Transcript

Alberto Gonzales Resigns

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Dahlia Lithwick
Slate Senior Editor
Monday, August 27, 2007; 1:00 PM

Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick was online Monday, Aug. 27 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

U.S. Attorney Firings Investigation

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Resigns (Post, Aug. 27) | Gone Gone Gone, He's Been Gonzo Long (Slate, Aug. 27)

The transcript follows.

Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor at Slate. She authors the "Supreme Court Dispatches" and covers legal issues for Slate. Her work has appeared in the New Republic, Elle, the Ottawa Citizen, and The Washington Post.

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Dahlia Lithwick: Hey everyone. Thanks for the chance to try to absorb this resignation together. As some of you may know, the Justice Department was denying just this weekend that a retirement was imminent. I think they may be as surprised as we are...

Let's get to your questions.

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Fairfax, Va.: All politics aside, how good a lawyer is Gonzales? Is he deep? How is his legal reasoning?

Dahlia Lithwick: Hi Fairfax. I guess that's the nut of it right? Was Gonzales a good attorney? Oddly enough, I think he was a good attorney if your model is the sort of corporate model the Bush administration embraced. As a CEO you want your tax lawyer to really lean into the law. You want your attorney to go as far as she can in your interest. That's why Gonzales probably was better-suited for the White House Counsel role. He saw the president as his client and made the law conform to what the president wanted. I don't believe he ever transitioned from that role to the people's lawyer when he became attorney general, though. Best as I could tell he always worked for the president -- and the law (and the rest of us) came after.

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Chicago: Does Alberto Gonzales have anything positive to point to in his tenure at the Justice Department? Any major convictions, policy changes, etc.?

Dahlia Lithwick: Hey Chicago. I guess that depends on what you consider "positive." Gonzales (and Ashcroft before him) certainly spearheaded some big changes at Justice. A re-emphasis on stopping child porn; an increased focus on "vote fraud" in elections; a focus on protecting the civil rights of religious minorities. They got Moussaoui put away as well as Padilla. Some folks don't see those as steps forward however. Do you?

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New York: So Gonzalez stunk at PR. Period. However, why do you love skewering him when he was trying to utilize every legal means to protect our nation?

Dahlia Lithwick: Hi New York. I guess for myself I'd say that I started to love skewering Gonzales only after he began to use illegal means to protect the nation. That's probably a bigger fight, but I do think it's fair to say that Gonzales was one of the architects of a Bush legal doctrine that held -- as Nixon famously argued -- that if the president does it, it's never illegal. It never has been clear to me that this makes us safer.

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Arlington, Va.: Is there rejoicing among the career staff over at Justice?

Dahlia Lithwick: I haven't polled them yet, Arlington, but my impression has been that it has been very hard for folks at the Department of Justice to do their jobs in recent months with the scandals and investigations. Whether or not you believe the circus was justified, it's clear that between the increasing number of resignations at Justice and the pall of these investigations, many people there found it pretty hard to be taken seriously.

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Washington: How does the Justice Department begin to recover its reputation and the respect of the American people after a train of incompetencies and partisanship?

Dahlia Lithwick: Washington, that's a great question. I've been mulling on that for months. Here's a simple suggestion: name Jim Comey as the new AG. He's the former Deputy Attorney General whose testimony was as devastating to Gonzales as anyone's this spring. Comey was quite visibly grieving for the old DOJ; he seems to have diagnosed the problem eloquently. I'd love to hear his prescription!

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Arlington, Va.: Former administration officials regularly publish memoirs both to feather their post-government nest and to help shape future history by providing their versions of events. Such books are generally based on extensive notes and diaries that said officials kept while in office. Given how often Gonzales cited an inability to recall events during congressional hearings, has he undermined his opportunity to write an authoritative memoir? Or, conversely, if he does write a book, can Congress call him back after the fact because he suddenly does recall the events in question?

Dahlia Lithwick: Hi Arlington. There's a thought: Maybe he should have Kyle Sampson write his memoir. (Cheap shot!) (Sorry!)

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New Orleans: Much has been written about the political hacks who assumed significant roles at Justice, particularly because of the influence and hiring practices of Monica Goodling. Did that begin with Gonzales, or did he just inherit that from Ashcroft?

Dahlia Lithwick: Hi New Orleans. I think Goodling was actually a symptom of the political hackery, as opposed to the cause. She was emblematic of a Bush legal world view that rewarded fealty over real ability or experience. There are certainly brash young pups in every administration, but under Gonzales they were running the candy store; circumventing their superiors; and seemingly unchecked. I think Gonzales saw no need to oversee these folks -- perhaps that was deliberate -- but he seems, unlike Ashcroft, to have cared very little about what was happening at the department.

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Arlington, Va.: Gonzales's resignation "press conference" was so sour, with his not taking any questions and walking out after his statement, that it leads me to believe that someone in the White House forced him out and that he didn't particularly want to go.

Dahlia Lithwick: That's funny, Arlington. Gonzales looked like a ray of sunshine next to the president's presser. Bush seemed so obviously willing to fight for Gonzales -- even when Gonzales was not -- and seemed extremely reluctant to let the AG go, likely because he sees this as emboldening the Democrats to keep hounding his people.

