A White House document dump has provided new revelations about the U.S. Attorney purge. And the biggest revelation — although not a surprising one — is that the idea to fire U.S. Attorneys and replace them with politically compliant toadies originated in the White House.
I’m piecing together two news stories, one by David Johnston and Eric Lipton in today’s New York Times, and the other by Dan Eggen and John Solomon in today’s Washington Post. The story thus far:
In early 2005, White House legal counsel Harriet Miers asked D. Kyle Sampson, a justice department official, if it would be feasible to fire and replace all 93 U.S. attorneys. It appears the White House was unhappy with the attorneys because Republicans were alleging widespread voter fraud on the part of Democrats, and the attorneys were unwilling to bring indictments against the Democrats, most probably because the allegations were a fantasy. (Josh Marshall provides an archive of his posts on the voter fraud allegations going back to 2001.)
However, as Johnston and Lipton note, the documentation isn’t clear if the voter fraud issue was the real or only reason.
The documents did not provide a clear motive for the firings. Some suggested that department officials were dissatisfied with specific prosecutors, but none cited aggressive public corruption inquiries or failure to pursue voter fraud cases as an explicit reason to remove them.
As has been widely noted in the recent past, the pattern suggests that the White House and the Republican Party generally have been using the Justice Department as part of their election campaign process. In other words, Karl and Co. have been turning our criminal justice system into a Republican Party machine.
Sampson — who resigned yesterday, btw — replied to Miers that filling that many jobs at once would be too big a job. (The Washington Post reports that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the same thing at the time.) Instead, Miers and Sampson began working together on a select list of attorneys to replace. As they did this, Karl Rove and other White House officials helpfully relayed the complaints they were getting from Republican officials about the attorneys’ failure to indict Democrats on voter fraud.
Eggen and Solomon, WaPo (emphasis added):
The e-mails [between Miers and Sampson] show that Rove was interested in the appointment of a former aide, Tim Griffin, as an Arkansas prosecutor. Sampson wrote in one that “getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.”
Sampson sent an e-mail to Miers in March 2005 that ranked all 93 U.S. attorneys. Strong performers “exhibited loyalty” to the administration; low performers were “weak U.S. attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against Administration initiatives, etc.” A third group merited no opinion.
In January 2006, Sampson sent a first list of attorneys to be fired to the White House. Four of the attorneys who would be fired were on this list: Chiara, Cummins, Lam and Ryan (the final list is here). This list also suggested Tim Griffin be one of the replacements.
Eggen and Solomon, WaPo:
In September, Sampson produced another list of firing candidates, telling the White House that Cummins was “in the process of being pushed out” and providing the names of eight others whom “we should consider pushing out.” Five on that list were fired in December; the others were spared. …
… Sampson also strongly urged bypassing Congress in naming replacements, using a little-known power slipped into the renewal of the USA Patriot Act in March 2006 that allows the attorney general to name interim replacements without Senate confirmation.
“I am only in favor of executing on a plan to push some USAs out if we really are ready and willing to put in the time necessary to select candidates and get them appointed,” Sampson wrote in a Sept. 17 memo to Miers. “It will be counterproductive to DOJ operations if we push USAs out and then don’t have replacements ready to roll immediately.
“I strongly recommend that as a matter of administration, we utilize the new statutory provisions that authorize the AG to make USA appointments,” he wrote.
By avoiding Senate confirmation, Sampson added, “we can give far less deference to home state senators and thereby get 1.) our preferred person appointed and 2.) do it far faster and more efficiently at less political costs to the White House.”
[Update: See also Think Progress.]
Note that the Patriot Act provision came into being in March 2006, about a year after Miers and Sampson began work on their list. Coincidence? Not a chance.
Notice this little detail, from Eggen and Solomon:
Iglesias, the New Mexico prosecutor, was not on that list. Justice officials said Sampson added him in October, based in part on complaints from Sen. Pete V. Domenici and other New Mexico Republicans that he was not prosecuting enough voter-fraud cases.
You may remember that in October 2006 — shortly before the elections — Domenici had called U.S. attorney David Iglesias and asked him about the status of an investigation into a Democratic state senator. Domenici also spoke to President Bush. Then Bush spoke to Gonzales “to pass along concerns by Republicans that some prosecutors were not aggressively addressing voter fraud,” Johnston and Lipton write. Thus Iglesias was added to the purge list, even though he had received a “strong performer” rating from Miers and Sampson in the earlier stages of their list-making.
A White House spokeswoman insisted that the President did not call for the removal of any specific attorney. Nor did he know that Miers, Sampson, and Rove had been drawing up a list already. (Bush never seems to know anything that’s going on under his nose, does he? I find it hard to believe that Bush didn’t at least mention Iglesias to Sampson.)
A few weeks after the conversation between Bush and Gonzales, the Justice Department forced out seven prosecutors.
Johnston and Lipton, NY Times:
On Dec. 4, 2006, three days before the dismissals, Mr. Sampson sent an e-mail message to the White House with a copy to Ms. Miers outlining plans to carry out the firings
â€œWe would like to execute this on Thursday, Dec. 7,â€ Mr. Sampson wrote. Because some United States attorneys were still in Washington attending a conference, he planned to postpone telling them they were being fired. He wrote, â€œWe want to wait until they are back home and dispersed to reduce chatter.â€
Eggen and Solomon, WaPo:
On the day of the Dec. 7 firings, Miers’s deputy, William Kelley, wrote that Domenici’s chief of staff “is happy as a clam” about Iglesias.
A week later, Sampson wrote: “Domenici is going to send over names tomorrow (not even waiting for Iglesias’s body to cool).”
Domenici is so busted.
E-mails show that Justice officials discussed bypassing the two Democratic senators in Arkansas, who normally would have had input into the appointment, as early as last August. By mid-December, Sampson was suggesting that Gonzales exercise his newfound appointment authority to put Griffin in place until the end of Bush’s term.
Griffin’s appointment and his connection to Karl Rove was reported in Arkansas newspapers in mid-December. This was one of our first clues that something screwy was going on regarding the U.S. attorneys.
Miers resigned as White House counsel less than three weeks later, in early January.
As for D. Kyle Sampson, in a sidebar story the New York Times reports that he had been using his post as chief of staff to the attorney general to get named U.S. attorney in Utah, his home state, even though he had never worked as a full-time prosecutor. The White House and Justice Department backed Sampson, but Senator Orrin Hatch wanted Brett Tolman, “a one-time Utah federal prosecutor who had spent the previous three years working on antiterrorism issues for the Judiciary Committee staff.”
This suggests to me that Orrin Hatch has known about some of these shenanigans for some time. But let’s go on …
This put Mr. Sampson in an unusual position. As Mr. Gonzalesâ€™s chief of staff, he was fielding calls and letters from Mr. Hatchâ€™s office, even though he was vying for the job that Mr. Hatch was writing about, two former officials from Mr. Hatchâ€™s office said. That made at least some Senate officials uncomfortable.
â€œIt was a little like the fox watching the hen house,â€ said one former Senate staff member, who asked not to be named because he now works in a different job.
Mr. Sampson did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Mr. Hatch finally made a personal appeal to Mr. Gonzales to drop his bid to nominate Mr. Sampson. After a four-month delay, President Bush nominated Mr. Sampsonâ€™s rival for the job last June.
Sampson — did I mention he resigned yesterday? — is a religious conservative (a Mormon) who “told the Brigham Young University news service that he admired Mr. Bush because the president recognized that politics and religious beliefs could not be separated.” Apparently Mr. Sampson’s religious beliefs didn’t teach him anything about ethics.
This really is huge. The “underlying crime” in the Watergate scandal was the White House’s illegal activities — such as money laundering and breaking into Dem Party offices to look for something incriminating — to ensure Nixon’s re-election in 1972. Now there is mounting evidence that the Bush White House and other Republican officials have been trying to use the entire federal criminal justice system to win elections for Republicans. I say this has Watergate beat all to hell. So far we know thatGonzales has lied to Congress about the reasons for purging the attorneys, and certainly more juicy bits will be revealed as time goes on.
Yesterday Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said he intends to subpoena Karl Rove if he doesn’t testify to Congress voluntarily. Stay tuned.