In his Senate testimony yesterday, Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, tried to be a "loyal Bushie," a term Mr. Sampson used in his infamous e-mail message to describe what he was looking for in United States attorneys. But if Mr. Sampson was trying to fall on his sword, he had horrible aim. In testimony that got so embarrassing for the White House that the Republicans tried to cut it off, Mr. Sampson simply ended up making it clearer than ever that the eight prosecutors were fired for political reasons.
He provided more evidence, also, that the attorney general and other top Justice Department officials were dishonest in their initial statements about the firings.
Mr. Sampson flatly contradicted the attorney general's claim that he did not participate in the selection of the prosecutors to be fired and never had a conversation about "where things stood." Mr. Sampson testified that Mr. Gonzales was "aware of this process from the beginning," and that the two men regularly discussed where things stood. Mr. Sampson also confirmed that Mr. Gonzales was at the Nov. 27 meeting where the selected prosecutors' fates were sealed.
The hearing brought out evidence that Mr. Sampson also may have made false statements. A Feb. 23 letter to Congress based on information from Mr. Sampson stated that Karl Rove was not involved in replacing the United States attorney in Arkansas with Timothy Griffin, Mr. Rove's former aide. Mr. Sampson could not convincingly explain why he wrote that, when he had said in an e-mail message two months earlier that getting Mr. Griffin appointed was "important" to Mr. Rove. He finally acknowledged that he had discussed the appointment with Mr. Rove's two top aides.
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The senators questioning Mr. Sampson pointed to a troubling pattern: many of the fired prosecutors were investigating high-ranking Republicans. He was asked if he was aware that the fired United States attorney in Nevada was investigating a Republican governor, that the fired prosecutor in Arkansas was investigating the Republican governor of Missouri, or that the prosecutor in Arizona was investigating two Republican members of Congress.
Mr. Sampson's claim that he had only casual knowledge of these highly sensitive investigations was implausible, unless we are to believe that Mr. Gonzales runs a department in which the chief of staff is merely a political hack who has no hand in its substantive work. He added to the suspicions that partisan politics were involved when he made the alarming admission that in the middle of the Scooter Libby investigation, he suggested firing Patrick Fitzgerald, the United States attorney in Chicago who was the special prosecutor in the case.
The administration insists that purge was not about partisan politics. But Mr. Sampson's alternative explanation was not very credible — that the decision about which of these distinguished prosecutors should be fired was left in the hands of someone as young and inept as Mr. Sampson. If this were an aboveboard, professional process, it strains credulity that virtually no documents were produced when decisions were made, and that none of his recommendations to Mr. Gonzales were in writing.
It is no wonder that the White House is trying to stop Congress from questioning Mr. Rove, Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, and other top officials in public, under oath and with a transcript. The more the administration tries to spin the prosecutor purge, the worse it looks.
© 2007 The New York Times