The Politics of Distraction

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, March 16, 2007; 2:50 PM

As far as the White House public-relations machine is concerned, here is all you need to know about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year: The Justice Department made some mistakes in how it communicated that those prosecutors were let go for appropriate reasons. And, oh yes, there is no evidence that White House political guru Karl Rove ever advocated the firing of all 93 U.S. attorneys previously appointed by President Bush.

But from the very beginning of this scandal, the central question has been and remains: Was there a plot hatched in the White House to purge prosecutors who were seen as demonstrating insufficient partisanship in their criminal investigations?

Everything else is deception or distraction.

The latest development in the case is an e-mail chain showing that Rove and Alberto Gonzales (then White House counsel, soon to become attorney general) were both mulling the idea of replacing U.S. attorneys as early as the first month of Bush's second term.

According to the e-mails, Rove stopped by the White House counsel's office in early January 2005 to find out whether it was Gonzales's plan to keep or replace all or some of the U.S. attorneys that Bush had appointed in his first term.

And it just so happened that Kyle Sampson, soon to become the attorney general's chief of staff, had discussed that very issue with Gonzales a few weeks earlier. "As an operational matter," Sampson wrote in a e-mail, "we would like to replace 15-20 percent of the current U.S. Attorneys -- the underperforming ones. . . . The vast majority of U.S. Attorneys, 80-85 percent I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc., etc."

The response from White House spokesmen to this latest disclosure is that there is no conflict with their earlier story, which was that Rove opposed the firing of all 93 attorneys -- an idea they earlier credited to Harriet Miers, who succeeded Gonzales as White House counsel.

But as I first wrote in Tuesday's column, the proposed housecleaning of all 93 U.S. attorneys is a red herring. Not only would firing all of them have been a political and logistical nightmare, but it would have been foolish from Rove's point of view. After all, the vast majority were apparently behaving exactly as he wanted -- as "loyal Bushies."

The key question, that the White House continues to duck: Did Rove approve of -- or perhps even conceive of -- the idea of firing select attorneys? And if so, on what grounds? The latest e-mails certainly indicate that he was involved very early on.

Right now, Washington is engaged in feverish speculation about whether Gonzales is in his last days, or even moments, as attorney general. But as I wrote in my Wednesday column, Gonzales is a diversion.

The mainstream media was slow to get hot on the trail of this story. As Paul McLeary writes for CJR Daily, the liberal blog Talking Points Memo's dogged coverage is what kept the story alive.

But now, the mainstream media is in danger of getting distracted by the White House razzle dazzle -- and, quite possibly, by the spectacle of Bush throwing Gonzales, one of his oldest friends, overboard.

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