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No Smoking Gun From Goodling

Former Justice Department White House liaison Monica Goodling testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 23, 2007, before the House Judiciary Committee. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)
AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson
This column was written by Byron York.

Talk about a letdown. For weeks now, we've been hearing about Monica Goodling, the former top Justice Department official who took the Fifth Amendment rather than testify before Congress about the U.S. Attorneys mess. Even though it seemed clear why Goodling took the Fifth — she feared she was walking into a trap in which her testimony would be compared to that of a former boss, the recently-resigned Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, and she might be accused of perjury — Goodling's refusal to talk made her all the more desirable to congressional Democrats determined to get to the bottom of the U.S. Attorneys matter. Surely her testimony would be explosive. She's just got to testify.

So with high hopes, the House Judiciary Committee took a vote and decided to grant immunity. And on Wednesday, Goodling showed up in Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building, ready to tell what she knew.

The only problem was, what she knew, or at least what she testified, didn't significantly advance our understanding of why the U.S Attorneys were fired. By the end of the day, Democrats, led by the unfailingly polite but somewhat frustrated chairman Rep. John Conyers, were no closer to a Grand Unified Theory of the U.S. Attorneys matter than they were before.

Over The Line

There were three headlines from Goodling's appearance. The first was that she admitted that she "stepped over the line" by considering partisan affiliation when hiring some career Justice Department employees. "I believe I crossed the lines," Goodling testified. "But I didn't mean to."

The second headline was Goodling's description of a meeting with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, shortly before she left the Justice Department in March, in which Gonzales seemed to suggest they get their stories straight before they were questioned further about the U.S. Attorneys matter.

"He laid out a little bit of it, and then he asked me if he thought — if I had any reaction to his iteration," Goodling testified. "And I remember thinking at that point that this was something that we were all going to have to talk about, and I didn't know that it was — I just — I didn't know that it was maybe appropriate for us to talk about that at that point, and so I just didn't. As far as I can remember, I just didn't respond."

"Do you think, Ms. Goodling, the attorney general was trying to shape your recollection?" asked Alabama Democratic Rep. Artur Davis.

"No," said Goodling. "I think he was just asking if I had any different — "

"But it made you uncomfortable," interrupted Davis.

"I just did not know if it was a conversation that we should be having…"

It was damaging testimony, and it will surely be the source of questions for Gonzales in his future appearances before Congress. (On the other hand, it was no more damaging than presidential secretary Betty Currie's 1998 account of Bill Clinton practicing his story with her in the Lewinsky affair, and many of these same Democrats on this same committee weren't terribly upset about that.)

The third headline was that Goodling made clear that McNulty had offered "incomplete or inaccurate" testimony to Congress on the U.S. attorneys matter. Goodling offered her version of events with one point in mind: Don't blame me. She told the committee that she had fully briefed McNulty, and any problems with his testimony were his alone.

Those were significant issues. But they weren't enough to capture the attention of some committee Democrats, for whom there were more important questions to consider. Questions like: Where did Monica go to law school?

The short answer is Regent University Law School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. The longer answer was provided by newly-elected Tennessee Democratic Rep. Stephen Cohen. Cohen had apparently read Wednesday morning's edition of the Los Angeles Times, which described Regent this way:

Regent University claims 150 past and present members of the Bush administration among its alumni. Accredited by the American Bar Assn., the law school boasts of a "distinctive" Christian-based mission "to bring to bear the will of our Creator, Almighty God, upon legal education and the legal profession," according to its Web site.

A quick student of the Times, Cohen asked Goodling, "The mission of the law school you attended, Regent, is to bring to bear upon legal education and the legal profession the will of almighty God, our creator. What is the will of almighty God, our creator, on the legal profession?"

Goodling seemed perplexed. "I'm not sure that I could define that question for you," she said.