Alberto Gonzales, Zen master.

Alberto Gonzales, Zen master.

Alberto Gonzales, Zen master.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 10 2007 7:13 PM

Alberto Gonzales, Zen Master

The attorney general jiujitsus Congress with a smile.

Alberto Gonzales. Click image to expand.
Alberto Gonzales

Alberto Gonzales is in his happy place. He enters the hearing room in the Rayburn Building for his testimony before the House judiciary committee smiling the smile of a man who sleeps well each night, in the warm glow of the president's love. Gone is the testy, defensive Gonzales who testified last month before the Senate. Today's attorney general breezes into the chamber with the certain knowledge that having bottomed out in April, he has nothing left to prove. His only role in this scandal is as decoy: He's the guy who runs out in front of the hunters and draws their fire so nobody pays any attention to what's happening at the White House.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

Gonzales seems to have made his peace with this. No more angry outbursts, no bitter attempts at self-justification. Instead, the AG answers some questions with a giggle and most others with the same old catchphrases we've heard so often: He has consistently failed to investigate any wrongdoing at the Justice Department out of "deference to the integrity of the ongoing investigations." The decisions about which U.S. attorneys made Kyle Sampson's magic list were the "consensus recommendations of the senior leadership of the department." Over and again, ever in identical language, Gonzales "accepts full responsibility for the decision" just as he insists that he played only a "limited role" in the decision-making. The fact that the attorney general can't even be bothered to pull out a thesaurus after all these weeks—even if only to create the illusion that these nonanswers come from him as opposed to a list of pre-approved talking points—reveals just how little he cares about what Congress and the public think of him anymore.


The House Democrats are furious. To them, there is only one plausible explanation for what happened to the eight (now nine?) fired U.S. attorneys. There is only one narrative that works with the facts. The White House wanted party loyalists placed in either key battleground states, or in states where Republicans were being investigated or they thought Democrats should have been. Gonzales rolled out the welcome mat at the Justice Department and told them to install whomever they wanted while he played hearts on his computer. If Gonzales truly wants to rebut that narrative, he needs only to offer some plausible alternative. Anything at all. But he doesn't. He offers only distractions.

These distractions take various forms: House Republicans join the AG in a daylong effort to point randomly, if effectively, at the interesting flora and fauna of criminal justice in America: Look, says Lamar Smith, R-Texas, at the terrorism cases the Justice Department can't pursue while it wastes its time on this nothing scandal. Hey, yells Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., check out at the William Jefferson scandal! "When is that matter going to be brought to some conclusion?" Chris Cannon, R-Utah, manages to stage a protracted distraction by turning Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., herself into an issue. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., gets Gonzales to opine earnestly that "voter fraud is not a dirty word." One after another, Republicans on the committee take turns blowing hot-air kisses at the AG for all his fine work on immigration, illegal gambling, the zealous protection of intellectual property, as well as his admirable ability to supervise all 110,000 of his employees without even lifting a finger.

Gonzales would take credit for all this fine work, were he not busy constructing a fantasy Justice Department that more or less runs itself. In addition to laying all the blame for the U.S. attorney firings on the same magical pixies who reside in Kyle Sampson's filing drawer (aka the "senior leadership of the department"), Gonzales also notes, several times Thursday, that the department "is built to withstand the departures of U.S. attorneys and even attorneys general," and that the "success of this office doesn't live or die with a U.S. attorney." That's why losing eight of these U.S. attorneys was no big deal. Time and again, he reiterates that it's the career prosecutors at Justice who really run the show. (There is a divine moment of stunned silence when he insists, toward the end of the hearing, that "it would be almost impossible to make a political decision in the Justice Department. ...  If that happened we would read about it in the paper.") His point: The department isn't actually supervised from above, or indeed from anyplace, but is wholly run by the career attorneys who are not political appointees. It's a strange strategy, in light of what we now know about the fate of some of these career lawyers. But as an explanation for why there was no wrongdoing here—the career attorneys would never tolerate it—it almost sounds plausible.

Since the career attorneys actually run the department, Gonzales is freed up to have no opinion about whether the DoJ should produce documents Congress is seeking ("I am recused from that decision").  He also needn't bother discussing this matter with his deputies, former deputies, or superiors. He can similarly accept full responsibility for decisions that he cannot begin to explain. He also shifts ground, in small but telling ways. He tells Mel Watt, D-N.C., that John McKay, former U.S. attorney in Seattle, was fired not so much because he "pushed an information-sharing system," (the old pretext)  but for "the manner in which he pushed the information-sharing system." He tells Brad Sherman, D-Calif., that he stands by his ultimate decision to dismiss the eight attorneys, then insists that if the process had been more rigorous, different people would likely have been fired, which he apparently also would stand behind.

Finally, the AG proves himself to be as defiantly incurious as his boss. He tells the committee at various times that he didn't read the CRS report detailing how previous administrations handled U.S. attorney dismissals. He didn't read the University of Minnesota study that broke down the disparity in  investigations of Democrats over Republicans  He tells Maxine Waters, D-Calif., that he still has not read the fired U.S. attorneys' personnel files. He notes several times that he hasn't much read the newspapers. He tells Sanchez that he still doesn't know who at Justice had more than "limited input" into these decisions. The most revealing moment, perhaps, is when Gonzales inadvertently confesses that some members of this secret cabal of senior leaders may not have even "known that they were involved in making this list." Poor James Comey thought he was making cocktail-party conversation, when in fact Kyle Sampson was using his judgments on U.S. attorneys as ammunition against them.

Robert Wexler, D-Fla., finally loses his temper and starts hollering: "You did not select Iglesias for the list." (No). "Did Sampson select him?" (No). "Did Comey?" (No.) "Did McNulty?" (No.) Did the president? (No.) "Did the vice president? (No)." Then Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., follows up with one of the best queries of the day: "If you don't know who put Iglesias on the list, how do you know the president or the vice president didn't?"

Long silence. Pause. "They wouldn't do that," hems Gonzales. "The White House has said publicly that it was not involved in adding or deleting people from the list."  Someone needs to tell that to Kyle Sampson. And as for Gonzales, he has made himself immortal by merely willing himself to be so. That must be what accounts for his Zenlike state today. It's an ingenious strategy. Instead of letting the president throw him under the bus to protect Karl Rove, Gonzales just lies down in the road, then giggles as the bus runs over his head.