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Sampson In The Hot Seat – A Convincing Performance, Mostly

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I had the chance to watch portions of the Congressional testimony delivered by Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales. It was worth it. I recommend finding the time to view it yourself, because you’ll get a sense of these players far better than anything you'll derive from a news summary — or even BC Magazine! Also, YouTube has tons of video to choose between…enjoy!

I personally think Sampson came across as sincere and convincing, for the most part, though he seemed like a guy given far more responsibility than he could handle. He said "I don't know" or "I don't recall" a lot, but that's normal and prudent. He was particularly convincing when he flatly denied that the firings were related to ongoing investigations or other purely political considerations.

His main theme was clear: the firings were legal, but perhaps poorly handled. And the response to Congressional questioning was totally botched, which was why he resigned.

Fair enough, but there were plenty of troubling details that senators of both parties kept bringing up. Orrin Hatch pitched softballs, but Jeff Sessions sharply criticized the whole affair.

At the risk of writing a memo, may I list the more salient points?

1. While saying the firings were based on performance, Sampson acknowledged that the process was not "scientific nor extensively documented." Which led several senators to ask just which criteria were used to select these particular attorneys for removal?

2. He said Lam was criticized for her lack of immigration prosecutions. Then Sen. Diane Feinstein read a February 2006 letter from the Justice Department praising Lam for her immigration work, with prosecutions up three or fourfold and alien smuggling down by half. That said, the letter was apparently describing improvements over 2004. So one interpretation could be that Lam was doing a horrible job in 2004 — when the firing process was already underway — and her improved performance in 2005 wasn't enough to save her.

3. Sampson later added that Lam was also let go for her failure to pursue gun violations aggressively enough, which seemed like a bit of alternate justification after his initial justification was undermined.

4. He repeated several times, under prodding from senators, that Gonzales said various things that were untrue in previous statements to Congress. On March 12, Gonzales said he was "not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions." But Sampson said he discussed the matter four or five times with Gonzales and kept him informed. And of course there was the Nov. 27 meeting at which Gonzales approved the firing plan. Gonzales said Sampson didn't share information within the department; Sampson said he did.

5. Sampson said the firings were in the works for two years, as they first compiled an initial list and then waited for the attorneys' terms to expire. But then there was this bombshell: New Mexico U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias was not added to the dismissal list until just before the Nov. 7 elections, after presidential adviser Karl Rove complained that Iglesias had not been sufficiently aggressive in pursuing cases of voter fraud.

Not only does this constitute proof of direct and forceful Rove involvement, but the last-minute addition also undermines the "two year" and "for performance" claims — since they apparently had no problems with his performance up until then. It would seem difficult to properly assess his performance given the hastiness of the addition.

6. Sampson even suggested firing Patrick Fitzgerald in the midst of his prosecution of Lewis Libby. One can only imagine what a firestorm that would have caused. Luckily for all of us, cooler heads prevailed, in the form of Harriet Miers. But that's saying something: Consider that Miers initially proposed firing all 93 attorneys at the beginning of Bush's second term. When she's considered the cooler head, you've got some trouble brewing.

Ok, what does it all mean?

Sampson made a strong case that the firings were legal and proper — and at least some of them probably were. Kevin Ryan, for instance, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, was a devoted Bush loyalist. His removal – everyone seems agreed – was actually performance-based.

But even this situation highlights the political nature of the dismissals, because the administration wanted to keep him on-board because he was so loyal, despite myriad complaints about his performance.

And at least some of the firings, like Iglesias', seem to have no other explanation than politics.

Sampson made a spirited case defending even that practice, saying "the distinction between political and performance-related reasons for removing a U.S. attorney is, in my view, largely artificial." His general argument: if a U.S. attorney lacks political support or the confidence of the President, he cannot be effective.

Legally, he may be right. So far, Congress has not uncovered any criminal wrongdoing, and I don't think they're likely to. The attorneys do, after all, serve at the pleasure of the President. Firing them for sleazy reasons may be sleazy, but it's not illegal.

But ethically and politically, he's dead wrong. Ethically, the firings have undermined the independence, impartiality and morale of U.S. attorneys as a group — something the attorneys themselves have been rather pointedly telling Gonzales. Politically it's just stupid, because the defense doesn't satisfy the understandable desire to believe our justice system is impartial. This seemed to be something that particularly incensed Sen. Sessions. He opened his statement by saying that he wanted to make clear the justice system worked and the U.S. attorneys were all fine, dedicated public servants, whatever doubts the current scandal may raise.

