David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

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Given President Bush's role in the dismissal of David Iglesias--over the reported objection of Attorney General Gonzales--it's worth going back over what the President and those who speak on his behalf have said publicly since this scandal broke. TPM Reader CB gets us started off with some choice quotes.

President Bush, at a press conference in Mexico, March 14, 2007:

I specifically remember one time I went up to the Senate and senators were talking about the U.S. attorneys. I don't remember specific names being mentioned, but I did say to Al last year -- you're right, last fall -- I said, have you heard complaints about AGs, I have -- I mean, U.S. attorneys, excuse me -- and he said, I have. But I never brought up a specific case nor gave him specific instructions.

President Bush, in his weekly radio address, on March 24, 2007:

In recent months, the Justice Department determined that new leadership in several of these positions would better serve the country. I strongly support the Attorney General in this decision.

Dan Bartlett, in a press briefing in Mexico, on March 13, 2007:

Particularly, as you can imagine, at the White House, when it comes to complaints, we receive a lot of complaints, whether it be from members of Congress, state leaders, local leaders. Oftentimes that is the job description of a White House employee, is to field complaints. That is not limited to U.S. attorneys. And over the course of several years we have received complaints about U.S. attorneys, particularly when it comes to election fraud cases -- not just New Mexico, but also Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

That information, it's incumbent upon us to share with the relevant Cabinet officers, incumbent upon the President to do that, as well. The President did that briefly, in a conversation he had with the Attorney General in October of 2006, in which, in a wide-ranging conversation on a lot of different issues, this briefly came up and the President said, I've been hearing about this election fraud matters from members of Congress, want to make sure you're on top of that, as well. There was no directive given, as far as telling him to fire anybody or anything like that. That would be under the prerogative of the Justice Department to take a look at those issues, as they obviously were doing.

So I know a lot of people want to make more out of it than that, but that is exactly what happened.

If you have other gems from the public record, please send them along, including links to the source of the quotes.

Update: And still more:

Dana Perino, on March 13, 2007, according to the AP:

"At no time did any White House officials, including the president, direct the Department of Justice to take specific action against any individual U.S. attorney."

TPM Reader PG, on this week's congressional testimony by the attorney general:

[T]here’s one aspect of this story that seems to have attracted no editorial mention or public interest. Implicit in all the coverage is the assumption—by Democrats and Republicans alike—that the Attorney General is going up to Capitol Hill to lie. As far as I can tell, this is a universal assumption. The Republicans are rooting for Mr. Gonzales to be successful in his perjury, to tell a coherent story that his enemies cannot break down. The Democrats are rooting the other way, off course. They’re hoping that their ace interrogators will be able to shoot enough holes in Mr. Gonzales’ story that they can destroy his credibility. But nobody seems to find it shocking or tragic that the Attorney General of the United States is going to lie to congress. . . . I’m sure that if Gonzales makes it through his testimony without being totally discredited, Fred Barnes and Brit Hume will be all over Fox news boasting that the Senators “never laid a glove on him.” But no one seems the least bit concerned about his truthfulness, just his tactics. . . .

It appears now that Alberto Gonzales will stand before Congress on Tuesday with all of the Administration's cover stories about the U.S. attorney purge littered around his feet like so many rejected scripts. From the Washington Post:

The former Justice Department official who carried out the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year told Congress that several of the prosecutors had no performance problems and that a memo on the firings was distributed at a Nov. 27 meeting attended by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, a Democratic senator said yesterday.

The statements to House and Senate investigators by Michael A. Battle, former director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, represent another potential challenge to the credibility of Gonzales, who has said that he never saw any documents about the firings and that he had "lost confidence" in the prosecutors because of performance problems.

. . .

The statements by Battle, who left his job last month, are the first details to emerge from more than 20 hours of interviews with four top Gonzales aides over the past two weeks by staff members on the House and Senate Judiciary committees. The last of those interviews was conducted yesterday with Sampson, who testified publicly last month that he was only an "aggregator" of information on the firings and that ultimate responsibility rested with Gonzales.

This is curious. The day's big story--the Albuquerque Journal article that places President Bush at the center of the firing of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias--did not contain any reaction from the White House or the Department of Justice. Mike Gallagher's piece this morning noted that Sen. Pete Domenici's office declined to comment, but there was no reference, one way or the other, to any effort to contact the White House or DOJ for comment. That's not necessarily a criticism of Gallagher's work, but it did leave me with questions and the expectation that there would be some serious blowback from the Administration in response to the article. But here we are on Sunday evening, and I'm still not seeing any public reaction from the Administration. McClatchy is reporting that the White House did not respond to its questions about the story out of New Mexico. You might say the silence is deafening.

Late update: The later version of the McClatchy story contains reaction from the White House and DOJ.

Dick Cheney, today on Face the Nation, when asked about the U.S. Attorney purge:

Well, as vice president, I don't know anything about the particular problem you're talking about. I mean, it took place inside the Justice Department. The one who needs to answer to that and lay out on the record the specifics of what transpired is the attorney general, and he'll do so.

Alberto Gonzales is, as John Ehrlichman said, "twisting slowly, slowly in the wind."

"Nothing Improper" is the title of the attorney general's Washington Post op-ed previewing his testimony to Congress this week.

The appointment of Rachel Paulose to be the U.S. attorney for Minnesota continues to be a source of puzzlement. Stung by the resignation of four of the top administrators in her office, Paulose agreed to an interview with the Star Tribune and professed to have been completely out of the loop on the U.S. attorney purge:

"These wild conspiracy theories are just that -- totally off base," Paulose said in her first interview on the subject. "No one communicated to me--in any form--about any plan to remove any U.S. attorney."

So how did a 33-year-old Republican lawyer go, in less than two months, from private practice in Minnesota to senior counselor to the deputy attorney general in Washington and then back to Minnesota as an interim U.S. attorney? Here's Paulose's version of what happened, as reported by the Star Tribune:

In January 2006, she was recruited for a job as senior counselor to the deputy attorney general, working primarily on health care policy.

Paulose said she never met Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty until she applied to work for him. Nor was she close to Gonzales, adding that they have never had a one-on-one meeting.

She says Monica Goodling, the Justice Department's former liaison to the White House, is a friend. Goodling invoked the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and refused to testify before a Senate committee investigating the replacement of U.S. attorneys.

But they didn't meet until January 2006. Neither Goodling nor anyone else ever told her about a plan to replace U.S. attorneys, Paulose said.

Six weeks after starting her job in Washington, Minnesota U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger resigned, and Paulose was quickly appointed as his interim replacement. A lifelong Republican, she said she was as surprised by the appointment as anyone, noting that she had signed a year's lease for an apartment in Chevy Chase, Md.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., submitted the names of two candidates to replace Heffelfinger. His staff said Paulose was not one of them. Clayton Robinson, a longtime friend of Coleman's who now oversees criminal cases in Ramsey County, said he interviewed for the U.S. attorney job in March 2006, but was told several weeks later that the administration was looking elsewhere.

Coleman eventually embraced Paulose's nomination, largely based on recommendations from respected lawyers, and the Senate confirmed her in December.

It's quite a remarkable run, especially since Paulose didn't have the support of Coleman, who as the state's sole Republican senator would usually play a pivotal role in selecting his state's U.S. attorney.

There's more to this. There has to be. Paulose has laid down quite a marker though: She was as surprised as anyone when she was appointed interim U.S. attorney. Keep that marker in mind as this story unfolds.


Philip Heymann, a Harvard law professor and former deputy attorney general under Reno, said the Justice Department has always been vulnerable to allegations of playing politics with prosecutions.

"But these allegations are vastly greater and more credible," Heymann said. "Really good attorney generals go out of their way to keep appearances straight as well as realities. I think something serious has been going on, and I think it's terribly important that it come out.

"If politicians were going to the White House and saying they didn't want this or that case brought, and the White House was letting the U.S. attorneys know by firing them, it would be terribly immoral and destructive."

An inside look at how the Department of Justice has changed under George W. Bush, and particularly under Alberto Gonzales.

Update: Some readers have asked me to further highlight the piece I linked to above, an interview that Daniel Metcalfe, a recently retired senior career DOJ lawyer, gave to the Legal Times' Tony Mauro. Gladly.

