The Grand Elusion

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spent nine minutes accepting, then not accepting, responsibility for the firing of eight federal prosecutors. Republican Sen. John Ensign, left, had this performance review for Gonzales:
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spent nine minutes accepting, then not accepting, responsibility for the firing of eight federal prosecutors. Republican Sen. John Ensign, left, had this performance review for Gonzales: "Things have been handled poorly up to this point." (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced the cameras for all of nine minutes yesterday, but he managed to contradict himself at least four times as he fought off calls to resign over the firing of U.S. attorneys.

"Mistakes were made," he said in fluent scandalese, but "I think it was the right decision."

"I am responsible for what happens at the Department of Justice," he posited, but "I . . . was not involved in any discussions about what was going on."

"Kyle Sampson" -- Gonzales's chief of staff -- "has resigned," he said, but "he is still at the department."

And, finally, "I believe in the independence of our U.S. attorneys," Gonzales maintained, but "all political appointees can be removed . . . for any reason."

He had the look of a hunted man in his appearance at the Justice Department. He wiggled his toes inside his shoes and shifted his feet. He spoke too loudly into the microphone. He arrived 18 minutes late, gave well-rehearsed answers and appeared intent on getting out as fast as he could, ignoring reporters' shouts of "Sir! Sir!" The child of Mexican immigrants even mentioned his rise from poverty in dismissing calls for his ouster: "I've overcome a lot of obstacles in my life to become attorney general. I am here not because I give up."

The performance did not impress Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who was on the Senate floor within half an hour. "The attorney general has said, quote, 'I will do the best I can to maintain the confidence of the American people,' " Schumer said. "Mr. Attorney General, you've already lost that confidence."

For Schumer, the Democrats' point man in the Valerie Plame investigation, the arrival of the latest imbroglio could not have been better timed. On the very day Scooter Libby was convicted last week, Schumer held a hearing into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. The White House and the Justice Department have since nurtured it into a full-blown scandal by minimizing the White House's role in firings , then releasing e-mails showing the idea was born there.

Suddenly, the administration is in potentially a bigger flap than the Libby trial ever presented: allegations of political meddling with federal prosecutors at the highest levels of the White House with the complicity of Gonzales, the man Bush dubbed "mi abogado." And Schumer could not quite suppress a smile as he took the stage in the Senate television gallery, proclaiming, "This has become as serious as it gets."

Schumer said he was unsatisfied with Gonzales's sacrifice of his chief of staff. "Kyle Sampson will not become the next Scooter Libby, the next fall guy." Echoing a phrase used in the Libby trial, the senator continued: "The cloud over the Justice Department is getting darker and darker."

Before the day was out, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) and other Democrats joined Schumer's call for Gonzales's head. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), giving the news conference with Schumer, was not so bloodthirsty. "I'm more reserved, in general, than my colleague over here is," she said of Schumer, who wore a tie featuring pigs, eggs and turtles.

"Reserved" was not the picture that came to mind on the other side of the Capitol, where House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers called his own news conference to hand out copies of the e-mails the administration had just given him.

"The documents: Ta-da!" Conyers said, waving a sheaf in the air. The event was hastily prepared (aides didn't have a congressional seal, so they improvised by pasting a paper one to the lectern), and Conyers confessed that "we haven't even read all the documents we're releasing yet."

Reporters were happy to help. They besieged a woman carrying a box labeled "Xerox," elbowing one another to grab still-warm bundles of e-mails. It didn't take much searching of them to find evidence of the political nature of the firings and the White House's role.

"WH leg, political, and communications have signed off," deputy White House counsel William Kelley wrote to Sampson and then-White House counsel Harriet Miers in December 2006. Other e-mails, from Sampson, had him "waiting for a green light from the White House" and asking Miers and Kelley to circulate the firing plan to Karl Rove's "shop."

"This is incredible," judged Conyers as he read a few passages to reporters. The chairman seemed torn between gravitas ("we are not trying to create a sideshow") and giddiness ("I don't want this to be my last press conference on the subject").

For Gonzales, the bad news conferences were only beginning. Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), the man in charge of Senate Republicans' 2008 campaigns, went before the cameras with tough words for the attorney general. "I want to see if he's willing to make the changes that are necessary at the Department of Justice because things have been handled poorly up to this point," he warned.

Even. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the administration's most faithful legislator, said "the appearances are troubling" for Gonzales. "I'm concerned," Cornyn said with Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) at his side. "This has not been handled well." The best Cornyn could offer Gonzales: "In Texas, we believe in having a fair trial and then we have the hanging."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company