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Chicago: In the past few hours, I have heard many people predict that Michael Chertoff will be nominated as attorney general. Does the White House really want that? Doesn't this inevitably give the Democrats another chance to talk about the DHS's/FEMA's failed response to Katrina?

Dahlia Lithwick: I had the same reaction, Chicago. The same Chertoff who gets "hunches"!? Are you kidding? But he has some real cred as an insider and a judge. Mostly, I can't help but wonder if all these names are just trial balloons to elicit the national ick factor...

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New York: "The rest of us came after" ... sounds like you are talking about Janet Reno! Look, we never loved Gonzalez as attorney general -- even though we agreed with his strict interpretation of the law and dedication to giving law enforcement all the legal tools to keep us safe. His failure was in public relations and damage control only (though the term "damage" hardly applies).

Dahlia Lithwick: Not sure I can agree, New York. Remember Gonzales on the Geneva Conventions, or on the "torture memo"? For many people he had let some very fundamental constitutional values slide away long ago.

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Austin, Texas: Ashcroft was a figure of ridicule sometimes (not least because of his ventures into music) and I can't stand his social and political views, but it sounds to me as though he was probably a much more competent and serious attorney general than Gonzales. What's your take?

Dahlia Lithwick: Austin, I think it's fair to say that John Ashcroft's stock shot up, at least among many of us, when the story of his hospital bed confrontation with Gonzales came to light. We still don't know much about the program Gonzales was trying to reauthorize, or the details of the legal analysis supporting it, but the whole story did throw into pretty sharp relief the contrast between Ashcroft's respect for some line in the sand and Gonzales's willingness to push the envelope yet further.

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San Antonio: An obvious question that a lot of people are probably wondering about: Are Rove and Gonzales getting out ahead of something they expect to happen in September, after the Congress returns to town?

Dahlia Lithwick: San Antonio, I had the same thought this morning -- and this is rank speculation time, right? My sense is that Gonzales and Rove wanted to get out on their own terms and that these August resignations allow them to say "hey, Congress didn't push me out, I left to spend time with my family." I don't believe Dems in Congress really had the spine to push these investigations that far, but why would Rove and Co. stick around to find out? Also, with yet more DOJ resignations, I can't help but wonder whether Gonzales finally had to accept the reality that the department really was suffering.

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Alexandria, Va.: The top three slots at Justice are now vacant. Who's running the place?

Dahlia Lithwick: Alexandria, in Slate today we suggested that there is still someone answering phones. In some ways Paul Clement has been running the place for some time. Now he's going to do it officially.

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Washington: I kindly remind you that the word torture shouldn't be thrown around lightly. Iran tortures, North Korea tortures ... what the media calls the Torture Memo isn't torture. It is a term used by the media to try to discredit the attorney general and the president. It wasn't based on fact, but worked.

Dahlia Lithwick: Washington, some day you and I can sit down and debate whether the conduct authorized by the so-called 'torture memos' was in fact torture. Maybe it was just "alternative." Me, I still take the position that authorizing anything short of the intensity of pain accompanying "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" is not the way a civilized nation defines legal interrogation...

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Woodacre, Calif.: Dahlia ... what is your feeling regarding Liberty University feeding attorneys to Justice? Any thoughts on the competence of these folks?

Dahlia Lithwick: Hello Woodacre. I wrote about this fairly extensively once. My short answer is that presidents can choose staff in any way they want. But I do think that some of these young lawyers got snookered into conflating doing God's work, with doing the president's.

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Washington: How much of the whole U.S. attorneys scandal was made up and a judgment call? I mean, it is clear he did nothing illegal but is being hammered. Clinton fired all of the attorneys, including the one who was investigating Whitewater at the time. There was no outcry then ... so how much of this is selective judgment?

Dahlia Lithwick: Hi Washington -- you've been waiting a long time, and thank you. I don't think the U.S. attorneys story was ever about Gonzales's illegal actions in the firings -- it was about whether they were improper. Even Gonzales conceded that there would be improper reasons to fire a clutch of U.S. attorneys. (What if he'd fired all the women, or the Jewish ones?) So the question was whether it was proper to fire only those U.S. attorneys who allegedly either declined to press vote fraud cases or were investigating prominent Republicans. Can we agree that if this were the case that would be wrong? One of the reasons we don't quite have the answer to that is because Gonzales never gave us straight answers. As is often the case, the cover-up may well prove worse than the crime.

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Washington: Why is it that many states and perhaps even some countries elect their attorneys general (or equivalent) but not the federal government? Do you think that's a viable alternative that might obviate the kinds of conflicts and politicization of the Department of Justice that has occurred with this administration?

Dahlia Lithwick: Washington, sorry for all this weird self-linking but I am running out of time! So here's a piece I coauthored at the very start of this scandal on why DOJ is necessarily a political place and why that maybe isn't the worst thing ever.

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Pittsburgh: What are Alberto Gonzales's employment prospects now? He wasn't with a major law firm before entering government work, was he?

Dahlia Lithwick: Pittsburgh, I bet that starting in 2009 he gets one sweeeeet job offer from one George W. Bush.

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Dahlia Lithwick: Friends, I am out of time here and your good questions keep coming. Thanks so much for your patience with my slow typing, and for spending part of your day with me! Keep on top of this story -- I'm guessing it only gets better!

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