Alberto Gonzales, Zen Master
The attorney general jiujitsus Congress with a smile.
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.
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.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Alberto Gonzales by Alex Wong/Getty Images.