The U.S. attorneys affair will reach a turning point Tuesday when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But in what direction will it turn? Democrats appear to believe — hope? — that the matter will become the kind of all-encompassing scandal that can engulf an administration in allegations of wrongdoing. But whether the U.S. attorneys mess is that kind of scandal depends on the facts of the case; whatever their hopes, Democrats might find that the evidence just doesn’t support their allegations. But even if investigators don’t find the facts they’re looking for, the search will take a while, which means that even in the best-case scenario for the Bush administration, the U.S. attorneys affair will not go away anytime soon. So here are a few of the several paths the matter could take after Gonzales’s testimony:
#ad#‐The Democrats’ most serious charge is that the administration replaced eight U.S. attorneys to interfere with ongoing criminal investigations. The most notorious example of that, according to Sen. Charles Schumer, one of the leaders of the investigation, is the firing of San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam. Lam was fired, the story goes, to prevent the investigation that began with the successful prosecution of former Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham from targeting others in the GOP. “It came out in the newspapers that she was continuing to pursue that investigation,” Schumer said on NBC’s Meet the Press last month, “and it might lead to others — legislative and others — and in the middle of this investigation, she was fired.”
The problem for Schumer and his Democratic colleagues is that, so far at least, there is no evidence to support that charge, and lots of evidence to suggest that Lam was fired because Justice Department officials were unhappy with her enforcement of immigration cases and other Bush administration priorities. But we haven’t seen all the documents, and it is still possible some evidence might emerge to support the Democrats’ most damaging allegation. If it doesn’t, however, there is still:
‐When the attorney general sits down before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, there will be lots of questions about the last time he appeared before the committee, on January 18. In particular, senators will ask Gonzales what he meant when he said, “I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons or if it would in any way jeopardize an ongoing serious investigation. I just would not do it.”
The problem for Gonzales is the meaning of the phrase “political reasons.” If that is defined broadly, there is little doubt that at least one change in U.S. attorneys, the replacement of Arkansas U.S. attorney Bud Cummins with former RNC and White House aide Tim Griffin, was made for political reasons. Even though Cummins had signaled an interest in leaving, and even though Griffin was qualified for the job, and even though there is no allegation that the move was made to interfere with any investigation, it is still fair to say that administration officials wanted to give Griffin the experience of being a U.S. attorney — a move that was made, arguably, for political reasons.
In his testimony set for Tuesday, Gonzales will refine his position a bit. “I know that I did not and would not ask for a resignation of any individual,” he is set to say, “in order to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain,” he is set to say [emphasis added.] Gonzales apparently hopes the phrase “partisan political gain” will be a little clearer than “political reasons.”
Gonzales will also be questioned about his statement, in a March 13 press conference, that he played almost no role in the firings. “I never saw documents,” Gonzales told reporters. “We never had a discussion about where things stood. What I knew was that there was ongoing effort that was led by [former chief of staff Kyle] Sampson, vetted through the Department of Justice, to ascertain where we could make improvements in U.S. attorney performances around the country.”
Documents released after Gonzales’s press conference showed clearly that he did attend at least one meeting at which the U.S. attorneys matter was discussed, and he likely had greater knowledge of the matter than he told the press on March 13. In his testimony Tuesday, Gonzales will say that, “My statement about ‘discussions’ was imprecise and overbroad, but it certainly was not in any way an attempt to mislead the American people.”
It’s safe to say that at least some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee won’t buy that explanation, and on Tuesday Gonzales will undoubtedly be taken to task for the “never had a discussion” statement. The one thing he has going for him is that the statement was made to reporters, and not under oath before Congress, and Gonzales can argue that he made a mistake, or that he misspoke, but that he was not trying to mislead lawmakers. Still, that’s not a particularly strong defense, and it seems likely that the pressure for Gonzales to resign will grow, not diminish, after his Senate testimony. Some Republicans might be tempted to think his departure might put an end to the controversy. But even if Gonzales decides to leave, there is still:
‐If there is no evidence of political interference with prosecutions, and if Gonzales were to resign, what would the administration’s accusers do? One fallback scenario involves broadening the investigation beyond the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired. If the ones who got the axe were the ones who resisted the administration’s corrupt demands, what about the ones who kept their jobs? Maybe they were ones who were corrupt. “What happened here has raised a question about those others who are serving as U.S. attorneys today who were not dismissed,” Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin said on “Meet the Press” in late March. “If they dropped eight people from the team because they didn’t play ball, how many others did play ball? We have to ask those questions now.”
#ad#That could lead to a lot of investigation; after all, there were 85 U.S. attorneys who weren’t fired, against the eight who were. But the problem for Democrats is that, just as with the “interference with prosecutions” allegation, there is so far no evidence to support the claim that the un-fired prosecutors engaged in any sort of corrupt acts to please the administration. So that line of inquiry might well go nowhere. If that happens, however, there is always:
‐In the past few days, talk about the U.S. attorney matter has been dominated by the White House’s admission that some e-mails written by top political officials have not been preserved. Those officials — about 20 of them, including political chief Karl Rove — use not only the White House e-mail server but a political account maintained by the Republican National Committee. It’s those RNC e-mails that are missing, and Democrats believe they may contain evidence that top White House officials — specifically Rove — played a major role in the U.S. attorney firings. “They say they have not been preserved. I don’t believe that!” Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy said last week. “You can’t erase e-mails, not today…Those e-mails are there; they just don’t want to produce them. We’ll subpoena them if necessary.”
In the end, that is what the U.S. attorneys affair will likely come down to: a fight over documents. Even if there is no evidence that the attorneys were fired to interfere with prosecutions, and even if there is no evidence that some attorneys weren’t fired to interfere with prosecutions, and even if Alberto Gonzales resigns, and even if a lot of other things happen, there will still be an enormous struggle between the White House and Democrats in Congress over allegations that documents have been withheld, or have been destroyed, or have simply disappeared. Accusers always claim that there is some sort of secret evidence to prove their accusation. Sometimes there is, but even if there isn’t, the lack of such evidence can still sustain charges of coverup. Either way, with Democrats in control of Congress, the investigation can go on a long time.