 3) the entire project would have taken no more than six months to a year. But even though, by implication, Sampson had no clear marching orders and no oversight, no guidance about what factors to weigh, and no deadline, somehow the results of this “process” were 100 percent correct, and Gonzales stands behind them. To review: The process was a total, ad-hoc wreck. The decisions were rock solid.

Those of us who arrived today thinking that Gonzales had some sort of brilliant master plan for winning over the judiciary committee are puzzled by the AG’s strategy. You can’t help but wonder what condition he was in last month before he started preparing full time. His face, for a sustained period of almost seven hours, is a perfect mask of bemused puzzlement and earnest seriousness. Clearly, the one thing he has practiced for two weeks is the face. But the rest of his tactics are dubious. There’s the raging testosterone (repeatedly shouting down Arlen Specter, R-Pa., in an exchange about how prepared he was and taking umbrage at the implications of Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.); the repeated, hurt references to his “integrity” and his “heart”; the convenient forgetfulness (the lengthy colloquy with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., which Gonzales insists—repeatedly—that he simply cannot recall whether he attended a meeting last November that an e-mail shows he clearly attended). There’s: Criticize me and you criticize the career attorneys on the battlefield. There’s: I wish I could look into all this wrongdoing, but I don’t want to imperil this investigation. And then there’s the unseemly new willingness to talk trash about his former employees. David Iglesias (wait for it) deserved to be fired in hindsight because, by not reporting the improper pressure placed upon him by Pete Domenici and Heather Wilson, he “intentionally violated a policy designed to protect him.” This, to Gonzales, is in fact the day’s “serious transgression.”

One of the finest moments comes when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., busts out a big, big chart. Which happens after almost everyone has gone home. The chart compares the Clinton protocol for appropriate contacts between the White House and the DoJ on pending criminal cases with the Bush protocol. According to Whitehouse, the Clinton protocol authorized just four folks at the White House to chat with three folks at Justice. The chart had four boxes talking to three boxes. Out comes the Bush protocol, and now 417 different people at the White House have contacts about pending criminal cases with 30-some people at Justice. You can just see zillions of small boxes nattering back and forth. It seems that just about everyone in the White House, including the guys in the mailroom, had a vote on ongoing criminal matters.

Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., calls this “the most astounding thing” he’s seen in 32 years.

At bottom, the worst ickiness is that while Gonzales thinks he should retain his position despite all he has to apologize for (after all, he has learned from his mistakes), he’s more than willing to point to the single mistake made by his subordinates that doomed their careers, one by one. (Daniel Bogden = low “energy.” Paul Charlton = “poor judgment.” Kevin Ryan = “bad manager.” John McKay = bad “information sharing.” Carol Lam = Carol Lame.) He is willing to detail everything Paul McNulty should have done differently and everything Kyle Sampson did wrong. Time and again Gonzales wants to claim the benefit of the doubt for all the “great things” he’s achieved as attorney general, but he’s the only one who gets it. Second chances only run one way at Justice.

Which leaves Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to ask why the attorney general should not be “judged by the same standards you’ve used to judge the U.S. attorneys.” The senator calls Gonzales’ handling of the situation “incompetent” and “atrocious” and says that it’s generous to call his false claims “misstatements.’” Coburn suggests that “the best way to put this behind us is for you to resign.” Did I mention that he is a rock-solid Republican?

At the end of the day, what has doomed Alberto Gonzales will keep him hanging on long after it’s clear he should go. He serves at the pleasure of the president, and the president’s pleasure is his only concern. It’s hard to imagine things getting worse for this attorney general. Yet somehow, and until the president shows him the door, he doesn’t see the situation as all that bad.