What do the missing RNC e-mails mean for Gonzales?

Down and on the way out.
April 13 2007 3:17 PM

Gonzo-Meter

What do the missing RNC e-mails mean for Al?

Today's chance of a Gonzales departure: 85 percent
(Previously: 85 percent)

The Gonzo-Meter

Even if the congressional investigation of the U.S. attorney firings yields no more evidence that the dismissals were nefarious, it will have been more than worthwhile for the window that's been opened into the internal workings of the Bush administration. The latest revelation, of course, is that top White House aides, including Karl Rove, used e-mail accounts set up by the Republican National Committee—and that some of the messages they sent—as many as five million—are missing, including e-mails that relate to the U.S. attorney firings.

This looks fishy when viewed in the bright light of the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which requires record-keeping as opposed to record-hiding-and-losing, and the 1939 Hatch Act, which limits the partisan political activity of government officials. "It's a mistake we are trying to fix," says a senior administration official. "I know the conspiracy theories will be running wild."

You don't have to wear a tinfoil hat to get conspiratorial about these e-mails, though. None other than disgraced superlobbyist Jack Abramoff explains why. In 2003, he accidentally wrote an indiscreet e-mail to Rove aide Susan Ralston (Abramoff's former assistant) on her White House e-mail account. After a White House official alerted his office that doing so would limit the political help he could get, Abramoff fired off this message: "Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her rnc pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system." That makes it seem pretty clear that at least in some cases, RNC e-mail accounts were used to stay outside the spirit, at least, of the law.

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The White House says it is looking for the missing RNC account e-mails but will turn them over to Congress only as part of a "package of accommodations" that would include no public, on-the-record testimony from Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. In other words, another salvo in the running battle over executive privilege.

What does all this mean for Gonzales as he gears up for his appearance before Congress on Tuesday? It might help, because the more the DoJ scandal turns into a fight over presidential prerogatives, the more the White House is likely to dig in. Plus, it'll distract people from all of Gonzales' failings. We're holding the Gonzo-Meter steady at 85. On the other hand, we're being treated to an odd spectacle: Gonzales, around whom the scandal is swirling, is also the public official to whom House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform Chairman Henry Waxman *, D-Calif., wrote yesterday about his concerns over Rove and the RNC e-mails. Which points to how strange Gonzales' role has become as he clings to office.

What can Gonzales say to redeem himself next week in his Senate appearance? If you could script his testimony, what would you advise? Send your advice for Al to slatepolitics@gmail.com.

Correction, April 16, 2007:The article originally misstated that Rep. Waxman was chairman of the House judiciary committee. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

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