Slate: Alberto Gonzales Testimony

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Emily Bazelon
Slate Senior Editor
Thursday, April 19, 2007; 3:00 PM

Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon was online Thursday, April 19 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss Thursday's testimony by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the resulting wiggles in Slate's resignation odds Gonzo-Meter.

Alberto Gonzales Deathwatch

The transcript follows.

Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate, editing the magazine's health and law columns (Medical Examiner and Jurisprudence) and writing about law and family. Before joining Slate, she worked as an editor and writer at Legal Affairs magazine and as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

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Emily Bazelon: Hi everyone. I've been listening to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' testimony today, as I know some of you have, and I'm looking forward to discussing it with you. Send along all those good questions.

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Kalamazoo, Mich.: A general question: I'm struck by how completely aloof the entire exercise is -- why do senators not press home their questions and demand an answer? Are they just so exasperated that his answers are so glaringly without any substance or information? Is there any place for broaching the charge of contempt of Congress because of Gonzales' nonresponses?

Emily Bazelon: There are two problems here. The first is that each senator insists on having his or own time for questions. That makes detailed follow-ups difficult. The second problem is that of dealing with any witness who stalemates. When you get careful nonanswer after nonanswer, it's hard to score a "gotcha."

The senators are trying to show that Gonzales made false statements or misstatements the last time he testified. Prosecuting seems unlikely to me, though.

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Washington: Hello. Reports often note that Gonzales is fighting for his job -- but as a practical matter, how would a displeased Congress remove him? Do they all march single file to the White House and demand his resignation? Are flaming torches involved?

Emily Bazelon: You're right -- Congress can't remove him. He serves in the executive branch, which means that he gets to stay unless President Bush decides otherwise, or he himself decides to resign. All the senators can do is try to up the political pressure.

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Philadelphia: I find it interesting that this is the topic that Congress chose to focus on and blow up into a major scandal -- one that involves their own power, as opposed to the question of whether the FBI abused its authority in national security letters.

Emily Bazelon: Yes, and you could argue that the FBI abuses matter just as much if not more than the US attorney firings. But they lack the appeal of great political theater and telegenic spokesmen, which is what the US attorneys have proved themselves to be.

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New Orleans: Did we learn anything new? If not, does the shoe only drop if some other disclosures of impropriety occur? Regardless, it does not appear that Gonzales is in a strong position to lead the Justice Department -- what does his sticking around mean for the department through the next two years?

Emily Bazelon: I learned two new things, so far. The first is that Gonzales said that the idea of firing some US attorneys was his. His words "I believe it was my plan." That's the first time I remember him saying that.

The second thing, I think, is that the reasons behind David Iglesias' firing look more fishy, not less. Gonzales acknowledged talking to Sen. Pete Domenici and to President Bush about the voter fraud investigation that preceded Iglesias's firing. He claimed there was nothing "improper" about the firing, and made vague references to Iglesias's lack of aggressiveness. But I haven't heard him offer anything of real substance to counter the allegation that the voter fraud investigation was the real rationale. Since this accusation involves both the core of prosecutorial discretion AND the franchise, all of this should matter.

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San Diego: "This was a process ongoing that I did not have transparency into." Do they actually teach that outstanding level of doublespeak in law school, or did Mr. Gonzales learn it from some other source? Are there textbooks? Private tutoring from some secret society of high school English teachers gone bad? Maybe a chip in his brain with some perverse adaptation of the Eliza artificial intelligence program tweaked to sidestep and obfuscate regardless of the input?

Emily Bazelon: The convoluted constructions are wonderful, aren't they? And you've pointed to my favorite one. I also liked, in response to Sen. Arlen Specter's questions about Gonzales' preparation for an earlier press conference: "I said I prepare. I didn't say I was prepared."

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Washington: I would expect more discussion about the supposed "lost" e-mails of Karl Rove, and whether Mr. Gonzales felt this was in any way his concern, at least because of the deliberate violation of official-document retention laws by Mr. Rove. To nearly all questions, Mr. Gonzales appears to answer "I don't know, but it wasn't that." Where can the American public go for law enforcement if its chief enforcement officer is unwilling to serve their interests, nor apply the law to himself or his friends?

