Getting Worse for Gonzales and his Justice Department
The Attorney General of the United States is caught in a political and legal vise of logic. The harder he tries to wiggle out of it the more squeezed he becomes and the more uncomfortable we all should feel about his continued presence as the nation's top lawyer.
Even though it makes perfect sense to presume that the head of the Justice Department would have been closely involved in a decision to fire eight federal prosecutors-- how many bosses aren't closely involved in decisions to fire their most important employees?-- if Alberto R. Gonzales now concedes that he was intimately involved in the decision to fire eight U.S. Attorneys last fall he will directly contradict his early statements on the matter. He will be branded a liar (but not a fink) and his career in public service almost certainly will end despite the support he apparently still continues to have from his patron, President George W. Bush.
But if when he tries to distance himself from the scandal, as he did during a lengthy interview yesterday with NBC's wonderful Pete Williams, he comes off either as a failing, flailing leader or downright unbelievable. His dilemma is entirely of his own doing, of course, but he sounds each day more and more like Nero while the Justice Department he is supposed to lead burns down around him. On Monday, the flames were about as high as they have been since this fiasco erupted a few weeks ago.
First, Monica Goodling, a White House liaison at the Justice Department, decided that she would invoke her fifth amendment right against self-incrimination if and when she is asked to testify before Congress as part of its investigation into this mess. I don't blame her in the least. She senses a sinking ship when she sees one and whether she is a good rat or a bad rat she is rightly looking out for herself. To me, the most interesting aspect of her move Monday is not that she has decided to protect herself but that she apparently decided to do so without coordinating her strategy with the Justice Department. You reap what you sow.
In the meantime, on Thursday we await the congressional testimony of Kyle Sampson, the Attorney General's former chief of staff. Unlike Goodling, Sampson says for now that he is going to lay it all out for the legislators. We'll see how far he is willing to fall upon his sword for the good of these leaders who chucked him so quickly a few weeks ago. And that brings us to the Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, who somehow still clings to his job despite being intimately involved in the worst aspects of this controversy. Apparently it was McNulty who told Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that he was poorly served by his subordinates-- a betrayal that Goodling reasonably took as a bad sign. The common front at Justice clearly is crumbling-- the natural result of a lack of leadership.
Which brings us back to the leader of this fine group of honor-laden bureaucrats, Gonzales, who is trying gamely but lamely to convince us all that a duck is not a duck. When asked Monday by Pete Williams to explain his role in the firings. Gonzales said: "When I said on March 13th that I wasn't involved, what I meant was that I had not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not United States Attorneys should resign.... I was never focused on specific concerns about United States Attorneys as to whether or not they should be asked to resign. I was more focused on identify-- or making sure that the White House was appropriately advised of the progress of our review. And I was also concerned to ensure that the appropriate Department of Justice officials, people who knew about the performance of United States Attorneys, that they were involved in the process.... Now, of course, ultimately at the end of the process or near the end of the process, the recommendations were presented to me."
Gonzales continued: "There had been a lot of work done to review the performance of these United States Attorneys. And recommendations were presented to me that reflected the recommendations of Kyle Sampson and of others in the department. And so there was obviously a discussion with respect to that recommendation.And, of course having decided there will be changes, there was a discussion about how do we implement this change? And so that is, in essence, the context of my involvement and the substance of my comments on March 13th."
Got that? Good, because if you do you are probably the only person in America outside of the Justice Department who either understands or buys that explanation. I am actually willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe Gonzales when he says he was completely out of the loop-- at least as far as the details go. But that convinces me even more that this guy is not fit to lead the Justice Department. If you can't even muster the interest and the responsibility and the courage to help tackle the sensitive job of determining which of your loyal U.S. Attorneys ought to be dismissed (in the absence of any malfeasance on their part), you simply don't deserve the job of Attorney General.
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