Where the fingers are pointing in the Bush administration meltdown.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
March 27 2007 7:21 PM

Who's Blaming Whom

Where the fingers are pointing in the Bush administration meltdown.

As clichés go, "It's not the crime, it's the coverup" is a pretty useful one. And it's particularly apt in the train wreck that is the Bush administration's U.S. attorney purge. Sure, the underlying act that's alleged—firing only those U.S. attorneys who didn't measure up as "loyal Bushies"—was a bad one. But what seems to have undone the once-leviathan Bush administration is the fact that everyone's lying about it. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty apparently admitted both too little and too much in one brief briefing. And those admissions have triggered the kind of scrambling and finger-pointing we've never seen from this administration.        

Had McNulty not claimed before the Senate on Feb. 6 that six of the fired U.S. attorneys had been let go for "performance-related" issues, he would not have infuriated those lawyers into defending their performance. And had he not had one dumb moment of pure honesty—admitting that a seventh was fired just to make room for a former Rove aide—he might not have illuminated more than the White House cared to reveal. And without these assertions (bear in mind that Harriet Miers advised him to deny, deny, deny), McNulty might not have implicated his colleagues at the Justice Department and the White House and turned them into liars and finger-pointers as well.

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It's not easy to keep track of who in the Bush administration did what and whose lies contradict whose. A chart helps. So here's a roundup of some of what we now know.

The trigger: McNulty's claim that the firings were a routine personnel matter based on the ousted prosecutors' "performance."

Karl RoveAlberto GonzalesHarriet MiersPaul McNultyKyle SampsonMonica Goodling
Title:Presidential adviserAttorney General

White House counsel(Resigned Jan. 4, 2007.)

Deputy Attorney GeneralChief of Staff to Alberto Gonzales (Resigned March 12, 2007.)

Gonzales' senior counsel and White House liaison.(Took administrative leave March 26.)

How implicated:

• In 2005, New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Allen Weh asks Rove to fire David Iglesias for failing to investigate Democrats for voter fraud. Rove responds, "He's gone."

• White House later admits that " Rove served as a conduit for complaints to the Justice Department about federal prosecutors who were later fired."

• On Jan. 18, 2007, testified: "What we do is we make an evaluation about the performance of individuals."

• March 13, 2007, press conference:

"I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved

in any discussions about what was going on."

Dan Bartlett  says on March 13, 2007: "And what Harriet floated was the idea of saying should we treat the fifth year as the first year—give new blood—an opportunity for new blood to come in."

Feb. 2005 e-mail from Miers to Sampson suggested firing all 93 U.S. attorneys was her idea. Rove says that is his recollection.

Said in testimony on Feb. 6, 2007, in reference to the firings, that

"the phone calls that were made back in December were performance-related."

• March 2, 2005, e-mails from Kyle Sampson to Harriet Miers ranking all U.S. attorneys for such qualities as "loyalty to the President and Attorney General" and praising "the vast majority of US Attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal bushies, etc."

May 11, 2006, e-mail from Sampson to deputy White House counsel referencing "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam ...  we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires." This, one day after Lam seeks more indictments in the "Duke" Cunningham prosecution.

• April 4, 2006, participates in conference call with Sampson and others to hear complaints from Sen. Pete

Domenici, R-N.M.,  about David Iglesias.

• June 21, 2006, meets with two New Mexico lawyers with heavy GOP involvement to hear their complaints about then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias.

Aug. 18, 2006, brainstorms ways to bypass home-state senators in replacing Arkansas U.S. attorney.

Points finger at:

Denies

 

• "'The White House did not play a role in the list of the seven U.S. attorneys," Dan Bartlett.

• Justice Department released a letter indicating it was not aware that Rove had played any role in the decision to appoint one of his former deputies as U.S. attorney in Arkansas.

Blames Sampson and other subordinates Says in March 13, 2007, press conference: "I knew my chief of staff was involved in the

process of determining who were the weak performers ..."

•March 26, 2007, says in NBC interview: "If I find out that, in fact, any of these decisions were motivated, the recommendations to me were motivated for improper reasons to interfere with the public corruption case, there will be swift and —there will be swift and decisive action."
Silence

Blames Goodling and Sampson

 

Told Sen. Schumer: [paraphrasing] "I am sorry that I didn't tell you the truth. I was not told that these things were happening by the people who were supposed to brief me."

Confusion

 

March 16, 2007, statement via his lawyer that he "did not resign because he had misled anyone at the Justice Department or withheld information concerning the replacement of the U.S. Attorneys." But because "he had let the Attorney General down in failing to appreciate the need for a . . . political response to the unfounded accusations."

Blames McNulty

 

In a March 26 letter to the Senate judiciary committee, Goodling's lawyer says that a DoJ official (presumably Paul McNulty) blames Goodling for failing to "inform him of certain pertinent facts." Thus she cannot testify. Also she blames the Senate panel for being biased against her.

Conflicts with:

June 20, 2006, e-mail from Rove's deputy asking Monica Goodling to meet with GOP folk unhappy with David Iglesias.

Jan 6, 2005, e-mail from Colin Newman

(Subject line: "Question from Karl Rove") suggesting this all was Rove's idea.

Released

calendar page indicating hourlong Nov. 27 meeting with AG and at least five top DoJ officials discussing a five-step plan for carrying out the firings.

• Jan 6, 2005, e-mail from Colin Newman "Karl Rove stopped by to ask you (roughly quoting) 'how we planned to proceed regarding US Attorneys, whether we were going to allow all to stay, request resignations from all and accept only some of them, or selectively replace them, etc.
Jan 9, 2005, e-mail from Kyle Sampson to deputy White House counsel suggesting that "Judge [Gonzales] and I discussed briefly a couple of weeks ago ... As an operational matter, we would like to replace 15-20 percent of the current US Attorneys - the underperforming ones."

U.S. attorney performance evaluations.

"All but one of the U.S. attorneys recently fired by the Justice Department had positive job reviews before they were dismissed, but many ran into political trouble with Washington."

Statement by Gonzales, in press conference of March 13, 2007, that Sampson left because "incomplete information was communicated ... to the

Congress  … and I am very dismayed that that may not have occurred here."

Mass of e-mails show  Goodling heavily involved in planning purge; in efforts at damage control; and in attempt to get Tim Griffin the U.S. attorney job in Arkansas. E-mails also link her to Sampson and Rove's deputy, Scott Jennings.
Game plan:Fight congressional subpoenas  demanding his testimony, threatening to claim exeutive privilege.Fight to stay in office. ( Losing battle?) Fight congressional subpoenas, claiming executive privilege. March 26: "I have no plans to step down. … I intend to cooperate with the Committee in anyway they choose."

 Sampson "will testify that he did what he was told and will defend the power of the Justice Department to be able to fire  prosecutors, because they serve at the pleasure of the White House."

This week, took the Fifth and refused to testify before Congress. Claimed panel is biased against her.

Paul Gottschling is a Slate intern.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate