Give Attorney General Alberto Gonzales credit. To a far greater extent than many in Washington have even now come to recognize, he acknowledged in an opening statement prepared for his appearance today before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the scandal swirling around him involves a lot more than the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys.
Of course, the acknowledgment came in the form of another self-serving denial of any wrongdoing by the embattled Attorney General. "I know that I did not, and would not, ask for a resignation of any individual in order to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain," Gonzales claimed. "I also have no basis to believe that anyone involved in this process sought the removal of a U.S. attorney for an improper reason."
But that reference to concerns about whether decisions were being made at the Department of Justice for "partisan political gain" goes to the very heart of what the U.S. Attorneys scandal is all about. And there can be little question that, while it surely was not his intent, Gonzales in the course of his torturously vague testimony confirmed the worst fears about the politicization of decisions made by his department regarding who should serve as federal prosecutors and what they should be prosecuting.
The Attorney General prepared for weeks in hopes that his appearance before the Judiciary Committee would restore at least a measure of confidence in his management of the Department of Justice. But he did not succeed. Little in his testimony appeared to inspire confidence among Democratic or Republican senators -- even a Gonzales ally, Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn today told the Attorney General that his handling of issues raised by the current controversy was "deplorable" -- and it should not inspire confidence among Americans who have good reason to suspect that the Bush administration used federal prosecutors to advance electoral and policy agendas.
While Gonzales told the Senate he had "never sought to mislead" the Congress and the American people, he essentially admitted that he had failed to provide full or accurate information to the Congress and the American people. "To be sure," he said, "I should have been more precise in discussing this matter."
The ranking Republican on the committee, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, compared the "never sought to mislead" and "should have been more precise" lines and then suggested that the Attorney General was continuing a pattern of "not being candid."
Specter hit the nail on the head. After all those weeks of preparation, Gonzales came before the Senate with a repertoire of vague and self-serving statements in which the touchstones were "I have no recollection...," "I have no memory..," "I don't recall...," "I can't say..." and "I'll have to get back to you..."
It was a pathetic performance, especially when Gonzales struggled to respond to the detailing by New York Democrat Chuck Schumer of instances where his testimony today conflicted both with statements by his top aides and with the record of the Attorney General's own actions.
And, yet, today's testimony was revealing -- at times, devastatingly so.
While Gonzales attempted in his initial statement before the committee to distance himself from the politicized process that led to the firing of the eight U.S. Attorneys, Specter quickly established that the Attorney General's description of his "limited" role in the firing process was "significantly if not totally at variance with the facts."
Under questioning from Specter, Gonzales admitted: "I had knowledge that there was a process going on."
Specter asked: "Were you involved in it?"
Gonzales finally admitted, "I was involved in it."
What was this process in which Gonzales involved himself? By all appearances, an effort to pressure U.S. Attorneys to do respond to the election-season demands of the Bush White House and Republican politicos.
Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, asked about why New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was targeted for removal from office. "I heard concerns raised by Mr. [Karl] Rove," acknowledged the Attorney General, referring to the White House political czar who was monitoring with increasing concern the progress of Republican campaigns in the fall of 2006 in New Mexico and elsewhere.
Who else? "Senator Domenici," replied Gonzales, referring to the New Mexico Republican senator who has been accused of pressuring Iglesias to bring prosecutions against Democrats in that state prior to the 2006 election.
And who else? "The president."
Gonzales confirmed that he had discussed pressuring U.S. Attorneys to bring so-called "voter fraud" cases -- despite the fact that there was little evidence of a problem -- with President Bush on October 11, 2006, barely three weeks before voters would go to the polls to decide congressional and state elections.
If one statement is remembered from the hearing today, it ought to be Gonzales' response to an inquiry about whether he felt pressure to politicize decisions about U.S. Attorneys and their prosecutions: "I now understand that there was a conversation between myself and the president."
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