Update: Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) kicks it off, sounding as unhappy as he's sounded about this story over the past several weeks. "It does not sit well" with him, he says, when the Justice Department tries to cut the Senate out of the loop of confirming U.S. attorneys.
He also turned one of the administration's favorite lines about the firings on its head. U.S. attorneys "serve at the pleasure of the president," he said, but "justice does not serve at the pleasure of the president."
Update: Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) gave a rundown of the "unbroken stream of missteps, mishaps and misstatements" by the Justice Department in his opening statement. It's such a pitiful display, he said, that at this point it's up to the DoJ to show that they behaved "well," he said, not for the committee "to demonstrate that the Department behaved poorly."
Update: There's a brief recess to allow other senators to join the hearing, since there are votes on the Senate floor.
Update: ...and we're back. And Kyle Sampson has just been sworn in. And is beginning his opening statement (pdf). Sampson added that he came to work in Washington, "because I believe in public service."
Update: And another recess for a vote.
Update: ...and we're back.
Update: Now Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) is up for his opening statement. After outlining some "serious questions" that need answering, Specter said that the Justice Department seems to be in a state of "disrepair." He also said that he wants to see the attorney general "eyeball to eyeball" before he decides whether he thinks Gonzales should resign or not.
Update: On to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a former U.S. attorney. Sessions hit the "USAs serve at the pleasure of the president" talking point hard.
Update: And the questioning begins.
Update: Leahy begins by asking whether Sampson met with President Bush about the firings. Sampson said that he hadn't met with the president since the 2004 elections. He also says he isn't aware of any documents indicating a presidential decision on the firings. He said later that he doesn't know if the president reviewed the firing plan.
Now Leahy is asking about a November 15 email by Sampson, where he sent the firing plan over to the White House.
Sampson said that before November 15, he had discussed the firing plan with attorney general. It's not clear exactly what Sampson meant by that (how recently, in what detail) -- hopefully someone will follow up on that later.
Now we're on a December 7th email, between Sampson and deputy White House counsel Bill Kelley. Expandng on the discussion of Kevin Ryan in the email, Sampson said, "What I remember is that after Mr. Ryan was called and asked to resign that the White House Office of Political Affarirs had received some calls. Ryan had called in some political chits."
11: 22 Update: Now it's Specter questioning. And it's good. He's asking about the May 11, "the real problem we have now with Carol Lam" email. Sampson dodged at first, but then said that the "real problem" referred to her "office's prosecution of immigration cases." Nothing to do with Lam's search warrant of CIA Executive Director Dusty Foggo.
11:27 Update Sampson says that four U.S.A.s who were added to the purge list in mid-October. They were "close cases" Sampson says.
Specter asked him point blank about whether anyone was removed because of a specific case. Sampson says no.
11:29 Update: Sampson: "I don't think the Attorney General's statement about not being involved in any discussions about USA removals is accurate."
11:31 Update: Specter asks Sampson whether the Department ever planned to use the Patriot Act provision to avoid Senate confirmation for U.S. Attorneys. Sampson's answer:
That was a bad idea by staff that was not adopted by the principals. I did advocate that. It was never adopted by the attorney general or Ms. Miers.... I did recommend that at one point. I was the chief of staff and I had made recommendations of different optionsâ¦ and I did reccommend that. But it was never adopted by the attorney general. It was rejected by the attorney general.
Specter asks if there's any record of Gonzales' rejection of that idea, any email of it. Sampson says, "I didn't communicate with the attorney general by email."
11:37 Update: Schumer's up now for questioning. He wants to know about Gonzales' statements about the process.
Sampson says that there were repeated discussions about the firings, starting in January 2005 through the firings. "I spoke with him every day," Sampson said.
Asked about the November 27 meeting about the firings, Sampson said that Gonzales was present and that he did speak, but that "I don't remember the meeting clearly."
Now we're on to Gonzales' statement that Sampson did not share information about the firing process with senior DoJ officials who subsequently testified to Congress. " I was very open and collaborative in the process," Sampson said. When asked specifically whether Sampson had shared information with the two DoJ officials who testified falsely to Congress about the process, Will Moschella and Paul McNulty, Sampson said that he had.
Schumer: "So the Attorney General's statement is false. How can it not be?" It sounds like that Sampson was about to repeat his line that it was something that wasn't deemed important (the White House involvement in the firing plan), but Schumer cuts him off.
11:44 Update: Schumer's on to the next inaccurate statement, by DoJ spokesperson Tasia Scolinos on March 24 that the AG "did not participate" in the process to select the U.S. attorneyys to be fired. Sampson admits that wasn't an accurate statement.
