Now that the dust has settled on the U.S. attorney firings report, released Monday morning by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, we thought it was worth taking some time to lay out what it tells us.
Almost since the scandal broke early last year, there have been clear signs that the plan to fire U.S. attorneys as a means of advancing the Bush administration’s political goals was being driven by the White House. That impression has been strengthened as top current and former White House officials, including Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, have consistently stonewalled efforts to look into the matter.
The OIG investigation was no exception. As the report notes, Miers, Rove and several other Whte House officials refused to talk to investigators, and the White House wouldn’t provide internal emails or documents relating to the firings. Perhaps the most crucial of the documents denied to OIG was a memo, written in March 2007, which contained the results of an internal White House investigation into the firings, conducted by associate White House counsel Michael Scudder. Scudder had interviewed top DOJ and White House officials, including Rove, and had compiled a timeline that “appeared to contain information we had not obtained elsewhere in our investigation,” according to the OIG report.
Still, a close examination of the report makes clear that, although on a day-to-day basis the plan was put into effect by mid-level DOJ political appointees — enabled by a shocking lack of oversight from top department officials, principally former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — the impetus for the move came straight from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Many of the individual pieces of information have been previously reported, as DOJ provided emails and internal documents to Congress for its 2007 investigation. But the OIG report provides a far clearer sense of the longer-term trajectory of the plan, and the consistent interest in it from Miers and Rove, than we’ve yet been offered.The White House’s active involvement in the firings, as depicted in the report, can be divided into two broad categories: First, its role in initiating and promoting the overall plan to remove an unspecified number of U.S. attorneys — traditionally treated as apolitical prosecutors who operate independently from the political agenda of the administration — deemed insufficiently committed to the Bush agenda. And second, its apparent work in pushing specifically for several of the most high-profile dismissals.
A Plan Set in Motion by the White House
On the first count, here are some of the report’s key details.
Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ then chief of staff at DOJ, and the point man on the firing plan, told OIG investigators that, some time after the 2004 election, White House counsel Harriet Miers asked him whether the administration should try to get all 93 U.S. attorneys to resign, as part of a plan to replace all political appointees for the new term. Sampson said he argued against this idea.
In other words, it was with the White House that the idea to fire U.S. attorneys originated. And Miers originally proposed the maximalist version of the plan, but was shot down by DOJ.
Still, the White House seems to have kept pressing. In January 2005, Sampson received an email from a Miers deputy, which said: “Karl Rove stopped by “to ask … ‘how we planned to proceed regarding US Attorneys, whether we are going to allow all to stay, request resignations from all and accept only some of them, or selectively replace them, etc.’ ” [Quotation marks rendered as in the report]. A few days later, Sampson replied: “If Karl [Rove] thinks there would be political will to do it, then so do I.”
The following month, Sampson told OIG, Miers followed up, asking him for a list of possible U.S. attorneys to get rid of. Sampson dutifully responded with his first list, which contained the names of four USAs who ultimately were axed, as well as ten who weren’t.
For much of the rest of 2005 and into 2006, this pattern continued, in which Miers or William Kelley, one of her deputies, would raise the issue with Sampson, and he would respond with another list, modified from last time apparently on the basis of input he solicited from others at DOJ. But Sampson and Miers had agreed that it would cause fewer political ripples if they waited to carry out the firings until the USA’s four-year terms were completed, which wouldn’t occur until later in 2005 at the earliest. So there was little concrete progress on the plan in to 2006.
Still, a significant development occurred on a separate track in March 2006. At that time, notes the report, the Republican-controlled Congress, at the request of DOJ, made changes to the rules governing how vacancies in the U.S attorney ranks would be filled. The changes meant that interim USAs, appointed by the Attorney General, could serve until a new presidential appointment was made, rather than being subject to approval by a district court after 120 days. That gave DOJ the ability to install new USAs without significant outside oversight, making the idea of a round of firings that much more appealing.
In the fall of 2006, with the prospect looming of the GOP losing control of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections, the White House seemed to get newly serious about the initiative. In September, Miers emailed Sampson again to ask for his “current thinking” on the plan, prompting him to send yet another list. A few days later, Miers responded to Sampson’s latest list: “I have not forgotten I need to follow up.”
After the Republican loss in the 06 midterms, things heated up. On November 15, Sampson sent his latest list to Miers and Kelley, asking them to circulate it to “Karl [Rove]’s shop,” and adding that he would wait for a “green light” from the White House before moving forward. Miers responded that she would need to determine whether the president’s sign-off was needed, but that he was out of town. Sampson told OIG that when he then asked who at the White House would decide whether the president’s approval was indeed required (a task that would appear to fall to Miers herself, in her position as White House counsel) he never heard back from Miers.
Then on December 4, Kelley emailed Sampson, copying Miers, with the approval DOJ had been waiting for — and an acknowledgment that the move would likely ruffle feathers. “We’re a go for the US Atty plan. WH leg, political, and communications have signed off and acknowledged that we have to be committed to following through once the pressure comes,” Kelley wrote.