Emily Bazelon: I'm surprised the senators aren't pressing this one, too. We had it on the list of questions we put up on Slate today. I suppose in some ways it's a question more for White House Counsel Fred Fielding, but it does point to Gonzales' odd dual role: He is helping to make calls about what documents to release even as he is trying to save his own job.

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Herndon, Va.: How many times has the Attorney General answered "I don't recall today"? My own count is 74.

Emily Bazelon: Ha! He's probably said it a dozen more times since you wrote in.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: Thanks for this topic at this time. I have been puzzled by the developments in this Department of Justice case and the Attorney General. I keep thinking, were I the AG, my two highest priorities would be selecting/evaluating U.S. Attorneys and choosing highly qualified individuals for top positions at the DOJ. Alberto Gonzales seemed totally disinterested and disengaged. What does he do when he is not prepping for hearings?

Emily Bazelon: Marty Lederman, a law prof at Georgetown, wrote a great post earlier this week on the blog Balkinization in which he pointed out that Gonzales may be telling the truth about how not clued in he was--and that in itself is disturbing. Lederman's point is that Gonzales was disengaged because the directives about these firings were coming from the White House, Sampson was the point man for DoJ, and as attorney general he would sign off on whatever they came up with. It's a pretty plausible theory.

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Petaluma, Calif.: Gonzales says he wouldn't and didn't fire U.S. Attorneys for political reasons, or at least not to interfere with their prosecution of cases. Yet he agrees that he personally did fire them, and he seems to be saying he isn't sure why there were fired exactly. Did anyone confront him on this?

Emily Bazelon: The Republican senators gave Gonzales a chance to state his rationales for the relatively "easy" cases--the firings in which there's a paper trail backing up his claims that there are problems. To explain some of the harder firings--John McKay in the state of Washington, Carol Lam in California--Gonzales is going after those prosecutors, criticizing them far more directly than Kyle Sampson, his former chief of staff, did in his testimony a few weeks ago. That's interesting. And as I've mentioned, I don't think he's done more than offer the vaguest assertions about why David Iglesias was dismissed.

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Chicago: Gonzales is using the Scooter Libby defense. He can't recall anything about the November 2006 meeting where the firing of the attorneys was discussed because that was a really busy week for him -- including a trip to Mexico, and one of the days of that week was National Meth Awareness Day. I wonder if he remembers anything about Meth Awareness Day. Maybe if "Awareness" is in the title of a meeting it would stick in his memory better? If he's actually telling the truth about this, shouldn't he be fired for gross incompetence?

Emily Bazelon: yes these "I don't recall" answers by public officials are awfully maddening. This Nov. 27, 2006 meeting Gonzales can't recall isn't exactly ancient history. In all fairness, though, I sometimes feel like I can't remember things that happened at work a few weeks ago, so I have some sympathy for the "my brain is a sieve" defense. Though one would think that after weeks of reviewing documents full time, one's memory would be refreshed.

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Anonymous: In the Times today, David C. Iglesias suggested that Gonzales be asked the following question. Was it or a similar one asked?

Since 1981 there have been several hundred United States attorneys appointed the president. According to the Congressional Research Service, before the recent firings, only a handful were dismissed or resigned under questionable circumstances. In light of this history, was it prudent to ask seven United States attorneys in December to resign where there have never been allegations of misconduct?

Emily Bazelon: Those stats are correct: The "group purge" nature of this firing, for reasons unrelated to misconduct and midterm, is unprecedented. Was it prudent? If they'd had a review process with clear, consistent, and preset criteria, and they'd followed it to weed out the slackers, I don't think we'd be seeing an outcry. It's the murky and apparently subjective and political nature of the dismissals that have caused Gonzales trouble. That and DoJ's original decision to call them "performance related," which made the fired US attorneys--who, remember, were previously loyal Republicans--feel like they had to defend their reputations.

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Washington: Does it need to be called the Alberto Gonzales Deathwatch? Are you hoping he dies or gets killed? I'm no fan of the man or anyone in the administration, but I think equating his firing to his death is pretty tacky and tasteless -- particularly with all the death we've seen in the news lately. How would you like the Emily Bazelon Deathwatch? Does that look nice to you?

Emily Bazelon: Fair enough. We mean it in jest, of course, and only in reference to his job, but I take your point.

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Pikeville, Tenn.: While Alberto Gonzales as a member of the executive branch obviously serves at the pleasure of the president, isn't there a point at which the Senate Judiciary committee will use its oversight power in a way that would make his resignation/removal inevitable?

Emily Bazelon: Well that's what the Democratic senators would like to think, but it's been harder to dislodge Gonzales than I certainly expected. The administration has to decide he's too toxic, which apparently they haven't yet. I confess I find that pretty baffling. I don't see why he's worth all the negative headlines etc that he has generated over the past couple of months. But you could also argue, I suppose, that they don't gain enough by getting rid of him to make it worth their while, because the Democrats would be emboldened. I don't really buy it but that's the argument.

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Chicago: This was one of my favorite answers: "Senator, I do recall having a conversation with Mr. Rove. I now understand that there was a conversation between myself and the president..."

Emily Bazelon: Yes, another great circumlocution, if that's a word!

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Arlington, Va.: Was there anything that Gonzales or his supporters on the committee members said that would be a positive for him in terms of any perception that he should remain in his position? In other words, did he help himself at all?

Emily Bazelon: Well, he has repeatedly said "I made mistakes" and "I take responsibility." I guess that has to help. The problem, though, is that he is apologizing only for the process and the mishandlings post-firing, rather than the rationales for the firings themselves. That's a tricky line to walk.

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Burlington, N.C.: Why do you think that Karl Rove's name has not been mentioned more in the questions that the senators are asking?

Emily Bazelon: I just got an email saying that a few minutes ago Gonzales said that the e-mails Rove sent from his Republican National Committee account are covered by executive privilege, meaning that the White House doesn't have to turn them over to Congress. To me this is all pretty amazing: You get to bypass presidential records keeping by using a political email account, and then claim privilege? Seems like the classic have cake, eat too.

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Germantown, Md.: As near as I can tell, the only one even somewhat on the Attorney General's side was Orrin Hatch. The Republican Senators were at times even more active in condemnation than the Dems. How much of this is the more general concern with the U.S. Attorney process, and how much is pique with the e-mails that indicated that the AG's office was going to game the system and "run out the clock" on the interim appointment for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arkansas's east district?

Emily Bazelon: I agree--the Republican senators, with the exception of Hatch, have gone after Gonzales. Or rather they haven't asked lots of tough questions (with the exception of Specter, who seemed to be unable to resist this morning) but they've all used words like "deplorable" about the firings and clearly distanced themselves from the attorney general. I don't think this is so much about the interim appointments allowed by the changes last year to the Patriot Act, which after all the senators voted for. I think it's because they don't want to spend their political capital on a guy who is unpopular and in danger of being wholly discredited. Not good for AG, obviously.

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Sheffield, Mass.: Emily, I saw a clip of AG Gonzales's testimony and I found it, in a word, pathetic. He seemed to be saying, in effect, "I've really screwed up, but please give me a second chance, and I promise to try to do better." Now, that line would work coming from my 11-year old to me; it's embarrassing to hear it from a Cabinet Officer to the Congress. Your thoughts? Also, on a cynical note, do you think Gonzogate will damage the exalted position of Harvard Law School in the public consciousness?

Emily Bazelon: I wouldn't worry too much about Harvard -- it's got lots of illustrious alums to fall back on! Indeed it is odd, and frustrating, to hear top public officials plead for mercy like this. On the other hand, some mistakes are possible to atone for. So maybe the problem is the mismatch between the second-chance rhetoric and the mess. The story of the U.S. attorney firings is so un-confidence inspiring that it's hard for Gonzales to inspire confidence in explaining and apologizing (in a limited way) for it.

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Millersburg, Mo.: Gonzales has acknowledged the process by which the prosecutors were fired was flawed. If a proper process had taken place, is it possible the eight would not have been fired?

