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Taking One for the Team, When He Could Remember

By Dana Milbank
Friday, March 30, 2007

Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was in his fourth hour testifying yesterday about the firing of federal prosecutors when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy cut him off.

"We've just received word that the Republicans have objected, under the Senate rules, to this meeting continuing," Leahy (D-Vt.) announced before angrily bringing down the gavel.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in the middle of questioning Sampson, was puzzled. "Does it apply to a Republican, too?" he inquired.

It turned out that nobody had really objected -- Republicans blamed a procedural mistake in their cloakroom for the false alarm -- and order in the committee was restored. But not before Democrats turned the gaffe into a PR bonanza.

"The Republicans are the ones that don't want to have the hearing," Leahy inveighed. "What bothers me is if nobody has anything to hide, why not have these hearings, why not have them in the open?" In the senatorial equivalent of the "we shall fight on the beaches" speech, he continued: "We will have the hearings if we have to have them in the evenings or on weekends or during recess!"

In the confusion, Sampson's lawyer Brad Berenson noticed that the witness chair was empty. "Where's Kyle?" he asked reporters.

Republicans had, inadvertently, produced a fitting sequel to the prosecutor imbroglio. The Bush administration's mishandling of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and the misinformation its Justice Department sent Congress turned an embarrassing story into a full scandal. Yesterday, the Senate Republicans' procedural mishap turned a modestly embarrassing hearing into a spectacle.

That's too bad for the GOP, because Sampson seemed content to fall on his sword rather than naming names when he was questioned about the prosecutor mess. Only the red felt on the witness table concealed the blood. "I could have and should have helped to prevent this," Sampson offered. "I let the attorney general and the department down. . . . I failed to organize a more effective response. . . . It was a failure on my part. . . . I will hold myself responsible. . . . I wish we could do it all over again."

The witness fessed up to an expanding list of sins. He admitted that the Justice Department was trying to circumvent the Senate confirmation process. He confessed that he proposed firing Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor in the Valerie Plame leak case. "I regretted it," he explained. "I knew that it was the wrong thing to do."

But the self-sacrificing witness still managed -- inadvertently, perhaps -- to implicate Gonzales and Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove. Sampson, who resigned from the Justice Department earlier this month, admitted that Gonzales "had received a complaint from Karl Rove about U.S. attorneys in three jurisdictions." Asked about the accuracy of Gonzales's claim of non-involvement, Sampson confessed: "I don't think it's entirely accurate what he said."

Walking down the center aisle with no fewer than six lawyers, some carrying heavy briefcases, the witness made a grand entrance. His hair was trim and gelled, his frameless octagonal glasses polished clean. Described in news accounts as a young version of Rove, Sampson was indeed a bit pudgy and jowly, and he spoke in a nerdy voice that sounded strange coming from a man whose combative e-mails had been released by the Justice Department in recent weeks. His tie was a bright yellow -- the same color chosen by Sen. Chuck Schumer, who moved quickly to take control of the proceedings.

The New York Democrat warned there would be "lengthy" questioning, and he made good on his threat. Seven hours into the hearing, Schumer -- ignoring notes from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) pleading with him to cease and desist -- announced: "We're on Round Four here."

"The purpose is, as they said in 'Dragnet,' just the facts, ma'am," Schumer advised the witness. Sampson, however, was a little fuzzy.

"I can't pretend to know or remember every fact that may be of relevance," he warned at the start -- and he wasn't kidding. He used the phrase "I don't remember" a memorable 122 times.

It may have been a tactical effort to limit his risk of perjury, but Sampson displayed the recall of a man who recently fell off a ladder.

"Since the 2004 election, did you speak with the president about replacing U.S. attorneys?" Leahy asked.

"I don't ever remember speaking to the president after the 2004 election," he said. (He later remembered that he had.) "Did you have further communications with the White House regarding the plan to regard and replace several U.S. attorneys?"

"I don't remember specifically."

"I wish you did remember," Leahy finally said. "I would hope that you would search your memory as we go along."

Sampson searched. He came up empty.

After Schumer elicited three consecutive I-don't-remembers, John Cornyn (R-Tex.) objected to the questioning style.

Leahy overruled him. "We're trying to find what in heaven's name he does remember," the chairman said.

Schumer persisted, eventually asking the witness a question about Rove's role. "I don't remember," Sampson said. "I don't remember anything like that. I don't think so. I don't remember. I don't remember."

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