The mouse that roared.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 23 2007 9:29 PM

The Mouse That Roared

Monica Goodling was at the center of the prosecutor purge and still has no clue.

Monica Goodling. Click image to expand.
Monica Goodling

Democrats on the House judiciary committee have a "Monica Problem." They expected Wednesday to see one of two parodies of Monica Goodling, the former counsel to Alberto Gonzales and White House liaison: either the weepy hysteric described by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis—someone in way over her head at DoJ—or the ball-busting religious zealot who ruthlessly rid the department of any and all disloyal "Bushies." In her first 20 minutes, Goodling sets us up to meet the former, with her whispery answers (Chairman John Conyers has to ask her to use her big-girl voice) and near-tearful insistence that she's "a quiet girl who tries to do the right thing." But as it turns out, Goodling is nobody's parody. She is smart and assertive and articulate. And freakishly candid to boot. She comes across as nondefensive—or as nondefensive as anyone can be with a wall of scowling lawyers seated behind her and an array of voracious paparazzi in front of her. Goodling is Elle Woods without the puppy in drag.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

One Republican congressman after another tenderly thanks her for enduring today's hearing—as if she's one of Jerry's Kids and not a former DoJ official who, by midmorning, has admitted to breaking the law. Her ability to speak in declarative sentences is enough to blow their minds. Less clear is why Democrats allow themselves to be rope-a-doped. They let Goodling give up all the good stuff in the first 30 minutes of her testimony and don't seem to notice or push her on it.

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In that first few hours, Goodling manages to give committee Democrats both too much and too little to wrap their heads around. She testifies that former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty gave false and misleading testimony to the Senate with regard to the U.S. attorney purge. She took the Fifth, she says, because of McNulty's inaccurate testimony, plus the "ambiguous environment" of the hearings, and not because of any crime of her own. She testifies that her role as White House liaison has been overblown. She had little contact with the White House (or Karl Rove or Harriet Miers) about the names on the list of U.S. attorneys who were fired but concedes that the White House was extensively involved ("several departments signed off") in the process. She talks about the "final decisionmakers" without ever quite naming them. She puts her former bosses Kyle Sampson, McNulty, and Gonzales in the room as the arbiters of the "list." But almost nobody sees fit to ask follow-up questions about how the list was made, what criteria were used, and what exactly the White House did to play along. Nobody asks why she cried when she quit, what she made of those e-mails, or much of anything at all about Alberto Gonzales.

Finally, Goodling takes complete blame for having "crossed the line"—even the legal line, i.e., the civil-service rules—by asking "political questions of applicants for career positions." In response to a question from Bobby Scott, D-Va., she adds, "But I didn't mean to." Oh. Well then, that's OK. For Goodling, this exchange is key, because she has a grant of immunity to testify today, so presumably anything she gets in, she can't be prosecuted for. She cops to breaking the law with enough charm to sway Republicans on the committee into repeatedly thanking her for her noble and selfless service to the nation. I think they want to offer her McNulty's old job.

Democrats who might have pursued the leads she floated about the White House role in the firings stop asking these questions once Goodling fails to implicate Rove. They are so blindsided by her admission of injecting politics into her own hiring practices that they forget to ask who else at the DoJ might have directed her to do so, or done so themselves. She tells Brad Sherman, D-Calif., that she looked at Web sites detailing the political contributions made by applicants for assistant U.S. attorney positions, and that she felt she could take account of political considerations in evaluating immigration judges. (Kyle Sampson told her that was OK.) She tells the committee that she didn't give one job candidate a position, adding, "I didn't know she was a Democrat. But I had heard she was a liberal." The committee, however, seems to miss all this. Indeed, they are so delighted when she points fingers at Sampson and McNulty, they don't remember to ask what precisely Sampson and McNulty did. 

It's not just that Goodling comes across as better, smarter, and more honest than Gonzales, Sampson, and McNulty put together, although she does. It's that the committee, in expecting to question the Great Exploding Idiot Barbie today, is completely underprepared and overmatched.

Chalk up another one to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Goodling's candor, in the end, doesn't go all that far. She doesn't know how New Mexico's David Iglesias made it onto the purge list. She has "no knowledge" of whether anyone was added to the list to gain partisan advantage. She says, "I can't give you the whole White House story" about Tim Griffin's appointment to replace U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins in Arkansas. She offers an almost cabalistic explanation for Gonzales' secret order transferring broad hiring and firing authority to Kyle Sampson and herself. (It was formalizing an arrangement that existed informally and actually giving new authority to the deputy attorney general, and thus needed to be kept secret from him.) Throughout, she paints this sort of sweet picture of herself as the Justice Department's Julie McCoy—arranging "morale boosting" field trips and worrying about averting badmouthing of the fired U.S. attorneys. In her opening statement, Goodling describes the DoJ as "family," and she seems weirdly proud of her prom-committee outlook, wherein promoting those who are "enthusiastic about priorities" and creating a "leadership team" that's "on the same page in terms of philosophy" is just the natural thing to do in federal law enforcement.

Goodling tells Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., that the reason former Deputy Attorney General James Comey could rave about the same prosecutors fired for incompetence by Sampson was that it wasn't unusual "for one person to have one experience of one U.S. attorney and for someone else to have another." And isn't that the point? Get enough of that anonymous "senior leadership" together and someone can supply a convincing pretext to fire someone who was on the hit list? Indeed, Goodling herself added to the list. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., accidentally gets her to admit that she may have supplied some excuses for getting rid of Nevada's Dan Bogden (a Patriot Act case "got messy").

At the very end of the afternoon, as Goodling looks like she may actually skate right past the committee, Adam Schiff, D-Calif., launches a brutal line of questions about whether it might be grounds for firing a U.S. attorney if he, say, was an absentee landlord, who, say, removed someone during a corruption investigation, who, say, decreased office morale and, um, showed an excess of fealty. It dawns on Goodling what's coming: Schiff has the attorney general in mind. "That wouldn't be my decision to make," she says of Gonzales. "He was a good man. I thought he tried hard." He tried hard? Well, that's what counts.

Artur Davis, D-Ala., gets Goodling to dredge up at least one bad memory about Gonzales. On her last full week on the job, Goodling went to the AG "paralyzed, distraught, and wanting a transfer." He wanted to compare memories of how the purge list was compiled. This made Goodling "uncomfortable" because it seemed "inappropriate" to talk about. He didn't feel all that bad about it, but she did. But then she goes back to explaining that whether the U.S. attorneys were fired to "allow others to serve" or for performance-based reasons, or for anything else, it just doesn't matter, because they all serve at the pleasure of the president. Indeed, since no two advisers can agree on who's doing a good job and who's doing a bad one, anyone's post-hoc excuse for a firing becomes equally valid. No wrong done. No wrong really can be done. It's a pretty story, really; and today Goodling tells it, well, almost prettily.

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