Emily Bazelon: Certainly some of them might not have been fired if the process had been different. For one thing, it's strange that DoJ has internal performance evaluations that Gonzales conceded this morning he didn't read, and that didn't play a role in the decisions about the dismissals. Why evaluate if no one cares what the evaluations say? And when the people you fired earned high marks on those evaluations, what does that suggest about the reasons for their dismissals?

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Tallahassee, Fla.: You said that Congress can't get rid of Gonzales. I am pretty sure that they can impeach him, however.

Emily Bazelon: Yes, Congress can impeach "all civil officers of the United States." But only for "treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors." The last part is famously ill-defined.

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Rochester, Mich.: Emily, your response to Washington's question: "You're right -- Congress can't remove him" is inaccurate. The AG can be impeached by the House and removed after conviction by the Senate. Only one cabinet member, Secretary of War Belknap, was impeached (after he resigned), so it would be a rare event, but it is entirely within Congress's Constitutional power: "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" (Art II). Emphasis on "all civil officers." And as for whether he has committed "treason, bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors," impeachment is considered a "political question" unreviewable by the Supreme Court, so effectively whatever the House says is an impeachable offense is an impeachable offense. Nevertheless, the House doesn't like to make such things look purely political, so do you see anything that rises to recent standards of an impeachable offense here?

Emily Bazelon: You're right: I just posted a response about impeachment. I meant that they can't vote to oust him just because they think he should go, as opposed to because they decide that he committed an impeachable offense -- a higher bar, as it should be. The point is that executive officers serve at the pleasure of the president. (How many times have we heard that line today?) And while it's easy to get impatient in instances like these, the separation-of-powers principle is important, and worth preserving. We don't want Congress to start going around impeaching agency heads they just don't like.

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Princeton, N.J.: Another question from the Times piece: Is it ever appropriate for a member of Congress to contact a United States attorney and, without identifying the constituent concerned, inquire about "sealed indictments"? Or to ask about the timing of yet-to-be-filed indictments involving allegations of political corruption by members of the opposite political party?

Emily Bazelon: No, definitely not. That's why Iglesias raised that point in the Times today. Sealed indictments means secret -- big no no to try to pierce that veil.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Hey Emily. Love you on the gabfest. It occurs to me that the real political fallout from this depends on what develops as the narrative (to borrow from your pal John Dickerson) on Gonzales's testimony in the next couple days. Based on the testimony and what you otherwise may have seen/heard, what sort of narrative do you expect to develop about this testimony and Gonzales's future?

Emily Bazelon: Hey I'm so glad you're a gabfest fan! And I just made John read over my shoulder and he loved your reference. Yes, I think you're absolutely right: The story about AG's testimony matters a lot. That story, though, won't be divorced from what he said and how he said it. The main theme of the hearing so far, if you ask me, is that he is on the defensive. The Democrats haven't unearthed a smoking gun -- but then no one should have expected them to. The more salient point is that Gonzales hasn't performed so well as to put everyone's mind at rest. And you don't need the pundits to testify to that. The Republican senators already have.

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San Francisco: Hi Emily, thanks for taking questions today. Listening to the Attorney General's testimony is just painful -- he just doesn't seem to have his facts straight and is getting torn to shreds by Senators from both parties. My question is, what was the White House thinking by letting the AG get slaughtered? Did they honestly think he would be able to defend his actions (or inaction) well? How on Earth can the AG not resign at this point?

Emily Bazelon: Ah, yes, we at Slate have been asking these questions for weeks on our Gonzo-Meter. I don't have a real explanation. My best guess goes something like this: Bush is loyal to Gonzales. Gonzales has convinced himself he had to do this to defend his own integrity. So the administration let him. Now, though, someone is going to have to make a cold and calculated judgment about whether he has done himself more damage, and if so, needs to (finally) go.

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Seattle: Quotes from White house aides (per CNN): "Going down in flames." "Not doing himself any favors." "Watching clubbing a baby seal." "Very troubling." "Don't understand that tactic Gonzales used." Ouch.

Emily Bazelon: Oh dear. It seems they have decided to throw him overboard. Even before he finishes talking.

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Bethesda, Md.: FWIW, the contract for "Gonzales to resign by end of June" at the political futures trading Web site intrade.com has risen from 48 percent likelihood an hour ago to 60 percent currently. Kind of a higher-precision, higher-stakes version of your Gonzo-meter.

