Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has a little problem. He is scheduled to testify before the Sentate Judiciary Committee this Tuesday, April 17th. We already know that he has been having a hard time in practice testimony, keeping his story straight while giving good responses to mock questions.
Now we know why he's having trouble. It's not because of anything he did. It's because of things the President and Vice President have said. Gonzales has to tell a story that both makes sense on its own terms, and doesn't make Bush and Cheney out to be liars. This will be almost -- not quite, but almost -- impossible. If the Senators ask the right questions, it might well be impossible.
Let me explain.
The little problem is that on March 20th, 2007, during a press conference in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, President Bush said this:
The Justice Department, with the approval of the White House, believed new leadership in these positions would better serve our country.
The little problem is that on Wednesday, March 14, 2007, in Mexico, President Bush said this:
As Mr. Gonzales defended himself in television interviews, Mr. Bush, in Mexico on the last day of his Latin America trip, offered reporters his first explanation of his own role, saying that although he had relayed complaints to Mr. Gonzales about federal prosecutors, "I never brought up a specific case nor gave him specific instructions."
In the spring of 2006, Domenici told Gonzales he wanted Iglesias out.
Gonzales said he would fire Iglesias only under Bush's orders. Not: if Bush approves an idea Gonzales already had. Only: if Bush orders. This contradicts what Bush said on March 14th and 20th.
After Gonzales's refusal, Senator Domenici called Bush.
The conversation between Bush and Domenici occurred sometime after the election but before the firings of Iglesias and six other U.S. attorneys were announced on Dec. 7.
So we have this sequence of events:
Spring 2006: Domenici talks to Gonzales. Asks Gonzales to fire Iglesias. Gonzales refuses, saying he would only do so on orders from the President.
Between Nov. 6 and Dec. 7, 2006: Domenici talks to Bush about getting Iglesias fired.
Also between Nov. 6 and Dec. 7, 2006: Bush talks to Gonzales about the U.S. Attorneys. (Bush says this.)
Nov. 15, 2006: "Iglesias' name first showed up on a Nov. 15 list of federal prosecutors who would be asked to resign." (Albuquerque Journal linked above.)
Dec. 7, 2006: Iglesias and six other Attys fired.
Okay, now . . . .
Gonzales is going to have to say to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Bush did not order the firings. Bush's words on March 14th and March 20th, and Cheney's words on April 15th (today) require it.
Remember, the problem is that Bush has said that he approved but did not instruct the firings. This is an almost impossible pair of claims for Gonzales to navigate.
Now check this out . . .
The little problem is that on Sunday, April 15th, 2007 (today), on Face the Nation, Vice President Dick Cheney said this:
``This took place inside the Justice Department,'' Cheney said on ``Face the Nation'' on CBS. ``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.''
Hoooo - Boooyyy.
Now we are in a position to understand Gonzales's little problem. And now we understand this:
Gonzales Prepares to Fight for His Job in Testimony
By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 5, 2007; A01
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has retreated from public view this week in an intensive effort to save his job, spending hours practicing testimony and phoning lawmakers for support in preparation for pivotal appearances in the Senate this month, according to administration officials.
So, Gonzales is going to have to testify that he simply changed his mind between Spring and November 15th, 2006. Further, he will have to testify that he changed his mind independently of Domenici's call to Bush and Bush's call to Gonzales.
Gonzales is going to have to testify to something like this: "Yes, Senator, President Bush called to relay Senator Domenici's concerns, but to fire Iglesias."
If the Senators on the Judiciary Committee question Gonzales carefully, that line will become untenable under scrutiny. Even in the absence of further data, which the Senators may have, there is already enough data, Simply because Gonzales' testimony will sound absurd.
And if they keep on him, they will trip him up. He could easily imply, completely by accident, that Bush lied to the American people on March 14th and 20th.
No wonder the Attorney General is sweating bullets. He has to protect not just his job, but the President of the United States. And he can only do it by making himself appear an unprincipled, capricious fool who refused a Senator's request in the Spring and then willy-nilly granted it the following Winter, independently of that same Senator's call to the White House.
However, all of this could easily be missed. All of this might look as though Gonzales is merely fighting to keep his job.
See Gonzales's WaPo op-ed today:
My decision some months ago to privately seek the resignations of a small number of U.S. attorneys has erupted into a public firestorm. First and foremost, I appreciate the public service of these fine lawyers and dedicated professionals, each of whom served his or her full four-year term as U.S. attorney. I apologize to them, their families and the thousands of dedicated professionals at the Justice Department for my role in allowing this matter to spin into an undignified Washington spectacle.
What began as a well-intentioned management effort to identify where, among the 93 U.S. attorneys, changes in leadership might benefit the department, and therefore the American people, has become an unintended public controversy.
Gonzales is stuck making himself look like an idiot; a bumbling Inspector Clouseau. Bush and Cheney are giving him no choice.
This is very clever, in that it completely distracts from the real scandal by apprearing to address a relatively inconsequential one: the Attorney General's clumsiness. At worst, on this narrative, Gonzales embaressed Bush and he might be fired for it.
Is that a scandal? Sure. But it's a small one; a smoke screen. The President's and Vice President's own bald-faced lies would be the scandal, here. Did Bush and Cheney lie? Almost certainly. Why? That's what we have to find out.