Deciphering the Rhetoric Over the Attorney Firings
I have been covering the U.S. Attorney scandal since its inception and have written hundreds of thousands of words about it. And yet today, in the wake of the newest revelations about White House involvement in the prosecutor purge, I confess I am no closer to understanding precisely what happened than I was a few years ago.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
As the New York Times put it Wednesday morning: "it is unclear who made the final decision" to fire David Iglesias, the Republican U.S. Attorney in New Mexico who was canned because he refused to act more aggressively in pursuing voting fraud cases against Democrats in that state. If it were Karl Rove who pulled the trigger, he's not saying. If it were Alberto Gonzales, he's not saying. If it were Dick Cheney, he's not saying.
Nearly four years later, after hundreds of hours of testimony and negotiations, we still don't know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Part of this is the result of a business-as-usual approach to politics inside the Beltway. Part of this is the result of a cynical and unrepentant approach to the matter by the Bush White House. Part of this is the result of timid and passive Democratic reluctance to spend time and energy on an "inside baseball" conflict when voters are looking for answers and solutions on health care, the economy and other real-life matters.
Yes, all federal prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president, which means they may be fired or dismissed for no reason at all. And, yes, White House officials field (and sometimes act upon) political complaints from their supporters. This is the gravamen of the defense that Karl Rove and other former Bush officials offer to explain why they did what they did to those Republican U.S. Attorneys.
But it's equally true that it's terrible governance to dismiss for political reasons federal prosecutors who have consistently met or surpassed professional expectations and responsibilities. It's terrible form to lie about it. And it is equally unacceptable for an attorney general in such circumstances (in this case, Gonzales) to stand mutely by and allow his subordinates to be abused. Federal prosecutors have ethical and moral obligations to seek justice and not simply to go after White House enemies. That's creepy Nixon territory and who wants to go there again?
So in the continued absence of any meaningful resolution of the matter, and without any genuine hope that we'll ever fully know the true story, I humbly and with great frustration offer merely this. Here's what some of the major players are saying now (and here is what they really mean).
Robert Luskin (Rove's attorney). What he says: There is "absolutely no evidence" the White House used inappropriate political motivations to punish federal prosecutors.
What he means: "Just go ahead and try to prosecute my guy for doing what White House operatives have done for centuries, which is to punish their enemies and reward their friends. You think the I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby trial was a mess, wait until you get a load of this."
David Iglesias (one of the fired prosecutors). What he says: "The amount of backstabbing and treachery involved is just breathtaking…"
What he means: "This firing is the best thing that ever happened to me because it virtually assures that I'll be able to write a book, stand out among my fellow former prosecutors, and end up graying in some corner office at a law firm one day."
Harriet Miers (former White House counsel). What she says: "It was clear to me that he (Rove) felt like he has a serious problem and that he wanted something done about it… He was just upset. I remember his being upset."
What she means: "Rove cut the knees out from under me for the Supreme Court nomination so why in the world would I pretend to want to defend him now?"
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. What he says: "Democrats need to stop wasting taxpayers' time and money on political investigations that are nothing more than the politics of personal destruction."
What he means: "It's perfectly fine for Republicans in the White House to engage in the politics of personal destruction by firing honest prosecutors but it's not okay for Democrats in the White House to investigate the matter."
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. What he says: "After all the delay and despite all the obfuscation, lies and spin, this basic truth can no longer be denied: Karl Rove and his cohorts at the Bush White House were the driving force behind several of these firings, which were done for improper reasons."
What he means: "This is about as far as we will go on Capitol Hill and now we are going to punt the matter back to the Justice Department and its special prosecutor, Nora Dannehy. Good luck!"
Karl Rove. What he says: The emails "show politics played no role in the Bush administration's removal of U.S. attorneys, that I never sought to influence the conduct of any prosecution, and that I played no role in deciding which U.S. attorneys were retained and which were replaced."
What he means: Up is down. Black is white. War is peace. Never let them see you sweat and thank you, Sun Tzu, for teaching me the Art of War."
Andrew Cohen is CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. CourtWatch is his new blog with analysis and commentary on breaking legal news and events. For columns on legal issues before the beginning of this blog, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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