Three days later, seven U.S. attorneys received phone calls from DOJ asking them to resign.
By and large, the report suggests that Sampson compiled his various lists through a combination of his own vague knowledge of the attorneys’ records, and conversations with other DOJ staff. But in the cases of at least two names that wound up on the final list, the White House appears to have been intimately involved in ensuring that they were included.
Making Room For a Friend
The dismissal in which the White House played the greatest role was that of Bud Cummins, US Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Cummins, the report makes clear, was removed not because of shortcomings in his own record, either political or performance-based, but because the White House wanted to move a GOP political operative, Timothy Griffin, in to the job.
As early as February 2004, Sampson told OIG, Griffin, who at the time worked for the Republican National Committee as an opposition researcher and would later serve under Rove in the White House political office, had been approved by a panel of DOJ and White House officials for Arkansas’s other U.S. attorney position, that of the Western District. But Griffin told OIG he withdrew from consideration because “he knew that Karl Rove and other Republican Party officials wanted him to continue to work on the 2004 presidential campaign.”
After the campaign was over, the White House seems to have kept Griffin’s service in mind. In March 2005, Griffin told OIG, Miers asked him what he wanted to do with his career, and mentioned that the USA job for eastern Arkansas might become open. (Cummins’ name had appeared on Sampson’s first list, sent to Miers that month.) A few weeks later, according to the limited amount of email traffic given by the White House to OIG, Miers wrote to Rove discussing various employment ideas for Griffin. Rove responded: “What about him for the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.” Miers wrote back that this was “definitely a possibility” since there might soon be an opening there.
The White House clearly liked this idea. Sampson said during congressional testimony on the firings that, that spring, Miers asked him about the possibility of Griffin getting the job. And Griffin, who was in Iraq for much of 2005 as a member of the Army Reserve, told OIG that Rove told him, during the summer of that year, that Rove and Miers had discussed the possibility, and that “it may work out.”
Even Gonzales, who seems to have taken a notably hands-off approach to the plan, was aware of the White House’s wishes. “The White House was interested in seeing if we could find a way to get Griffin in,” he told OIG.
In December, the report concludes, Cummins was removed to make room for Griffin, who was quickly appointed on an interim basis.
An email sent a few days later, from Sampson to another Miers deputy, Chris Oprison offers further evidence that Rove and Miers were always the prime movers behind the switch. Wrote Sampson: “Getting [Griffin] appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.”
In February 2007, though, Griffin was forced to withdraw from consideration for a permanent appointment, as the scandal was unfolding. Around that time, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty testified before Congress about the reasons for the firings. His testimony prompted Sara Taylor, the White House political director to whom Griffin had served as deputy, to fire off an email to Sampson expressing anger at how DOJ had “forced” Griffin to withdraw. In other words, DOJ had angered the White House by failing to push hard enough for Griffin.
Rove on Iglesias: “He’s Gone.”
The White House’s role in the firing of David Iglesias as U.S. attorney for the District of New Mexico appears to have been less direct than that of Cummins – but the report makes clear that it was involved nonetheless.
It shows that during 2005 and 2006, White House officials received complaints about Iglesias from New Mexico Republicans, primarily Sen. Pete Domenici, Rep. Heather Wilson, and state party chair Allen Weh. Many of the complaints centered around Iglesias’ apparent decision not to bring an indictment against a Democratic state official in a public corruption case before the midterms — a subject of particular interest to Domenici — as well as Iglesias’ perceived unwillingness to aggressively prosecute voter fraud cases against organizers allied with Democrats.
Those concerns appear to have dovetailed with Karl Rove’s. Gonzales testified to Congress that, twice in the fall of 2006, Rove had told him he was concerned about voter fraud in three cities, one of which was Albuquerque, New Mexico.
And around October of that year (OIG was unable to pin down the exact time), Miers called McNulty, the Deputy AG, and passed on complaints she had received from Wilson about Iglesias. (Wilson denied to OIG that she spoke to Miers). The report notes that this was before Iglesias’ name had appeared on any of Sampson’s lists.
Then on the day of the midterms, Domenici’s chief of staff emailed Rove to complain about Iglesias. Rove’s response: “I’d have the Senator call the Attorney General about this.”
At a November 15 White House meeting, Wilson put in another complaint to Rove about Iglesias. This time, he told her: “That decision has already been made. He’s gone.” But as the report notes, the first list from Sampson to include Iglesias’ name would not be sent to Miers until a few hours later. In other words, Rove’s knowledge that Iglesias was to be fired suggests this wasn’t a decision made solely by DOJ.
On Monday, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, acting on a recommendation from the report, appointed a U.S. prosecutor, Nora Dannehy, to determine whether a crime was committed in connection with the firings. But it remains unclear whether that investigation will be given the power to gain access to any of the information denied to OIG, and the mandate to look into the role of the White House. If it isn’t, judging from the evidence in the report, a major part of the story of the firings will remain shrouded in secrecy.