What’s most important to remember, about Kyle Sampson’s Senate testimony yesterday, was that he actually intended his remarks to be a defense of Bush administration behavior in the prosecutor purge scandal.
The former number-two man at Justice started the day by insisting that the unprecedented midterm firings of eight federal prosecutors was no big deal, just a “badly mishandled” snafu; but after many hours of being sliced and diced by his questioners, he wound up looking like a witness for the administration’s accusers. For instance:
1. Sampson drove another nail into attorney general Alberto Gonzales, with statements suggesting that his former boss, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, is a serial liar. Gonzales has insisted that he never had any “discussions” about “where things stood” on the firing front – yet here was his own chief of staff insisting under oath that he had met with Gonzales five times dating back to 2005. Sampson stated: “I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate.”
This prompted Senator Charles Grassley to say, “The bottom line is, we shouldn’ty have conflicting statements coming from somebody who is the top law enforcement officer of the United States, or his staff.” And that’s a Republican talking. (Gonzales is slated to testify again until April 17, assuming he lasts that long, but another three weeks in limbo should give him enough time to blur his recollections even further.)
2. Sampson documented the crucial role that Karl Rove played in the firings. This is the same Karl Role who played no role in the firings, according to initial Bush administration statements. Sampson himself had drafted a February letter to Congress, claiming that Rove had played no role in the decision to fire one federal prosecutor (who, at the time, was investigating the Republican governor of Missouri), and replace him with a political operative loyal to Rove. However, Sampson earlier this winter had emailed a colleague to say that Rove wanted his loyalist in that job. So naturally Sampson was asked yesterday to explain whether he had lied in the letter to Congress, or had lied in the email. He tried to split the difference, saying that he had only discussed this particular firing with Rove’s top aides, as opposed to Rove personally.
But he wasn’t done with Rove. He also testified that, on the eve of the 2006 elections, Rove complained to Gonzales about the failure of New Mexico’s federal prosecutor to aggressively pursue voter-fraud cases that, in essence, might help the GOP win a crucial House race. (That prosecutor, Republican David Iglesias, was fired on Dec. 7. He had previously been viewed, in Sampson’s words, as an “up and comer.” He has since stated repeatedly that he had insufficient legal grounds to bring indictments.) Given everything that Sampson said yesterday about Rove, it’s easy to see why Bush has decreed that Rove shall be questioned only in private and without a transcript.
3. Sampson undercut the fundamental Bush administration spin that the firings were defensible and even proper…by testifying that he wished the whole process had never been conducted in the first place: “I wish the Department hadn’t gone down this road at all, and I regret my role in it, and that’s one of the reasons I resigned.”
Senator Chuck Schumer then asked, “So if the choice were up to you, just thinking back on that fateful Dec. 7, would you now — knowing what you know now — have put David Iglesias on a list, choice solely up to you if he should be fired?” And Sampson replied, “In hindsight, sitting here today, I would not.”
4. Sampson provided another window into the Bush administration’s competence-challenged governing process. It’s hardly surprising that so many of the fired Bush-appointed prosecutors have been speaking out, wondering why they were fired in the first place, given their generally favorable performance ratings – because it turns out, as Sampson testified yesterday, that the firing process “was not scientific, nor was it extensively documented.” He also said this: "I don't remember keeping a very good file. It was a chart and notes that I would dump into my lower right desk drawer." (I'm sure that the prosecutors - and other public servants - will be heartened to learn that the Bush administration assesses their work in such a cavalier manner.)
If Bush remains as unpopular as he is now (61 percent negative, according to the latest Fox News poll, the lowest ever in a Fox survey), he won’t be able to credibly blame his standing on the congressional Democrats. The ineptitude of his own top people (under his lax supervision) has contributed mightily to his inexorable slide. And I plan to have more on the incompetence factor, and its role in the '08 race, in my newspaper column this Sunday.
By the way, Bush needn't worry, because Rush Limbaugh has his back. Which brings us to the quote of the day. After citing a new USA Today-Gallup poll which shows that 72 percent of the American people support a congressional probe of the firings, Rush had this to say: "72 percent of the American people, a bunch of blithering idiots who have no idea what they're talking about....that is just an indication of so much ignorance out there, lack of civics education and what have you."