McNulty Gets Knife in the Back

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; 3:16 PM

The orders from the White House to any number of embattled senior administration officials appear to be the same: Hunker down, admit nothing, offer no appearance of panic and whatever you do, don't resign.

The penalty for violating those orders came more clearly into focus this morning. Just hours after Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty announced his resignation, his boss publicly stabbed him in the back.

McNulty, widely considered to have played only a supporting role in the controversial firings of U.S. attorneys last year, did his bosses the kindness yesterday of citing "financial pressures" as his reason for abruptly ending his long career in public service in the midst of a scandal.

But Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wasted no time in planting the knife. Although Gonzales has previously been vague to the point of cluelessness about the genesis of the firings, suddenly this morning the ambiguity was gone.

"The deputy attorney general has unique position at the Department of Justice. Most of the operational authority and decisions are made by the deputy attorney general. He is the chief operating officer," Gonzales said in a question-and-answer session at the National Press Club.

Gonzales acknowledged that Kyle Sampson -- a young political operative who was then his chief of staff -- had technically provided him with the list of who should be fired. But, Gonzales said: "The one person I would care about would be the views of the deputy attorney general because the deputy attorney general is the direct supervisor of the United States attorneys. And in this particular case, Mr. McNulty was a former colleague of all of these United States attorneys and so he would probably know better than anyone else about the performance and qualifications of our United States attorney community.

"And so at the end of the day, my understanding was that Mr. Sampson's recommendations reflected a consensus view of the senior leadership of the department -- in particular the deputy attorney general. And the day of Mr. Sampson's testimony [before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 29] . . . I went back to the deputy attorney general and I asked, 'Paul, do you still stand behind the recommendations?' and he said 'Yes' and so -- for me that is the most important -- his views would be the most important."

Later, Gonzales added: "At the end of the day, the recommendation reflected the views of the deputy attorney general. He signed off on the names and he would know better than anyone else. . . . The deputy attorney general would know best about the qualifications and experiences of the United States attorney community, and he signed off on the names."

Why Did He Resign?

McNulty's citing of "financial realities" brought on by his "college-age children and two decades of public service" was a classic Washington white lie, of course. The real reason for his resignation? Probably a combination of some or all of the following:

* He realized he had dishonored himself and the department;

* He realized there was no way he could personally be effective any longer;

* He realized the entire current leadership of the department was no longer effective;

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