Alberto Gonzales Digs Himself a Deeper Hole

The New Republic, May 14, 2007

I want to ask how the U.S. attorney termination list came to be, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at the outset of Thursday’s oversight hearing. ‘Who suggested putting most of these U.S. attorneys on the list and why?’

It’s a perfectly reasonable question—one you would think that Gonzales, after months of being beaten about the face and neck with this scandal, would be prepared to answer. But Gonzales couldn’t—or wouldn’t—answer it. He bobbed and weaved. He took responsibility for the process. He told the committee that he had “expected” his aide, D. Kyle Sampson, to consult with the department’s senior leadership. He said he didn’t oversee the process closely and, since the scandal broke, hasn’t inquired about the specifics from the subordinates who compiled the recommendations because he didn’t want to compromise the integrity of pending investigations into the matter. He said he ‘understood’ the list ‘to be the consensus recommendation of the senior leadership of the department.’ Yet, when it came down to naming names, he couldn’t tell Conyers who exactly was responsible for the U.S. attorneys’ ending up on that list.

And so began another embarrassing appearance by this hopelessly compromised man, who refuses to resign and is apparently willing to mire the entire Justice Department in scandal for the duration of the Bush administration in order to remain at its helm. Over the course of the day, Gonzales displayed his now notorious powers of memory (or lack thereof). Facts were not facts but merely his “recollection.” Instead of denying things, he said he had no “specific recollection” of them happening. He couldn’t even state flatly that improper partisan considerations had played no role in the firings. “I know that’s not the reason why I accepted the recommendations,” he said in response to one question. “And I’m not aware, based upon my review of the documents, based upon the testimony that I have seen … that people were motivated and coming forward with recommendations for improper, for partisan political reasons.” Somehow, he seems to expect that people will find this reassuring.

Gonzales’s appearance was particularly dispiriting—and non-credible—because it followed only a week after the country received a lesson in what testimony by the attorney general should look like. This testimony came, unfortunately, from a man who is not the attorney general and who never will be under President Bush, but who served as deputy attorney general earlier in the administration. James Comey, to be fair to Gonzales, had an easier job before the committee than did his former boss; nobody’s trying to get his scalp or trip him up, after all. But even taking that into account, the difference between the two men’s appearances was dramatic. Comey answered questions straight. He didn’t hedge his answers with references to his memory. He didn’t slough off accountability onto underlings—while simultaneously declaring that he takes responsibility for this fiasco. And, perhaps most importantly, he didn’t talk as though everything that lies within the president’s raw power is proper to do.

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