Emily Bazelon: You are so right! If his Intrade numbers are bad, that says more than any of us talking heads.

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Woonsocket, R.I.: "I don't think this is so much about the interim appointments allowed by the changes last year to the Patriot Act, which after all the senators voted for." My understanding was that the change was slipped into the bill by one of Arlen Specter's staffers, a political operative with ties to Karl Rove and the White House. Didn't every Senator admit that they passed the reauthorization without reading that provision? A pretty startling admission, I think!

Emily Bazelon: I'm sorry to say they don't read a lot of the bills closely. Lawmaking is a big sausage factory.

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Los Angeles: Isn't the real problem here that Gonzales has yet to figure out that there is a difference between being Counsel to the President (his prior position) and being Attorney General of the United States?

Emily Bazelon: A keen observation. You probably remember that this question was raised during Gonzales' confirmation hearings -- would he be able to be independent from the president, in the way the country's chief law enforcement official should be? At the time, we were thinking about issues like interrogation and torture. But the question matters in this context, too.

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Long Beach, Calif.: This purge is the work of Karl Rove and is only a continuation of an ongoing plan to promote indictments against Democratic Party legislators in preparation for the elections in 2008. One of these persecutions (yes I spelled it right) in Wisconsin recently was overturned by the court. Why aren't Senators just out-and-out putting forth the scheme and letting Gonzales flail in it, instead of nibbling around the edges? I notice the Senator's opening remarks did come pretty close to this -- but the questions aren't reflecting it. Thoughts?

Emily Bazelon: They're trying, I think, but most of them aren't masterful questioners. It would be a lot more effective if they chose one or two senators to represent each party on the committee. But that would mean giving up TV time. So not likely.

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Las Cruces, N.M.: Is there any sense that the seven U.S. Attorneys either will be restored or replaced soon? Word here in New Mexico is that the U.S. Attorney office is in chaos. Given that we have 22 Indian reservations/pueblos here, chaos means that felony cases -- such as domestic violence and child abuse -- are at risk, not just drugs and interstate fraud.

Emily Bazelon: A very good point to raise. The fired folk aren't coming back--that would be a concession that the firings were wrong, which the administration isn't prepared to make. But the problem of these leaderless, rudderless offices meandering about in the meantime is a real one.

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Towson, Md.: They should put these hearings on in prime time so working folks who are interested can see the stumbling, bumbling AG. I know the networks won't cover them in prime time, but some 7 p.m. ET after-dinner entertainment might be welcomed by some.

Emily Bazelon: TiVo?

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Bend, Ore.: If Alberto Gonzales resigns, would David Iglesias be a viable candidate for Attorney General?

Emily Bazelon: I fear not. He has turned on the Republicans, and while the Democrats have much to thank him for, he's not one of them. I'd say he's bound for the private sector.

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Edison, N.J.: Why do you call Georgia Thompson a Democratic employee? I read somewhere she was appointed by a previous Republican governor and was civil service. I don't know if that's true.

Emily Bazelon: I meant that she was working for a Democratic administration--Gov. Jim Doyle's administration, in Wisconsin.

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Chicago: Every time Hatch reminds Gonzales that he supervises more than 110,000 employees, I'm downing a shot.

Emily Bazelon: Hatch is definitely getting the unctuous award today.

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Seattle: What do you expect the final tally will be on questions where both Gonzales and Sampson tell Congress, "I don't recall," in both testimonies? And how will or has Goodling's possible immunity deal play into the questions?

Emily Bazelon: Let's see, I'll bet ... 212. You know I expected them to ask about Goodling, but I'm not sure they have yet.

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Washington: So, is Fredo doing enough to survive?

Emily Bazelon: This, of course, is the big question of the day. I'd say not. White House aides are already trashing him on CNN. He sounds defensive and whiny, as one reader wrote in. And most of all, we have the Gonzo-Meter set at 92 at Slate this week. So it's time for him to go already!

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Emily Bazelon: Thanks for the smart and incisive questions, everyone. It's been a pleasure talking about this with you. Keep counting the "I don't recalls" and enjoy the rest of your afternoon.

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