Senator Charles Schumer finds it “hard to believe” that embattled U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales can continue in office for much longer.
At the same time, Mr. Schumer believes that the practical consequences for the Republican Party resulting from Mr. Gonzales’ actions—the culling of eight U.S. Attorneys—will be lasting.
“Clearly, it will affect 2008, because the credibility of the President and the people close to him is lower now today than it was a month ago, and that’s going to hurt,” he said.
Certainly, Mr. Schumer—now finally in the majority, and with a gift of a scandal brought before his Senate committee—has no intention of doing anything to ease the pain. He intends to lead an investigation into whether the White House and the Justice Department plotted to fire eight U.S. attorneys for purely political reasons, and whether they lied to cover it up. And as he gains traction, he predicts, more and more Republicans—especially those like John Sununu and Gordon Smith, who are facing tough elections in 2008—will withdraw their support from Mr. Gonzales.
“If they continue to do what they are doing and follow Trent Lott and just march lock, stock and barrel behind the White House, it will hurt them in Congress,” said Mr. Schumer in an interview in his spacious Washington office, as C-SPAN played on mute in the room’s corner. “If, on the other hand, they show independence, it won’t.”
But forcing Mr. Gonzales from office—thereby inflicting another damaging black eye on the Bush administration—is only a short-term goal.
Much will depend on what happens this week, when the Senate Judiciary Committee hears testimony from Mr. Gonzales’ former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, who was forced to resign when details of the firing first surfaced and who is believed to hold sensitive information about whether the impetus for the terminations came from the White House.
Mr. Schumer, naturally, is expecting the interrogation to be of the hostile variety.
“I think Sampson is trying to thread the needle,” Mr. Schumer said. “He is going to both try and save his reputation and not hurt Gonzales. He is a longtime Republican apparatchik.”
Mr. Schumer and his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee have also been engaged in a very public back-and-forth with the White House about their ability to compel other administration officials—most notably Karl Rove—to testify under oath. (The White House has offered to have them testify behind closed doors without a transcript.)
“The terms that they proposed for Rove and Miers were so ridiculous—that’s why they haven’t had any traction,” said Mr. Schumer. “I haven’t seen one Republican who has justified doing it with no transcript.
“You can argue whether it should be public or private, or you can even argue about whether it should be sworn testimony. You cannot argue that there should be no transcript. The fact that they had to say ‘no transcript’ says something. Doesn’t it? It means that they want no accountability.”
Subpoenas for Mr. Rove and Ms. Miers have been authorized but not issued, according to a source in Mr. Schumer’s office.
“The Justice people will come, and the White House people—we’ll have to see,” Mr. Schumer said. “Every day there is a new development that makes it harder and harder for them to resist.
“If you get half the Republicans willing to give subpoenas,” he added, “that says something.”
Certainly, the official accounts from the administration of what happened have been weak enough to compel the Democrats to keep asking questions.
Mr. Gonzales first said he rejected a request, apparently from then–White House counsel Harriet Miers, to replace all 93 U.S attorneys, and had never discussed or seen documents referring to the selective firing of the eight U.S. attorneys. The firings were initiated by the Justice Department, he said, and were spurred by the poor performance of the attorneys.
Subsequent e-mails and documents released by the Justice Department seemed to contradict that version by suggesting that the White House prompted the housecleaning after the 2004 elections, with key administration officials, including Mr. Rove, raising the question of firing the U.S. attorneys in e-mails and conversations.
Mr. Gonzales appears to have discussed the planned firings on at least two occasions, in 2005 and 2006, and actually presided over an hour-long meeting about the firings with his senior staff 10 days before they occurred.
Mr. Gonzales’ deputy attorney general, Paul McNulty, has testified that the Justice Department decided on its own to fire the U.S. attorneys because of unsatisfactory job performance.
But Mr. McNulty subsequently told Mr. Schumer that he had been purposefully kept in the dark by senior staffers inside Mr. Gonzales’ inner circle.
“McNulty told me he asked explicit questions: Did you do this, this, this? And he did not get affirmative answers from Sampson,” said Mr. Schumer.
On Monday, March 26, Mr. Schumer’s committee prepared to hear testimony from another of Mr. Gonzales’ aides, Monica Goodling. To his surprise, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify, despite the Justice Department’s agreement to cooperate with the investigation.
“I think it’s too bad,” said Mr. Schumer. “Evidently, they think some kind of criminality went on.”
(Ms. Goodling’s lawyer offered a different explanation, attributing Ms. Goodling’s reluctance to speak to “the hostile and questionable environment that has been created by members of the Judiciary Committee in the present proceedings.”)
It has been a performance that has led Mr. Schumer to compare Mr. Gonzales unfavorably to his conservative predecessor, John Ashcroft.
“Even Ashcroft would push back at the White House when they pushed too far—Gonzales, never,” said Mr. Schumer, who voted against Mr. Gonzales’ appointment after interviewing him on the couch where he now propped his feet. “He totally saw his role as George Bush’s lawyer.”
Not for the first time in such highly public circumstances, Mr. Schumer has become part of the story. Seizing on the Senator’s partisan role as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—and on his reputation for political opportunism—Republicans in the White House and Senate have made him Exhibit A in their case that the Democratic investigation into the U.S. attorney firings is all about politics.
On Tuesday, Arlen Specter, a Senator from Pennsylvania and the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, reiterated on the Senate floor his belief that Mr. Schumer’s dual role as DSCC chair and investigation point man presented a “conflict of interest.” In a piece of backhanded collegiality, he also allowed that “Senator Schumer has a right to make political hay out of whatever he chooses to.”
Mr. Specter’s concern focuses on the abrupt firing of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico, who claims he received political pressure from Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico as he considered working on a corruption case. Mr. Domenici is up for re-election in 2008, and Mr. Schumer heads the committee charged with removing him.
Mr. Schumer rejects that notion out of hand. “No one’s taking them seriously,” he said, physically swatting away the suggestion and causing his black eyeglass frames to slip down his nose. “When they do this to me, it rolls off my back.”
“It’s not political,” he continued. “Look at the origins. The only thing they said about me is, I’m head of the DSCC and Domenici is up. It’s what they always do. Their standard M.O. is, bust the chops of the bearer of bad news instead of the discussing the bad news. In the past it’s worked for them, and it’s not working now because the public is wise to it.”
In other words, Mr. Schumer is confident that he has merit on his side. And the politics, this time at least, are secondary.
“The facts inevitably point in the direction that a good number of these U.S. attorneys were fired for the worst possible reason—that they wouldn’t pursue cases that would not benefit the administration,” said Mr. Schumer. “Now they are trying to figure out an explanation that is false but that would cover it up, but it just doesn’t hold.”