11:50 Update: Now Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is questioning. So far it's a number of softballs.
He asks, for instance, whether a replacement of a U.S. attorney would in and of itself interfere with the investigation of a criminal matter, making the point that it is the assistant U.S. attorneys who actually do the work on the cases. Sampson replied that it was "never my understanding that a particularl U.S. attorney changeover would have any effect on a particular case." (Right)
Cornyn closes with a speech about how there's no "evidence" of wrongdoing here and how the whole controversy is "unfortunate."
12:00 Update: During Sen. Herb Kohl's (D-WI) questioning, Sampson is asked about his stress on "loyalty" in rating U.S. attorneys. Sampson responds that what he meant was "loyalty to [the president's] policies and to the priorities that they had laid out for U.S. attorneys." He gave the example of Project Safe Neighborhood. He added that U.S. attorneys have the role as political appointees to promote the president's initiatives for law enforcement.
12:04 Update: Now it's on to Sampson's old boss, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). I don't expect this to be a promising line of questioning.
Here's something interesting: Sampson described 2005 as a "thinking phase" in the process of picking U.S. attorneys to fire.
Hatch tries to cast the evaluation reports done by the Justice Department as "narrow" evaluations that didn't capture the full breadth of the U.S. attorneys' performance.
12:10 Update: During Hatch's questioning, Sampson is asked about Carol Lam. Hatch notes that Lam was on Sampson's hit list in early 2005, before the Cunningham case even got going. Sampson eventually explains that Lam was on the list early on because...
"At the beginning, it was a failure to embrace the president's anti-gun, violence initiative, Project Safe Neighborhoods. The district in San Diego simply did not devote any resources to that initiative. That was a subject of consternation in former DAG Jim Comeyâs office early on and throughout the process. Later, in 2005, 2006, concerns related to her officeâs immigration enforcement..."
12:15 Update: Now it's Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). And she kicks off by introducing a 2/15/07 letter signed by the director of field operations of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. The letter pronounced full confidence in the way that Lam handled immigration cases while she was U.S. attorney there. Feinstein wonders aloud how Lam could be criticized for her prosecution of immigration cases.
12:20 Update: Feinstein's still going full bore, asking about the May 10th notice by Carol Lam that her office was going to execute a search warrant on Dusty Foggo. Sampson claims only to know from news reports that Foggo was "an employee at the CIA" and that Brent Wilkes was "affiliated somehow with Mr. Foggo."
When Feinstein asks about the May 10th notice, Sampson replies, "I don't remember ever seeing such a notice."
12:25 Update: Now Sampson gives a fuller accounting of why he wrote that "the real problem" we have "right now" with Carol Lam. He again says it was because of immigration issues, explaining that there were a number of concerns about Lam's enforcement at that time, meetings about it, etc. We'll have video of that answer shortly.
12:27 Update: Under questioning from Feinstein, Sampson admits that after the FBI bureau chief in San Diego complained to the press about Lam's removal, Sampson called FBI headquarters and complained to a special assistant to the Director of the FBI about the remarks.
12:32 Update: Feinstein continues, asking Sampson whether he was aware of the various public corruption cases that the various U.S. attorneys were working on when he chose which U.S. attorneys to fire. He either answers that he wasn't (Nevada's Daniel Bogden's investigation of Gov. Jim Gibbons (R)) or that he was aware "through news accounts" -- as with Arizona's Paul Charlton's investigation of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ). He claims that he was not aware at all that David Iglesias in New Mexico had not brought an indictment of a prominent state Democrat, and that he didn't know that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) had called Iglesias about it before the election. He claims not to have known much about Seattle's John McKay's controversial choice not to pursue an investigation of the 2004 gubernatorial election -- he had no "specific recollection" of being aware of it.
12:37 Update: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is up again.
Sampson says that the November 27 meeting during which Alberto Gonzales was present about the U.S. attorneys wasn't that long -- "maybe 20 minutes."
Sampson then goes on to explain how it was that DAG Paul McNulty managed to give false information to Congress. "In the preparation for Mr. McNulty, we really focussed on the issues of the day... Mr. McNulty was focussed on trying to provide the Congress with the information it wanted." Sampson said that they talked about the "performance reasons" for the firings, about "whether we tried to circumvent the Senate confirmation process," and about whether "anyone had been removed for an improper political reason," but that they didn't focus on the White House role.
12:45 Update: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) is up.
Sampson acknowledges that prominent conservatives were upset about David Iglesias and Carol Lam, but that he was only generally aware of that. "The Department as a whole was aware of those complaints," he says.