Metcalfe had been with the Justice Department since 1971, so much of the perspective what he is able to offer on the Bush Justice Department is historical. Here is Metcalfe on how quickly things changed after Alberto Gonzales became attorney general:

Ever since the Watergate era, when Edward Levi came in as attorney general to replace former Sen. William Saxby soon after Nixon resigned, the Justice Department maintained a healthy distance between it and what could be called the raw political concerns that are properly within the White House's domain. Even Reagan's first attorney general, William French Smith, did not depart greatly from the standard that Levi set; as for Meese, I knew him to be more heavily involved in defending himself from multiple ethics investigations than in bringing the department too close to the White House, even though he came from there.

More recently, of course, the DOJ-White House distance hit its all-time high-water mark under Janet Reno, especially during Clinton's second term. And even John Ashcroft made it clear to all department employees that, among other things, he held that traditional distance in proper reverence; he proved that this was no mere lip service when, from his hospital bed, he refused to overrule Deputy AG Comey on what is now called the "terrorist surveillance program." Especially in the wake of 9/11, which strongly spurred the morale and dedication of Justice Department employees, myself included, I saw only a limited morale diminution in general during the first term.

But that strong tradition of independence over the previous 30 years was shattered in 2005 with the arrival of the White House counsel as a second-term AG. All sworn assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, it was as if the White House and Justice Department now were artificially tied at the hip -- through their public affairs, legislative affairs and legal policy offices, for example, as well as where you ordinarily would expect such a connection (i.e., Justice's Office of Legal Counsel). I attended many meetings in which this total lack of distance became quite clear, as if the current crop of political appointees in those offices weren't even aware of the important administration-of-justice principles that they were trampling.

Metcalfe also makes an interesting--and on its face, plausible--claim that I don't recall hearing before: namely, that the traditional second term decline in the quality of new political appointees is worse in Republican administrations:

I'll now say something that might sound partisan, even coming from a purposely nonpartisan registered independent, but it's really not: In my experience over 11 presidential administrations, from Nixon I to what can be called Bush III, there is an unmistakable drop-off in overall appointment quality during a second presidential term -- and this definitely is more so during a Republican administration. Perhaps this is due to there being a lower quality of political appointees in Republican administrations to begin with, given that, by and large, they give up more than Democrats do to enter government service, especially with the post-Watergate ethics restrictions that all government officials face.

This observation is nothing new, by the way; one need only look at the relative ages and experience levels of comparable appointees in successive administrations to see it. So when you enter the second term of a Republican administration, you get the worst of all possible worlds: You actually see some influential political appointees who are, to put it bluntly, too subject-matter ignorant to even realize how ignorant they are. (This is assuming that, if they knew, they'd actually care.)

And compounding this, as mentioned earlier, is the strong drive of political appointees at all levels (perhaps more so if they are attorneys, whose background is amenable to legal positions throughout the executive branch) to obtain that maximum capstone position before the second term ends. What happens to bureaucracy at such a time is that it becomes sluggish to the point of constipation, driven only by expediency as gauged from a political or personal agenda, and it sometimes yields some truly mind-boggling results, such as the current U.S. Attorney nightmare.

Metcalfe's perspective is worth considering. It is, in some respects, a more benign explanation for some of what we have seen than I might favor. I use "benign" guardedly because what Metcalfe witnessed in the last two years of his tenure at DOJ was clearly distressing to him and, in his view, marred the department's reputation, something he took great pride in.

What I mean is that the dysfunction he describes at the staff level can be seen as the cause of the purge scandal or it can be seen as a means to an end. If you subscribe to the former view, then Purgegate is a mess that could have been avoided if it had merely been handled better, a public relations snafu due to poor staffing. The latter view, which is perhaps more cynical but I also think more realistic, is that placing young, inexperienced, impressionable staffers in high level department positions enabled higher-ups in the Administration to exert far greater control in promulgating the Rove political agenda. (That staff level youth and inexperience could be blamed when and if the crap hit the fan was merely another advantage to the plan.)

Second term malaise may have a historical precedent, but the politicization of the Justice Department is classic Karl Rove.