Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Bush team's bedside manner

I’m tied up with other writing today, so brevity trumps all:

I just read somewhere that Fox has renewed 24 for another couple seasons, but it’s hard to imagine that the writers can compete with the Bush administration when it comes to the scripting of pulp melodrama.

The lurid intrigue starring Alberto Gonzales (who else) - in which the then-White House counsel is depicted racing to John Ashcroft’s hospital bed in 2004, in order to inveigle the seriously ill attorney general to sign off on a domestic eavesdropping program that had already been deemed illegal by Ashcroft’s chief deputy at Justice - is just the latest drip-drip disclosure of the Bush team’s aversion to the rule of law.

I won’t bother recounting all the dirty details that were supplied to Congress the other day by former deputy attorney general James Comey (yet another card-carrying Republican who ran afoul of the White House after insisting – what a concept – that the rule of law should triumph over blind partisanship). Comey made it quite clear, in his sworn Senate testimony, that he had been displeased to learn that President Bush’s counsel was trying to nix Comey’s thumbs-down ruling on the warrantless program’s legality by going over his head to Ashcroft. (Although, sick as he was, Ashcroft indicated to the visiting Gonzales that Comey was the designated man in charge.)

Comey in his testimony also signaled his displeasure with the fact that, even after he judged the program to be illegal, Bush ignored the ruling. (Comey: "The program was reauthorized without us and without a signature from the Department of Justice attesting as to its legality.")

What I do find fascinating, however, is that Gonzales, testifying under oath as attorney general early last year, insisted that “there has not been any serious disagreement” within the Bush regime about the eavesdropping program. Given the fact that Comey and as many as seven other senior figures, including the FBI director, had threatened to resign over the legality dispute, one might argue that such an event meets the definition of “serious disagreement.”

Gonzales had a loophole, however: After Comey and others threatened to quit, Bush backed down and agreed to make some revisions in the way the program worked, so that Justice could feel comfortable about signing off on its legality. The revised program was exposed by the press in 2006, and Bush confirmed its existence. What Gonzales accurately said, shortly thereafter, was that there had been no serious internal disputes “about the program that the president has confirmed."

So Gonzales had been telling the truth, albeit narrowly, in 2006. He simply had neglected to tell Congress that his boss at the White House had been threatened with mass resignations in the midst of his re-election year unless changes were made to ensure its legality. Comey could have supplied that information early last year, along with the whole hospital bed scene – but the Justice Department persuaded the reliably supine Republican Congress that Comey and Ashcroft should not be brought in to testify. As Gonzales explained at the time, “You have to wonder what could Messrs. Comey and Ashcroft add to the discussion.”

Now we know.

(And who sent Gonzales and White House chief of staff Andy Card to Ashcroft's hospital bed, anyway? Bush, in his press conference this morning, was asked whether he could enlighten his fellow Americans. He declined the invitation, saying: "There's a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn't happen, and I'm not going to talk about it.")

But you’d be wasting your time if you think that this latest episode – along with new evidence of the ever-burgeoning prosecutor purge scandal – will finally persuade Bush to dump Gonzales. From Bush’s perspective, keeping his crony in the job is far preferable to naming a successor who would then be sliced and diced by the Democrats in confirmation hearings. The Democrats, as a price for confirmation, would probably insist that the nominee name an independent special investigator to sift the institutional wreckage at Justice, and finally determine how many federal prosecutors were slated to be fired for partisan reasons. That would keep the purge story on the front burner well into the ’08 election season.

But it says a lot about Bush’s downward spiral that his best political option right now is to keep his pal right where he is, taking fresh hits for his Leader. Perhaps Bush was not misspeaking the other day when he referred to Gonzales as “the eternal general.”