Sampson again says that in mid-October, after presenting the initial firing list, they made an effort to look around at other U.S. attorneys and find some that they could "maybe add to the list." Four "relatively close cases" were identified.
12:51 Update: Under continued questioning by Cardin, Sampson is asked whether it ever occurred to him whether that there might be a "perception problem" with dismissing U.S. attorneys in the middle of big cases. Sampson says that "in my mind," he "didn't associate at all" the idea of asking the U.S. attorneys to resign with the idea of "improperly affecting" particular cases. He's saying that it didn't even occur to him.
12:55 Update: Under questioning by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), about whether he kept a file on this project. Sampson says "it would be too much to say that I kept a file... there really was no documentation of this."
Whitehouse asks Sampson whether he ever tried a case. Sampson that he had tried one. "It was a gun case." Sampson said he was appointed a special prosecutor in the southern District of Florida. Sampson said that he'd tried a "handful" of civil cases.
Whitehouse asks whether "we should be concerned about the experience level" of the people making the decisions. Sampson replies that the "decision makers in this case were the AG and the counsel of the White House."
Update: We're on a recess until 1:45 or so.
1:54 Update: Sampson goes on to clarify that he actually had met the president in 2005 at a meet and greet -- that was the last time, not in 2004, as Sampson said earlier.
1:55 Update: Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is up. He's asking about his own state's USA, Paul Charlton. He's saying that the problem with Charlton were policy disputes -- over taping FBI interrogations, for instance -- and not anything else. Sampson admits that the term "underperformance" has led to some confusion here.
2:00 Update: Kyl continues to hit the question of whether Charlton was dismissed because of his investigation of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ). Sampson said that he was the "aggregator of information" but that he wasn't aware of that as an issue.
2:03 Update: Kyl says that Gonzales personally called him December 7th to inform him that Charlton has been fired. Kyl expressed "shock and dismay" and then Gonzales sent DAG Paul McNulty to speak with him. Kyl says that McNulty explained to him the policy differences that were behind Charlton's firing, and Kyl responded by asking McNulty to reconsider the decision and allow Charlton to stay on.
2:08 Update: Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) is up now. He's again asking as to whether Sampson kept a file on the firings, Sampson says "it wasn't a very good file... there wasn't much of a file."
No we're on to the question of Karl Rove's role and the Feb. 23 letter to Congress.
Kennedy: Do you agree that Feb. 23 letter was inaccurate?
Sampson: "At the time I drafted that letter, I was not aware of Karl Rove having expressed an interest in Tim Griffin being appointed." He goes on to say that at that time, I wasn't even aware that Rove was in support of Tim Griffin being appointed.
I was not aware, don't remember then, don't remember now whether Rove was interested in the appointment.
Sampson says that the December 19th email where he said that Griffin's appointment was "important to Karl, Harriet, etc." was "based on an assumption," because Rove's employees Sarah Taylor and Scott Jennings had been involved and were interested in the appointment. It's a fine line he's walking. "The email was based on an assumption, the letter was based on the facts as I understood them at the time," Sampson says.
Kennedy also asks whether Sampson discussed U.S. attorneys at weekly meetings at the White House about judicial replacements. Sampson says that the discussions were episodic, usually addressed only after the meetings with discussions between him and Harriet Miers and Bill Kelley.
2:23 Update: Now Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is up.
2:25 Update: Sen. Leahy interrupts Grassley to say, "we've just recevied word that the Republicans have objected under the Senate rules to this meeting continuing. I think that's unfortunate, but I will follow the rules of the Senate... The Republicans are the ones who don't want to have the hearings, the Republicans have the right under the rules to do that.... we will stand in recess until the Senate recesses."
2:40 Update: And we're back!
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) is questioning Sampson about why he rated Patrick Fitzgerald as an undistinguished prosecutor.
Sampson answers that he's widely viewed in the Department as a very strong prosecutor.
Sampson says that it was early on in the process of rating the U.S. attorneys, "I knew that Fitzgerald was handling a very senstive case and really didn't want to rate him one way or the other.... I didn't rate him any way... I didn't rate him."
Durbin asks, Were you concerned that the White House wouldn't react well to a positive rating? Sampson says no.
Durbin asks if Fitzgerald was ever considered for removal?
"On one occasion in 2006, in discussing the removal of U.S. attorneys... that I was speaking with Harriet Miers and Bill Kelley and I raised Pat Fitzgerald, and immediately after I did it, I regretted it. I thought, I knew it was the wrong thing to do, I knew it was inappropriate. And I remember at the time that Harriet Miers and Bill Kelley just looked at me.... I said, "Patrick Fitzgerald could be added to this list."... They just looked at me."
