It’s just days before the mid-term elections, and you’re sitting in the White House watching a close Congressional race when it bubbles up that the the Republican incumbent, long dogged by corruption rumors, is under federal investigation.
That’s the situation the Bush White House found itself in when it was reported in late October 2006, first on blogs, that U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton was investigating Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ).
And that’s when the damage control machine kicked into gear.
Scott Jennings, deputy to Karl Rove, and White House Counsel Harriet Miers intervened to try to get the Justice Department to throw cold water on the reports of an investigation, despite the DOJ’s policy not to confirm or deny the existence of ongoing probes, according to e-mails released by the House Judiciary Committee today. (Read them here.)
One piece in the Arizona Republic, speculating that the news about the investigation was politically-motivated, quoted a DOJ official: “I want to caution you not to chop this guy’s (Renzi’s) head off.” That’s the type of statement that surely helped Renzi in the heated days before the election.
Renzi went on to win reelection, but was indicted on wide-ranging corruption charges in April 2008. The case is still pending.
The Jennings/Miers e-mails make for rich reading. On October 24, Jennings wrote, under the subect “re: our call”:
“The person I called you about [Renzi] said the USATTY in his area, as well as the local FBI office, said they were unaware of any investigation.”
Miers replied, describing how she intervened to pressure the DOJ on its public stance:
Scott, I just finished speaking with [Deputy AG] Paul McNulty. He said what we suspected he would. He has been contacted by a number of frustrated members of the Congress asking why people can’t be vindicated in the event nothing is going on. He acknowledged that the situation is frustrating, but reiterated their position that they cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. He said the AG did an interview last week to put things in as good as a perspective as possible by explaining that no one should be talking and that a refusal to deny should be given no meaning beyond that Justice does not admit or deny the existence of an investigation. I observed that at some point, immediately preceding an election, unattributed statements about the existence of an investigation was rankly unfair. He is continuing to think about the situation, but I did not get a lot of encouragement that they will deviate from normal course.
In other words: despite being told it was DOJ policy not to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, Miers asked Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general, to knock down the reports of a probe. But she “did not get a lot of encouragement that they will deviate from normal course.”
In the next two days, the articles citing anonymous DOJ officials appeared, falsely reporting the probe was in early stages. It’s still not known who made those leaks and whether anyone directed them to do it.
Asked about the emails in her House Judiciary interview, Miers had — surprise — a hard time recalling specifics.
In a lengthy exchange, the lead House interviewer, Rep. Adam Schiff, attempts to pins down Miers on the Renzi episode — and gets nothing but denials and claims of ignorance. Asked how she hoped the DOJ would “deviate” from its standard practice, Miers says “I didn’t hope one way or the other.”
That claim, of course, is belied by her email to Jennings.
The whole exchange is worth a look; here’s an excerpt:
Q … Now, what course were you hoping that they would deviate from?
A That they would try to do something to clarify that there should not be read into anything — I mean, just exactly what the e-mail says, and what the attorney general said, that they should not take any reading from a refusal to either confirm or deny.
Q So in the normal course of business, the Department of Justice wouldn’t confirm or deny an investigation, right?
A That’s correct.
Q And in this case, you wrote that you didn’t get a lot of encouragement that they would deviate from that course. How were you hoping he would deviate?
A I didn’t hope one way or the other. I simply related
what they said and that there wasn’t more that could be done.
Q Did you ever raise with the Justice Department a desire to vindicate or clarify an investigation regarding a Democrat who is the subject of a DOJ leak?
A I don’t recall that fact situation coming up, where a defendant — or a Democrat was at issue.
Q Do you think it is appropriate for a White House political official like Mr. Jennings, through you or otherwise, to press the Department of Justice to make statements about pending investigations for political advantage?
A That is a very charged question. And what I reported in my e-mail was, I thought, very appropriate, which was to ask was there any explanation for why this sort of thing happens, or how do you protect someone who is being unduly hurt, if there were away? And the answer was, there is nothing we can do about it.
Q Mr. Renzi was under investigation around the time of the election. Wouldn’t it have benefited him if the Department of Justice made a statement along the lines you were inquiring, that people should not read anything into the fact that he was being investigated?
A I don’t think that is a fair characterization, with all due respect, of what I reported back to Mr. Jennings of what I had discussed with Mr. McNulty. And my recollection of it is we did what we should do with inquiries about what is appropriate and what is not. We took it
to the Department of Justice. And they responded basically that this sort of thing happens and there is a reason why it happens and there is not much that can be done about it.
Q But certainly for an elected official around election time that is under investigation, it would be beneficial if the Department of Justice made a clarifying statement, wouldn’t it?
A Again, if there wasn’t an investigation — I just don’t know how I can comment on anything other than what I ask and what the answer was.
Q Well, let me just ask you about the general proposition. Would it be helpful to an elected official under investigation around the time of an election for the Department of Justice to come out with a statement saying that people should not read anything into the fact that the person was under investigation? Wouldn’t that be politically useful for that elected official?
A Well, I don’t believe that is what is being referred to here, unless I am misreading it.
Q Were you aware of the fact that, after your phone call on October 24th, somebody at the Department of Justice did, in fact, state that there were inaccuracies in the media reports on the subject of the investigation?
A I don’t recall that.
Q Can you take a look at Document 33? This is an article in The Arizona Republic dated October 26, 2006, “Inquiry on Renzi: Real Deal or Campaign Trickery?” is the title.
If you will look at, sort of, the middle of that first page, the paragraph reads, “A Justice Department official in Washington, D.C., confirmed a preliminary inquiry of allegations about Renzi. The official also cautioned Wednesday that initial media reports
contained significant inaccuracies. Officials said the Justice Department contacted at least two newspapers Wednesday about ‘chunks of stuff in their stories that’s wrong?'”
Were you aware that the Department of Justice contacted at least two newspapers that day to let them know that chunks of their stories were wrong?
A I don’t recall that I was aware of that.
Q Wouldn’t that violate the very policy that Deputy Attorney General McNulty told you about?
A What Deputy Attorney General McNulty indicated was that they would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
Q So that if a Justice Department official in Washington confirmed the preliminary inquiry of allegations and Justice Department officials contact at least two newspapers to tell them chunks of their stories is wrong, that would have violated policy that the Deputy Attorney General told you about, right?
A It appears so, if that happened.
Q If you look at the second page, I think it is about the sixth or seventh paragraph, beginning with the word “however.” It says, “However, the official said” — this is referring to a Federal official — “the official said it is unusual for the Department to publicly acknowledge concerns about the accuracy of media reports. ‘Be careful,’ the official said, ‘I can confirm to you a very early investigation, but I want to caution you not to chop this guy’s [Renzi’s] head off.” Those kind of statements coming from a Department of Justice
official would violate the Department’s policy as Mr. McNulty described it, wouldn’t they?
A If it was a Justice Department person. And it looks, just based on this report, that, yes, that would be contrary to saying that they would not admit or deny that an investigation was ongoing.
Q Do you have any reason to believe that the statements that are referred to in this October 26th article by Department of Justice officials to two local newspapers were a result of your conversation with Mr. McNulty 2 days earlier?
A I would ask Mr. McNulty. My e-mail says that he was continuing to think about the situation, but he apparently didn’t indicate to me that anything could be done.