The Affirmative Action AG
Judging by his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, there are three questions about the U.S. attorneys mess that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wants answered: What did I know? When did I know it? And why did I fire those U.S. attorneys?Mr. Gonzales had "weeks of preparation" before taking his seat before the committee, yet he couldn't answer even simplest questions regarding decisions he himself had allegedly made put to him by senators of his own party.
As the day dragged on, it became clear — painfully clear to anyone who supports Gonzales — that the attorney general didn’t know the answers. Much of the time, he explained, he didn’t really know much at all — he was just doing what his senior staff recommended he do.
Gonzales began the day with an apology. “Those eight attorneys deserved better,” he said in an opening statement. “They deserved better from me and from the Department of Justice which they served selflessly for many years.” Gonzales also took the blame for his own statements about the case that were, in the words of Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, “at variance with the facts.” “My misstatements were my mistakes — no one else’s,” Gonzales told the committee. “ I accept complete and full responsibility.”
It wasn’t a terribly auspicious beginning, and it’s fair to say that things went downhill from there, despite Gonzales’ weeks of preparation. And it did not take long for it to become clear that Gonzales’ big problem was not with committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy and his fellow Democrats, who brought righteous indignation and little else to the hearing, but with Republicans, who brought simple, straightforward questions — questions Gonzales often failed to answer.
Under examination from Republican Sens. Sam Brownback, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Sessions, Tom Coburn and others, Gonzales maintained, in essence, that he did not know why he fired at least some of the eight dismissed U.S. attorneys. While Gonzales was able to give a reason for each firing, it appeared that in a number of cases, he had reconstructed the reason after the fact; he didn’t know why he fired the U.S. attorneys at the time, other than the dismissals were recommended by senior Justice Department staff.Alberto Gonzales is the Attorney General of the United States. He is responsible for managing the U.S. Department of Justice. He reports directly to the President of the United States, who appointed him. Yet he could not recall why he made critical decisions - or why he'd been advised by others to make them - or recall important meetings just five months ago. The impression Mr. Gonzales - who, again, had been preparing for this cross-examination for weeks - left with the senators and observers was of a man obviously out of his depth, floundering in a job he hasn't the intellectual capacity to handle. A man clearly taking orders ("advice") from his senior staff (who are actually running the department) while he appears as a figurehead at press conferences. Alone, without anyone to feed him responses, he flails about like a drowning man looking desperately for a lifejacket. It was a sad spectacle that revealed volumes about the Bush administration and those manning critical positions at the President's appointment.
Brownback began his questioning in a gentle, collegial way. “I’d like to get just a series of facts and the factual information out on the table on why this list of U.S. attorneys out of the 93 were terminated,” Brownback said. He then methodically went down the names of the eight U.S. attorneys who had been fired, starting with Daniel Bogden, the U.S. attorney in Nevada sacked in the group firing of last December 7.
“Senator, this is probably that one that to me, in hindsight, was the closest call,” Gonzales began. “I do not recall what I knew about Mr. Bogden on December 7th. That’s not to say that I wasn’t given a reason; I just don’t recall the reason. I didn’t have an independent basis or recollection of knowing about Mr. Bogden’s performance.”
The saddest aspect of the whole debacle is that Mr. Gonzales probably doesn't understand why he is being pilloried by even members of the president's party.
Gonzales explained that he had admitted his mistakes and had taken responsibility for them. “Well, I believe there are consequences to a mistake,” Coburn replied. “And I would just say, Mr. Attorney General, it’s my considered opinion that the exact same standards should be applied to you in how this was handled. And it was handled incompetently. The communication was atrocious. It was inconsistent. It’s generous to say that there were misstatements. That’s a generous statement. And I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered. And I believe that the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.”Mr. Gonzales isn't the only person in the Bush administration who is out of his depth. The problem begins in the Oval Office and gets worse as it goes down from there.
And that was that. After the hearing ended, the White House went into damage control mode, issuing a statement that President Bush was “pleased” with Gonzales’s performance and has “full confidence” in the attorney general. Perhaps that’s true. But things can change. If Gonzales has lost the support of Sam Brownback and Jeff Sessions and Lindsey Graham and Tom Coburn and other Republicans on the committee, he might soon lose his support at the White House, too.
Conservatives should watch Gonzales' testimony and shudder. After all, without their near rebellion, Harriet Miers would be sitting on the Supreme Court right now.