Durbin asks why he suggested that. And Sampson says he doesn't know why, that maybe it was just to "get a reaction out of them."
2:56 Update: Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) is back up.
Leahy's focussing on how David Iglesias got on the purge list. Sampson again says that in mid-October, he added four names to the list.
On how Iglesias did end up on the purge list:
"I don't remember hearing any complaints or anything about Mr. Iglesias' handling of corruption cases in New Mexico -- I do remember learning from, I believe, the attorney general, that he had received a complaint from Karl Rove about U.S. attorneys in 3 jurisdictions, including New Mexico. The substance of the complaint was that they were not pursuing voter fraud complaints aggressively enough."
3:09 Update: Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) is up again.
Specter points out that Sampson suggested using the Patriot Act provision a number of times over a number of months. Sampson again says that it was a "bad idea," but says "I don't think the principals ever considered abusing the attorney general's appointment in that way."
Sampson adds: "I did not think the White House would consider doing that in 92 districts.... in my discussions at the staff level with folks at the White House, I believe it was a consideration then... at the staff level, we discussed it." But he says it wasn't adopted by the principals (meaning Harriet Miers).
Upon further questioning by Specter, he admits that he spoke with Gonzales about the idea. "I don't think he liked the idea very much," Sampson says. He's then asked whether Gonzales specifically rejected the idea, and says that it happened after Gonzales spoke with Sen. Pryor about the appointment of Tim Griffin in Arkansas. But it's unclear when that conversation was. Sampson says it could have been late December or early January. When Specter asks whether that was after Sampson wrote in a December 19, 2007 email that they should use the provision -- Sampson says it was. Sampson appears to have no recollection of Miers rejecting the idea.
3:30 Update: Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) asks whether Harriet Miers ever suggested that Sampson wasn't the best person to be in charge of firing U.S. attorneys after making the suggestion that they fire Pat Fitzgerald. Sampson says no.
3:36 Update: Schumer asks about Sampsons "assumption" that Tim Griffin's appointment was "important to Karl." Sampson repeats his prior testimony about that.
Schumer asks Sampson whether he ever discussed removing Fitzgerald with anyone on Rove's staff. Sampson said that he didn't remember any such conversations. Schumer asked him again if he could say unequivocally that he never had such conversations, and Sampson again said that he couldn't remember any.
3:43 Update: Sen. Hatch is again up. He lauds Sampson, saying that he can't imagine him "being any more forthcoming."
Hatch asks Sampson again whether the Cunningham investigation had anything to do wtih Lam's removal. Sampson again says no.
On a line of questioning about why Iglesias was put on the list, Sampson says that four names were put on the list at about the same time (mid-October), but that three came off. Iglesias stayed on because removing him "wouldn't create any problems with the home state senators" -- meaning Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM).
And Hatch just suggested that Leahy's statement about Monica Goodling's choice to take the Fifth -- that he wonders what she has to hide -- would qualify as prosecutorial misconduct if he were a prosecutor.
4:00 Update Back to Sen. Feinstein. She wants to know who was responsible for putting names on the list.
Sampson answers that he was responsible for aggregating the list. Others (not clear specifically) added names -- "as information came in, I was responsible for adding people to the list."
Sampson then says that the attorney general signed off on who was on the list, but he can't remember specifically when that was -- he may have shown him the list, he may have done it in conversation. When Feinstein asks about the November 27 meeting, he answers that "we discussed where things stood... I reported that I'd coordinated with the White House." Feinstein asks whether the White House had signed off then, Sampson says he can't remember.
He adds that "The attorney general directed me that the senior leaders in the department should agree that these are the people who should be on the list." Feinstein expresses befuddlement about who exactly was in charge here.
About the November 27 meeting, Sampson says that he wanted to make sure that "everyone understood what we were talking about doing here... I wanted to make sure that the deputy attorney general and attorney general all were in agreement about the list going forward." When asked by Feinstein if there was any dissent at the meeting about the names, Sampson says there wasn't.
4:15 Update: Feinstein still going.
Sampson just said that after the November 27 meeting, McNulty pulled him aside and said that USA for San Francisco Kevin Ryan should be added to the list.
Feinstein asks about why Republican senators were told about the firings, but not Democratic home state senators (like Feinstein). Sampson says that, in hindsight, that wasn't a good idea.
When asked whether he knew who in the White House signed off on the plan, Sampson said he didn't know. He assumed Harriet Miers.
4:25 Update: Sen. Sessions is back. He starts out by harping on Carol Lam's gun prosecution numbers.
He rounds out by asking why Gonzales was mad about McNulty's February 6 testimony. Sampson replies that it was because the Department's position before then was not to discuss the reasons for the firings publicly.