Then there's the little matter of lying to Congress. And on that score, I think Gonzales is doomed. His earlier statements have been almost entirely discredited, and his explanations ring hollow. His main defense is that he has since, uh, "clarified" his earlier statements, and his new version of events comports well with Sampson's. Why he considers that a defense, I don't know. Only the most sympathetic reading of his March 12 comments would lead anyone to say he was merely imprecise or misspoke. Even conservative bloggers have derided his tortured explanation of what he meant by "involved", invoking the dreaded Clintonian axiom:  "that depends what the meaning of 'is' is."

I've said all along that Gonzales should be fired for the totality of his resume, and not the prosecutor firings. The true grounds are incompetence — both in law and in management — and a willingness to bless things like torture and "enemy combatant" statuses that grossly violate clearly-written law and basic human decency.

Initially I was simply amused that a relatively minor flap like this would finally brought him down. Gonzales exceeded my expectations by choosing to lie. It’s all a fitting capper to the twilight of his tenure: He will be forced to resign because he managed to turn a minor embarrassment into a raging disaster.

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About Sean Aqui

  • dee

    How can anyone who says I don’t know or remember almost 130 times be normal and prudent as you say? This is the new defense for corruption in government, they can’t remember. Our system is so f*cked up right now its getting ridiculous. Where is the truth? These government officials work on behalf of the people, not for themselves as republicans would have it, and the people deserve to know what is really going on. The system needs to be replaced before this country implodes. Sampson came across to me as someone who is to stupid to be involved in the running of the government, what if I said I don’t know 130 times at my job? I wouldn’t have one. The Bushies are a complete joke and those who voted for and/or still somehow support anything these guys say or do are a joke also.

  • http://www.thoughttheater.com Daniel DiRito

    The daunting ailment that has plagued those in the service of the White House continued to take its toll on the President’s minions. Today, members of a congressional investigative committee continued their efforts to find the source of the ailment as it seems to be highly contagious. The most recent strains seem to be far more pervasive yet determining its origin continues to remain elusive. Senator Chuck Schumer closed his questioning by offering the hypothesis that the ailment was a virulent form of lying.

    Many within the media stepped in to immediately offer the public a layman’s interpretation of the symptoms as well as analysis of the ongoing implications if a cure for the ailment could not be administered soon. The White House continued to downplay the seriousness of the ailment as it sought to allay the growing fears within the American public that the disease might soon decimate the bulk of their elected officials. A growing number of pundits continued to suggest that the President is in denial as to the severity of the ailment and what it might do to the Republican Party.

    See a tongue-in-cheek visual spoofing an upcoming episode of Saturday Night Live featuring a guest appearance by “The President’s Prevaricators”…here: http://www.thoughttheater.com

  • http://midtopia.blogspot.com Sean Aqui

    130 times is quite a lot; I didn’t have that number when I wrote the post. But on the other hand, when you’re every word is being scrutinized, it’s better to be careful and cautious about what you assert.

    In trials, witnesses say “I don’t know” an awful lot. Which is why it’s standard lawyer practice to provide documents and other evidence to jog their memory.

    “Did you meet with Mr. Smith on Dec. 10?”

    “I don’t recall.”

    “Here’s your calendar from Dec. 10, listing an appointment with Mr. Smith. And here’s an e-mail following up on the meeting.”

    “Ah, yes. Now I remember.”

    I don’t blame Sampson for being careful. Nor do I blame the senators for working hard to pin him down.

    And yes, I agree he was in over his head in the job he had.

  • moonraven

    Most completely unethical people–such as Gonzales–if put under public scrutiny often enough, will put the noose around their own necks.

    Gonzales is not a brighter than average unethical person like Rove, so he is wearing the noose.

    Looks good on him, too.

    Now the only question is: Will he be cut down, or will he be left to “twist slowly in the wind” (in the words of Richard M. Nixon)?

  • Nancy

    A pity it’s not Bush, Cheney, & Rove’s necks also in the noose, twisting in the wind. Let’s see…Dubya has had to dump how many staffers now? I do believe the Bush administration makes even Nixon look almost honest, & his ambitions to rule small potatoes next to Dubya’s megalomania.

  • moonraven

    Th main difference is that Nixon–though a crook–was a smart guy, and could see that all situations have limits.

  • Nancy

    True; Dubya is nothing if not unlimited in his capacity for stupidity, arrogance, & lies.

  • moonraven

    What I find shameful about Gonzales is that as a token Mexican, he represents the vices and not the virtues of this culture in that he is completely caught up in finding ways to get around the laws and institutions.

  • Alec

    Sean – