Hanging by a Rope

The firing of eight U.S. Attorneys has become a huge scandal for the Bush administration. It has not stopped growing. While the scandal has a slim chance of becoming the catalyst for an all-consuming subpoena-fest, the kind that cripples a lame-duck administration, it could peak shortly with either the firing or resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Democrats have been salivating at the prospect of getting Gonzales out of government for a long time, even before he was one of many members of the Bush administration who authored memos giving legal justification to the use of torture in the interrogation of detainees in 2002. Indeed, he angered Democrats by being one of the chief architects of President Bush’s pursuit of absolute executive authority. As a proponent of unitary executive power, Gonzales never would have been confirmed as Attorney General by a Congress not controlled by Republicans.

Gonzales’s tenure as Attorney General has been little more than an extension of his time as White House Counsel. Rather than maintain the independence of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the land, the department under Gonzales’s watch has been another arm by which the Bush administration, and the Republican Party as a whole, has attempted to entrench GOP rule in perpetuity. Some of the methods used were pressure from the White House to investigate Democrats for voter fraud, skewing of federal indictments towards Democrats in the run-up to close elections, and interjections into recounts in close elections (most notably in the Washington governor’s race in 2004).

Of course, bureaucracies in Washington leave paper trails. This is not a problem for those in power in a one party system, where cover-ups are protected by an impenetrable layer of party loyalty. But now that the voters have worked their pesky will and handed Congress back to the Democratic Party, the insidious actions of the Bush administration have been coming to light. The attorney firings have taken a prominent place among the flow of scandal in Washington because it is still fresh, and because it is so blatantly political. The attorneys appear to have been fired for the high crime of lack of party loyalty. This is not illegal in itself, but at least one of them, New Mexico prosecutor David C. Iglesias, was contacted by Senator Pete Domenici, who asked Iglesias whether or not he was going to file charges against Democrats in a corruption case. Iglesias later testified before Congress that he felt pressured by Senator Domenici. If the call was indeed made to pressure Iglesias into filing indictments he otherwise would not have, then Senator Domenici could be guilty of a federal crime. If Iglesias was fired for not filing those indictments, that could also be a federal crime.

If this kind of pressure being brought to bear on U.S. Attorneys is found to have been widespread, then all of a sudden this becomes a scandal of epic proportions that could fell multiple members of Congress and a sitting president. We are a long way from that happening, but the prospect of how far this can go has left Alberto Gonzales a sitting duck.

He is hated by Democratic leadership for his involvement in helping the Bush administration dismantle the constitution and for his fealty to the president. The firings are fuel for the fire. Add in recent revelations by the F.B.I., an agency of the Department of Justice, that they have been abusing powers granted them by the USA Patriot Act, along with growing sentiment among Congressional Republicans that the Attorney General should go, and it looks like a sure thing that Gonzales will be out at any time.

How He Might Go

The Democratic Congress will force him out. Democrats have subpoena power now, and are willing to use it. Already, Congress is in negotiations with the White House that would allow Karl Rove, the president’s strategist, to testify before Congress without being subpoenaed (i.e., not under oath). The tendrils let loose by the uncovering of the firings are within sight of the White House and the president. The president is understandably concerned about what they will find, what other areas of malfeasance may come to light. Keeping attention focused on Gonzales has to be a high priority for the White House at this point. Witness the lame statement by Gonzales last week where he admitted mistakes had been made without taking blame. President Bush followed the next day by saying he wanted answers from the Department of Justice.

The scandal caught the White House by surprise. This past week, a trail of emails surfaced stating that another former White House Counsel, Harriet Miers, had floated the idea of firing all 93 U.S. Attorneys after the re-election in 2004. The White House initially embraced this turn, pushing a former administration official under the bus. It was a lame attempt at forming a narrative, and rather than make the White House look less culpable, has instead made the firings look like a direct order from the White House. The White House is now saying it is having trouble finding out where the idea of firing the prosecutors originated.

One school of thought has it that in order to satiate the Democrats, Gonzales has to go soon. If the White House feels that firing Gonzales will indeed relieve the pressure this scandal has created, he is as good as gone. However...

How He Might Stay

...if the White House determines that firing Gonzales shifts the focus of Congress from the Department of Justice to the White House, instead of defusing the situation, then Gonzales will remain for the time being.

The very fact that Congress wants White House officials to testify may mean it is too late to deflect the scandal away, but keeping Gonzales on will divide Congress’s attention, and will still provide the White House with some cover. If this scenario seems familiar, that’s because it is. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was kept on far past his expiration date because he took the heat for failures in Iraq. The last thing President Bush wants is to take heat for anything. He has been accused of operating in a bubble of misinformation, but it looks like the bubble actually consists of aides and cabinet officials who occasionally support the myth of the president’s infallibility by falling on their swords, over and over and over again.

Eventually, even the much-bloodied corpse of Donald Rumsfeld proved useless in protecting the president, and the same should happen with Gonzales. The only question is whether the President will heed the calls for Gonzales’s head, and fire him soon, or whether Gonzales will hang on for months, or maybe even longer, and be a crippling drag on the Bush administration. Even the prospect of Bush trying to get a nominee through a confirmation hearing may be less painful to the President than hanging onto Gonzales’s dead weight.