4:31 Update: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) is up again.
Who was responsible for Iglesias being added to the list? Sampson doesn't say specifically. He says that he was added along with three others, who were added in mid-October.
Who was responsible for Iglesias staying on the list? Sampson again recalls a conversation that Iglesias stayed on because Sen. Domenici wanted him gone.
When asked why Iglesias and the other three were put on the list in mid-October, Sampson says that they were "close cases," because there was no specific policy difference, but that they were four USAs where they felt they "could do better."
When asked whether there were any names that Sampson on the list that didn't get on it, Sampson says they he was merely "the aggregator of information." He personally didn't put any names on the list.
Sampson flat out says that Lam's investigation wasn't even a consideration when discussing whether Lam should be fired.
4:45 Update: After a brief recess, Sen. Whitehouse starts again.
He again probes Sampson's advocacy of the Patriot Act provision. Again, Sampson can't say when Gonzales rejected the idea. He says that's a question for Gonzales.
4:50 Update: Whitehouse again asks about the "problem" we have "right now" was with Carol Lam on May 11. Sampson again says it was about immigration. There was a "robust debate" going on in the Congress about comrehensive immigration reform at the time. He said that there was some talk about having a meeting at DoJ about border enforcement, that he doesn't remember if the meeting ever happened, but there was a lot of discussion about "getting some deliverables" on immigration enforcement.
"Ms. Lam had her own independent views about what kind of cases she wanted her office to work on," Lam said. The "background" to the Lam complaints he said, was "gun cases."
4:55 Update: Schumer again. Sampson again denies that anyone was ready to replace the USAs who were forced out.
Now Schumer is asking about who was on the purge list but were then taken off.
Sampson says the USA for Middle District of North Carolina Anna Mills Wagner (ph). Monica Goodling suggested that she be removed (not Western District as in one of the emails), because she had a successful gang prosecution program.
Sampson can't remember who the other three others added in mid-October were.
When asked whether it ever occurred to Sampson to correct the record after he realized that McNulty had given false tesitmony to Congress, Sampson says that the first time he was aware of that was March 9, and he subsequently resigned.
5:00 Update: Sen. Feinsteni is back.
Did you or everyone at the Justice Department ever call Carol Lam and tell her that you were concerned about her immigration record?
Sampson says "I did not and I don't remember anyone else in my office doing that."
On the topic of the May 11 "real problem" right now with Carol Lam email, Feinstein again asks Sampson whether he was aware of Lam's notice of search warrants for Dusty Foggo on May 10. Sampson again says he wasn't aware of it.
Feinstein again, much to her frustration, tries in vain to get Sampson to explain who was responsible for who ended up on the list. All Sampson can say is "I was the keeper of the list."
5:10 Update: Specter again pursues a line of questioning about Sampson's touting the Patriot Act provision, and Sampson again says it was a bad idea of his that was never adopted by "the principles" involved. He adds that "he's not aware that the attorney general ever seriously considered it."
5:15 Update: Sen. Hatch, up again, again lauds his former staffer for being honest and admitting his mistakes. And he again goes on to say that he sees nothing wrong with having removed Lam.
I have to say, Hatch gets the blue ribbon for having the most leading, self-serving line of questioning of the day.
Hatch asks about what Gonzales knew about the process. "I kept him generally aware," Sampson says.
5:25 Update: Schumer again, asking about Iglesias.
Schumer asks when he was added to the list. Sampson only says that it was in mid-October. "I remember speaking... at some point prior to this (mid-October), Bill Mercer had expressed negative views about Mr. Iglesias." This was in 2005.
Sampson adds that "at some point, David Margolis had indicated to me some negative views about Mr. Iglesias, that he wasnât a strong manager, that he delegated a lot to his first assistant." When? Sampson can't say, only that it wasn't that "recent."
"Sometime in late October, those in the senior management in the department, the DAG, his CoS, myself, Monica Goodling, went back to look at the list." I don't remember it being one discussion, but a series of discussions. Iglesias was added then. Sampson still can't name who was responsible.
Sampson remembers a conversation with the Deputy Attorney General (McNulty) that Domenici wouldn't object to Iglesias being on the list.
When asked whether Sampson can remember a single example of someone in particular making a specific complaint about a U.S. attorney, Sampson can only offer the example of McNulty's suggestion of putting Kevin Ryan on the list.
Schumer pushes him on whether he would fire Iglesias if he had it to do all over again. Sampson says, "I wish the Department hadn't gone down this road." He also says that he would not have fired Iglesias.
Update: And after a conclusion by Sen. Specter, we're done.