Save Gonzales? Blame Sampson
Yesterday was a day for even more apologies and finger-pointing from the Justice Department and a tactical retreat and retrenchment from the man who now (rightly or wrongly) appears destined to be portrayed as the symbol of the ever-evolving controversy surrounding the dimissal of eight U.S. Attorneys last year. And today? Today reckons to be one of the most dramatic yet in this sorry saga as D. Kyle Sampson, Alberto Gonzales' former chief of staff, testifies under oath and in public before Congress about his role in the affair.
Sampson intends to tell Congress, and the rest of us, that the decision by the White House and Justice Department to fire the prosecutors was political after all, and not based upon "job performance" the way most of us would understand the way that phrase is commonly used in the context of employment duties. Political loyalty is fully part of a federal prosecutors "job performance," Sampson argues, so that if a U.S. Attorney isn't up to snuff on partisan grounds he or she is not up to snuff professionally. It's a post hoc attempt to lump together two separate things-- whether a U.S. Attorney is politically obedient to the president who appointed him or her and whether a U.S. Attorney is professionally competent-- so as to make more palatable the odious result here. Congress shouldn't buy it and neither should you.
By arguing that the White House and Justice Department did nothing wrong, and by going before Congress and swearing to tell the truth, Sampson is anointing himself the martyr's role in this mess. Already forced to resign for coordinating the dismissals and then for failing to adequately brief his superiors about how to explain the inexplicable, Sampson is going to try to take the heat and soften the blow for his former boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose role in this episode is as befuddling as is his continued presence in office. And if by chance or design Sampson won't accept the martyr's mantle, or if he wavers in it, the Justice Department has another title and part for him to play-- fall guy.
From the Department of Justice yesterday we got a letter of apology of sorts sent to high-ranking Congressional leaders acknowledging an "apparent contradiction" between its early version of events and its current one. At the same time, reports Dan Eggen and Paul Kane of the Washington Post: "The apology was accompanied by newly disclosed internal documents that show that Sampson was the primary author of a letter that contains the faulty claim, which was signed by another Justice official. A draft of the letter was shared with officials in the White House counsel's office before it was sent, the documents show."
So Sampson is the one, if you believe his former colleages at the Justice Department, who tricked the Congress, a tottering defense which still doesn't explain why Sampson's bosses, including the Attorney General and his deputy, Paul J. McNulty, didn't perform any sort of oversight function over this delicate job. Don't you think your boss knows when you are about to get fired? Don't you think your boss plays a role in that decision? Don't you think that your boss has a responsibility to interject himself or herself into that process instead of farming the dirty deed out to a greasy subordinate? Of course. And yet none of these things occured despite the fact that the firings involved eight good men and women who had been chosen by this administration to be the symbols of federal law in their jurisdictions.
So here is my Top Five list of questions for Sampson-- feel free to offer your own in the comments section and I will try to post them later.
Question One: Don't you think the firing in the middle of a term of eight Republican-appointed federal prosecutors warranted the detailed attention and involvement of the Attorney General of the United States? Would the dismissal of U.S. Attorneys on politically delicate grounds constitute a core job function of the nation's top lawyer?
Question Two: if all U.S. Attorneys are constantly subject to a political and partisan loyalty test during theiir terms of office won't that undermine the bedrock principle that federal prosecutors are supposed to be neutral and objective when they carry out their professional responsibilities within their jurisdictions? If we do it your way, won't people simply cry "politics" each and every time a federal prosecutor undertakes an investigation or pushes for an indictment?
Question Three: What historical or legal precedent is there for an administration to fire so many federal prosecutors in mid-term for the reasons you have offered? Did Ronald Reagan's administration do it? Did Richard Nixon's administration do it? And, if not, why has this administation taken it upon itself to chart this new course?
Question Four: To what extent is the "unitary theory" of executive power implicated by these new strategies and tactics the Justice Department and White House are employing with respect to U.S. Attorneys? Why should anyone view this episode as anything different than an attempt by the White House to consolidate executive branch power with the president at the expense of the independence of federal prosecutors?
Question Five: Give us five reasons why Alberto Gonzales' conduct before, during and after this scandal erupted ought to give comfort to his political friends and foes alike that he has the courage, capability and independence to carry out his duties as Attorney General as well as his responsibilities under the Constitution.
Think I'll get any answers? Me neither.
By Andrew Cohen |
March 29, 2007; 9:00 AM ET
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