Thursday, March 15, 2007

"Message: I Care" and Bush's other scandal defenses

For two days, I’ve tried in this space to track all of the Bush team’s defense rationales in the prosecutor purge scandal. It has not been easy. Amidst the mounting evidence that the White House, and its Justice Department surrogates, engineered the unprecedented firing of eight federal prosecutors because they weren’t doing enough to help Republicans win elections, new variations of spin keep surfacing. Yesterday, President Bush contributed some new ones, and we will deconstruct them in a moment.

But first, some breaking news: Newly-released emails revealed this evening that Karl Rove was perhaps the first player who had the bright idea of screening the federal prosecutors for partisan loyalty, and purging those who failed that test. In a message to White House aide David Leitch, dated Jan. 9, 2005, Justice Department aide Kyle Sampson (the same guy who just resigned as Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff)pondered a query from Rove and concluded that perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the proescutors could not be considered "loyal Bushies." He predicted that such a daring plan would probably tick people off in Washington, but wrote that "if Karl thinks there would be a political will to do it, then so do I."

Just remember that the original White House falsehood was that Rove had played no role in this affair, and that the whole thing should be pinned on now-departed White House counsel Harriet Miers. Bush flak Tony Snow said two days ago that the firings had been "her idea only," and he has since said it again. That line may soon be disposable as well.

All this new action doesn't bode well for Bush's attempts to explain himself yesterday in Mexico. For instance, he offered...

The "Message: I Care" defense. This one is named after his dad; during the senior Bush’s ill-fated 1992 re-election bid, a handler had written out those three words, to remind Bush to demonstrate his empathy on the stump. Senior Bush did so by literally reading the words.

Anyway, the younger Bush is trying to show he cares, by suggesting that he cares just like everybody else about the purge scandal. The president said yesterday, “I’m frankly not happy about it.” The problem with this defense, however, is that it loses its potency if used too often – and Bush uses it all the time. He has repeatedly said that he’s just as frustrated as everybody else with the events in Iraq; two weeks ago, he said he was just as unhappy as everybody else with the poor treatment of the troops at Walter Reed.

Currently, he is not even unhappy about the purge scandal per se; as evidenced by his remarks in Mexico yesterday, he essentially sees it as merely a communications problem. He thinks the Justice Department has failed to effectively explain why the firing of these prosecutors was no big deal in the first place. Which brings us to…

The Falsehood defense. This is generally employed by someone who either truly believes in the falsehood, or thinks out of calculation that the falsehood might help muddy the waters. Yesterday, Bush said that he not happy “because there is a lot of confusion over what has really been a customary practice by the president.”

Actually, as noted here yesterday (see Karl Rove’s Clinton Did It defense), it is not accurate to state that previous presidents have found it “customary” to fire federal prosecutors in the middle of their terms. The Congressional Research Service has found such firings to be exceedingly rare. Also, as noted here yesterday, even top Gonzales staffer Kyle Sampson conceded in a January 2006 email to the White House that neither Ronald Reagan, nor Bill Clinton, had mapped any plans to oust prosecutors in mid-term. (The CRS did note that one Clinton appointee was forced to quit under pressure - after he'd lost a big drug case and had subsequently gone to a topless bar, where he bit a dancer on the arm.)

But since it has now happened eight times under Bush, he felt compelled yesterday to offer the Deniability defense. This is usually employed by a top player who feels compelled to distance himself from a scandal, by contending that there is no smoking gun linking him to it. Accordingly, Bush said this yesterday about Gonzales (my emphasis added): “I never brought up a specific case, nor gave him specific instructions.”

Of course not; he wouldn’t need to. Given his self-description as the Decider, and given the importance of loyalty in the Bush White House, it’s fair to conclude that, his key underlings were totally in sync with the general rules of governance laid down by the boss. The Bush rules dictate that federal prosecutors should viewed as be partisan servants; that's basically how the game is played in Texas, where the whole judiciary is politicized, starting with the fact that judges are elected on party slates. (That's how Rove first made his consultant money.)

And even though Bush presumably didn't wield a smoking gun, he was present at the scene. A White House spokeswoman said earlier this week that Bush, on the eve of the 2006 elections, had voiced general complaints about unnamed federal prosecutors who were, in his mind, not moving fast enough to prosecute Democrats in alleged voter fraud cases. Dana Perino said that Bush “believes informally he may have mentioned it to the AG” during a meeting on “other matters.” Shortly after Perino spoke, a Justice Department flak came forward to say that Gonzales doesn’t remember Bush saying this (see yesterday's Amnesia defense).

So here is Bush’s bottom line, as he put it yesterday: “I’ve heard those allegations about political decision-making. It’s just not true.” Given the plot arc of this melodrama thus far, it seems likely that the credibility of this Bush claim will rank with his utterance of May 29, 2003: “We found the weapons of mass destruction.”