This column was written by Byron York.
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?
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.
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."
Gonzales explained that, after the Bogden firing, he went back to look at documents relating to the matter. "It appears that there were concerns about the level of energy, generally, in a fast-growing district," Gonzales explained, "concerns about his commitment to pursuing obscenity… and just generally getting a sense of new energy in that office." But after the controversy over the firing blew up, Gonzales continued, he wondered whether getting rid of Bogden had been the right thing to do. So he asked a top staffer whether he should stand behind the decision. "I went to the deputy attorney general," Gonzales said, "and I asked him, 'OK, do we stand behind these decisions?'" The deputy attorney general said yes, so Gonzales stood by his decision. In the end, Gonzales explained, even though he did not know why he fired Bogden, "I believe it was still the right decision."
What about Margaret Chiara, the U.S. attorney fired in Michigan, Brownback asked. "Quite candidly, senator…I don't recall the reason why that I accepted the decision on December 7," Gonzales said. "But I've since learned that it was a question of similar kinds of issues: poor management issues, loss of confidence by career individuals."
How about John McKay, the fired U.S. attorney in Washington state? "When I accepted the recommendation on December 7, generally I recall there being serious concerns about his judgment," Gonzales testified. "That's what I recall when I accepted the recommendations. And what I've since learned, of course, is that it related to an information-sharing project. … He was doing a good job with respect to that. It's the way he pursued it, in exercising poor judgment."
Gonzales was even less clear a little later when he was asked about a U.S. attorney who had been on the firing list but was later spared. Why? Gonzales didn't know. "This was a process that was ongoing that I did not have transparency into," he said.
It's safe to say that no senator, Republican or Democrat, was terribly moved by Gonzales' explanations. Why was he so removed from decision making? Why didn't he know what was going on? When it came his turn, Sen. Graham cut to the essence of the story. "Is it fair to say," Graham asked, "that when you made your final decision, it was based on trust of your senior team more than it was knowledge?"
"I think that's a fair assessment," Gonzales answered.
And so it went. At times, Gonzales seemed not only removed from the decision-making process in the U.S. Attorneys matter but also removed from his daily life as attorney general. For example, Leahy brought up an October 2006 meeting at the White House in which President Bush told Gonzales about concerns that some allegations of voter fraud weren't being pursued. What did Gonzales remember about that? "There was a meeting in October, with the president, in which the president, as I understand it, relayed to me … concerns about pursuing election fraud," Gonzales answered. At that, a number of observers scratched their heads. As I understand it? Gonzales spoke as if he hadn't been there, but someone had told him about it.
The attorney general faced even more trouble when Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions questioned him about his statement at a March 13 news conference that he "never saw documents" about the firings and "never had a discussion about where things stood." Documents released later showed that Gonzales did attend at least one meeting, on November 27, 2006, at which the U.S. attorneys matter was discussed, and he likely had greater knowledge of the matter than he told the press in March.
Sessions, a former U.S. attorney himself, wanted to know more. "Senator, I have searched my memory," Gonzales said. "I have no recollection of the meeting. My schedule shows a meeting for 9:00 on November 27th, but I have no recollection of that meeting."
"This was not that long ago," Sessions said. "This was in November of last year?"
"According to my calendar, November 27."
"And [former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson] seemed to indicate that he really — he understood it was a momentous decision," Sessions continued, "that there would probably be political backlash. He even performed some outline about how that should be managed. And you don't recall any of that?"
"Well, I guess I'm concerned about your recollection, really, because it's not that long ago," Sessions said. "It was an important issue. And that's troubling to me, I've got to tell you."
By that time, Gonzales could see that he wasn't going to get a break, certainly not from his own party. And in the end, it was a senator no one had expected, Republican Tom Coburn, who delivered the most devastating blow. The Justice Department had described the U.S. Attorneys firings as performance-related, Coburn said to Gonzales. "Why should you not be judged by the same standards by which you judged these dismissed U.S. attorneys?"
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."
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' 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.
By Byron York
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online