Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Fresh spin samplings from an administration under seige

Now that the truth is coming out, now that we know how the Bush administration has sought to treat the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a political arm of the Republican National Committee, the various defenses offered by the key players seem ever more fascinating.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried virtually every classic stratagem during his Tuesday press conference; in my post late yesterday, I noted his use of the O.J. Simpson defense, along with his other attempts to employ what Richard Nixon used to call “the modified limited hangout route.”

But once we bring Karl Rove into the mix – which seems appropriate, given the new evidence of his involvement in this affair – we discover a few other categories of spin.

It first should be noted, however, that Rove is truly the Zelig of our era. Just like the fabled Woody Allen character that appears at every historical juncture during the 1920s, Rove seems to pop wherever the action is.

When the White House was working to discredit Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson, for instance, Rove turned out to be one of the players who leaked to the press about Wilson’s wife (despite the White House’s initial insistence that he had played no such role). And now, despite the White House’s initial insistence that Rove had no role in the firing of the eight prosecutors deemed to be insufficiently partisan, it turns out that he most certainly did. Last year, the federal prosecutor in Arkansas was fired to make room for ex-Rove aide Tim Griffin; as attorney general Gonzales’ chief of staff noted in an email, “getting him appointed was important to…Karl, etc.”

But Rove’s portfolio ranges far beyond Arkansas. Regarding New Mexico, we know already that federal prosecutor David Iglesias was fired last December, despite a strong performance rating, because he had rebuffed GOP pressure to speed an indictment against a local Democratic official and thus boost the party’s prospects in the 2006 congressional elections. This past weekend, the White House acknowledged that Rove had fielded complaints from New Mexico Republicans, and passed them along to the Justice Department and to the White House counsel’s office. (The Justice Department mission statement does not remotely suggest that U.S. attorneys are supposed to help the ruling party win elections; rather, the apolitical statement states: “Each United States Attorney exercises wide discretion in the use of his/her resources to further the priorities of the local jurisdictions and needs of their communities.”)

Which brings us to the Amnesia defense. Several days ago, a White House spokeswoman, after checking with Rove, said that Rove “doesn’t exactly recall, but he may have had a casual conversation with (Gonzales), to say he had passed those complaints to (White House counsel) Harriet Miers.” Which I suppose is meant to imply that, even though Rove is still routinely described by White House officials as a power behind the scenes, in this particular case he was just making “casual” chitchat that was too unimportant to remember.

Meanwhile, Rove himself has employed the Clinton Did It defense. (This should come as no surprise, because it’s a standard defense for Bush administration officials.) During a public appearance last week, Rove contended that the firing of the eight federal prosecutors was “normal and ordinary” because President Clinton had done much the same thing. Rove said: “Clinton, when he came in, replaced all 93 U.S. attorneys. When we came in, we ultimately replace most all 93 U.S. attorneys….Because every president comes in, appoints United States attorneys and then makes changes over the course of their time.”

First of all, of course Clinton replaced all 93 attorneys at the outset of his tenure, as all presidents do, so that’s beside the point. But he was also suggesting that Clinton sought to make changes over the course of his time. That is not accurate – as Gonzales’ chief of staff noted in a newly-released email, dated Jan. 9, 2006 (this is back when the firing scheme was first being developed). Kyle Sampson cautioned Harriet Miers with a bit of history: “In recent memory, during the Reagan and Clinton Administrations, Presidents Reagan and Clinton did not seek to remove and replace U.S. Attorneys…but instead permitted such U.S. attorneys to serve indefinitely under the holdover provision.” The underline in the email was Sampson’s.

But just to show how dire the situation has become for the Bush White House, this morning we also discover the Gonzales Did It defense.

Even though it’s clear by this point that this White House sets the tone of governance, certain anonymous remarks floated today in The New York Times strongly suggest that the folks at the top are fitting their loyal subordinate for the noose. (Folks at the top routinely assail newspapers for running anonymous quotes, when those quotes prove embarrassing. But they have no problem with such quotes if they are the ones using anonymity to serve their own needs.)

Here’s the key passage: “(Gonzales’ press conference) underscored what two Republicans close to the Bush administration described as a growing rift between the White House and the attorney general…The two Republicans, who spoke anonymously so they could share private conversations with senior White House officials, said top aides to Mr. Bush, including Fred F. Fielding, the new White House counsel, were concerned that the controversy had so damaged Mr. Gonzales’s credibility that he would be unable to advance the White House agenda on national security matters, including terrorism prosecutions. ‘I really think there’s a serious estrangement between the White House and Alberto now,’ one of the Republicans said.”

So the White House seems to be telling Gonzales that his usefulness is over and that it’s time to fall on his sword for the throne. The problem, however, is that Congress – which is well aware that the prosecutor scandal is rooted in the Bush administration’s governing philosophy – will not be content with a partial shuffling of personnel. A modified, limited hangout route might have worked when the supine Republicans ran the Hill, but those days are over.