Why Bush aides keep their bosses out of the loop.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 14 2007 6:25 PM

Chief of Stiff

Why Bush aides keep their bosses out of the loop.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Click image to expand.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

If I were a chief of staff in the Bush administration, I would be worried. Of late, the line between "fall guy" and "stand-up guy" seems to be drawn at the chief of staff's door. Two chiefs have gone down in the last two weeks. First, Vice President Cheney's former top man, Scooter Libby, was convicted on four of five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. Meanwhile, Cheney remains (no matter that the prosecutor in the case said a cloud continues to hang over the vice president). This week, Kyle Sampson resigned as chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales for not disclosing the role of the White House in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Gonzales still has his job, and the president fully supports him (though the cloud over the attorney general could be picked up by Doppler).

John Dickerson John Dickerson

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

The experiences of Libby and Sampson suggest that when you're a chief of staff in the Bush administration, part of your job requires taking care of business that you're expected not to tell your boss about. When things fall apart, you take the fall. And the boss enjoys plausible deniability.

Advertisement

The chief of staff is perfect for constructing this wall. He has enough power in the bureaucracy to get things done, but not so much power or prominence that he can't be sacrificed.

When it became clear—despite the claims of Gonzales and other top Justice Department officials—that the White House was involved in an orchestrated effort to fire the U.S. attorneys, Sampson resigned. His e-mails proved that he had worked closely with White House officials. His hands-on role included planning for the political outcry that has since come, making suggestions about stonewalling Congress and even writing a  two-faced e-mail to a man he'd just helped push out of a job. "David, I am well thank you," he wrote former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, who had asked if Gonzales would put in a good word for him with prospective employers. "You can list the AG as a reference—not a problem. Good luck!" (One can only imagine what Kyle's e-mails to David would look like today).

Though Sampson was doing all of this detail work in coordination with the White House, he apparently didn't tell his boss, Gonzales. This is a curious slip, especially for a guy who seemed concerned that everyone was in the loop. "To execute this plan properly we must all be on the same page," he wrote White House counsel Harriet Miers, "and be steeled to withstand any political upheaval that might result." Clearly Sampson's boss was not on the same page. This suggests two possibilities: Gonzales is such a weightless figure that his chief of staff could plan a potentially radioactive move with the White House without fear that his boss might feel left out of the loop; or the White House wanted Gonzales out of the loop, so he could say he didn't know what was going on. When everything blew up, that's what Gonzales said.

Libby, in contrast to Sampson, seems to have reached a point at which he no longer wanted to play the wall. According to his grand jury testimony, he went to Cheney and "offered to tell him everything I knew" about the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity. Yet Cheney, Libby recalled, "didn't want to hear."

Here's an idea for Democrats in Congress eager to exercise oversight: Subpoena the chiefs of staff of every department. Then ask them what they haven't told their bosses, or what their bosses haven't let them say.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?