A political train wreck is inevitable now between the White House and Congress over Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' refusal to take seriously the oath he took as the nation's chief law enforcement officer.Gonzales' performance before Congress last week was a farce, an insulting load of deception and defiance. He repeatedly contradicted other officials about key discussions, didn't remember events or claimed not to know anything about stuff going on in his own department.
He even contended that the controversial secret government surveillance program had not been the subject of an emergency briefing with selected congressional leaders and had not fueled the urgency of his nighttime visit to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital sickbed.
This flatly contradicted a document from the national intelligence director's office, the memories of lawmakers who were present at the briefing and Gonzales' former deputy, James Comey, who was in the hospital room at the time. This drove the Senate Judiciary Committee around the political bend. Not even the Republican members rushed to support Gonzales, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., was as dubious about his credibility as were Democrats.
Enough is enough. Fudging and fiddling are common in politics. But there are limits. Outright lying under oath before knowledgeable members of Congress is one of those limits. To penetrate the walls of a political cover-up, however, requires an independent investigation and the release of relevant documents. And that's what both the Senate and House are trying to pursue.
Last Thursday, four members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Justice t requesting an investigation of whether Gonzales had lied under oath. What do you think are the odds that Gonzales, who outranks the solicitor general as head of Justice, will agree to go along with this? It is, after all, to protect his own rear (and that of the president) that Gonzales remains in his job despite calls for his resignation.
Once Bush is out of office, Gonzales' only professional future will be working for a Bush- or Cheney-controlled company. Who else would have him? Over on the House side, the political deck is equally stacked in favor of the administration. The House Judiciary Committee voted to cite former White House counsel Harriet Miers and White House chief of state Joshua Bolten for contempt of Congress.
When subpoenaed to testify about her role in the purge of U.S. attorneys, Miers refused to show up. Bolten refused to answer requests for documents on political considerations undergirding the firings.
They both cited executive privilege in defense of the president's privacy, which presidents love but toward which the courts have been ambivalent. In this case, the White House has denied Bush had any role in the U.S. attorneys debacle, so it is difficult to see what relevant private exchanges would be violated. The full House must approve the contempt citation, and probably will do so in September. But as a legal matter enforcement would be awkward, and maybe impossible.
The process requires the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia to convene a grand jury to determine whether to indict Meirs and Bolten. Like all the others, the U.S. attorney here is a Bush appointee and the White House has indicated it would prevent any federal prosecutor from bringing a case to overturn a president's executive privilege claim. Once again, Congress seems able to go only so far. Legislators do have a few levers -- this is, after all, about national political strength, not just legal bickering. And while the administration has the government tied in knots, the Democrats have the public's ear.
Bush's job ratings are in the basement -- 65 percent of those surveyed in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll disapprove of him, a level of unpopularity in recent times that rivals only Nixon.The Justice Department is virtually non-functional -- its top level of talent has bailed out and has not been replaced. It stands to reason. What smart young lawyer would want to have on his or her resume a job working for Gonzales? Not a great example to inspire new law school students.Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told Gonzales, "I don't trust you!"
Such invective at such a high political level is unusual, even for Washington. When the attorney general has lost the trust of the Senate committee chairman who oversees Justice Department legislation and approval of judicial nominees, what are voters to think?
It may occur to them that it is hurting the country to keep Gonzales in a job nobody thinks he can handle and the president is hinting at his own complicity in Justice Department wrong-doing by standing up for him. As Richard Nixon taught us, it's the cover-up that catches you, not the original crimes.
Marianne Means is a Washington, D.C., columnist with Hearst Newspapers. Copyright 2007 Hearst Newspapers. She can be reached at 202-263-6400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer