Orrin Hatch Lays an Egg

If it’s true that Orrin Hatch is “campaigning” to succeed Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General, then he surely helped his cause on Sunday.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” with Chuck Schumer, one of four Democrats now pushing for an independent counsel to probe possible perjury on the part of Mr. Gonzales, the Utah Senator vehemently recited a series of pro-Gonzales talking points that leave him isolated not just from reality but, increasingly, from his own Republican colleagues.

“This is not really about the Attorney General,” Mr. Hatch argued just three days after the director of the F.B.I. all but said that Mr. Gonzales had been deceptive in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. “This is about the Democrats. They’re using him as a punching bag to get to the President.”

The popular theory in Washington, since the scandal over the Justice Department’s apparently political firings of numerous U.S. Attorneys erupted over the winter, has been that the 73-year-old Mr. Hatch, a former Judiciary Committee Chairman who once aspired to a Supreme Court appointment, has decided to carry water for the White House. He’s doing so, the theory goes, so that when Mr. Gonzales inevitably steps down, President Bush will look favorably on Mr. Hatch and select him for a career-capping stint as Attorney General.

Pat Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who now chairs the Judiciary Committee, has even said that Mr. Hatch is campaigning for the job, and there is a certain logic to the idea. How else to explain why Mr. Hatch would, with a perfectly straight face, declare on “This Week” that “the White House has said that Gonzales told the truth and neither [former Deputy Attorney General James] Comey nor [Robert] Mueller, the director of the F.B.I., indicated that he didn’t?”

Talk about a losing argument. Mr. Mueller appeared before a House committee last Thursday, two days after Mr. Gonzales denied to the Senate Judiciary Committee that his late-night May 2004 bedside visit to an incapacitated John Ashcroft had been to discuss the administration’s controversial warrantless wire-tapping program. But Mr. Mueller, who arrived at Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital room shortly after Mr. Gonzales left, told the House committee that the discussion between Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Ashcroft “was on an N.S.A. program that has been much discussed, yes.”

Mr. Gonzales has testified before the Judiciary Committee several times in recent months and it has, collectively, been a colossal public relations disaster for the administration. Beyond the numerous inconsistencies that have come to light – for instance, his claim that there was no significant disagreement within the administration over the wire-tapping program has also been undercut – the bigger problem for the White House is simply the amateurish level of Mr. Gonzales’s public performance. Some people are rather good at talking around simple and direct questions and not answering them. Mr. Gonzales is not.

And so while Mr. Hatch expresses befuddlement over why anyone might question Mr. Gonzales’ credibility – “He was a partner in one of the top law firms in the country!” Mr. Hatch exclaimed on “This Week” – Republicans, some quietly and some not, are hanging the Attorney General out to dry. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told Mr. Gonzales last week that his credibility had “been breached to the point of being actionable.” The rest of the committee’s Republicans, while not as outspoken as Mr. Specter, are hardly rushing to Mr. Gonzales’s defense – save for Mr. Hatch.

It can be painful to watch.

Last week, Adam Putnam, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said that Mr. Gonzales’s loss of credibility had “diminished” the Justice Department and “undermined” President Bush’s standing on Capitol Hill. Asked by “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos about this damning indictment from a loyal Republican, Mr. Hatch took a swig of the White House Kool-Aid and declared: “[Putnam’s] talking about the fact that this Attorney General has been battered day in and day out by Democrats for partisan reasons.”

Mr. Hatch also tackled the scandal over the U.S. Attorney firings, painting a picture of a victimized White House overrun by meddlesome and grandstanding Congressional investigations subpoenas: “There have been tens of thousands of pages given to them, countless witnesses have been called before the committee, Gonzales himself has appeared, the White House has even agreed to make some of the closest confidantes of the President appear before the committee.”

Conveniently, Mr. Hatch failed to mention that none of those “confidantes” the White House “agreed” to make available have actually testified before Congress – since the White House will only allow them to appear if they are not actually under oath.

But would Mr. Hatch, a fierce partisan but also a man who has won considerable respect on both sides of the aisles through the years, really lower himself like this for an outside shot at a dubious prize?

After all, he’s not guaranteed to have even a chance of getting the attorney general position. Mr. Gonzales, it seems clear, will not be shamed into resigning, and the White House, which has nothing left to lose in the court of public opinion, doesn’t seem inclined to push him to do so. And if Mr. Gonzales is somehow dethroned, it may not be for some time, meaning his successor might get a year on the job, if that.

One possibility is that Mr. Hatch is defending Mr. Gonzales simply because he can. He has one of the safest Senate seats in the country and is old enough not to worry about the impact of something like this on his long-term political viability. That Supreme Court appointment he always wanted will never come, and he already ran for the presidency (and thoroughly failed). If he’s truly more outraged by the Democrats’ effort to score political points from Mr. Gonzales’ dishonesty than he is by Mr. Gonzales’ dishonesty itself, he can make all the excuses he wants for the Attorney General and his Senator-for-Life status will not be threatened.

Plus, maybe it’s a nice way to end up on the Sunday morning talk shows. For what it’s worth, Mr. Stephanopoulos did ask Mr. Hatch about his interest in succeeding Mr. Gonzales. “Are you kidding?” he replied. “And give up being able to talk to Chuck Schumer on issues like this?” Orrin Hatch Lays an Egg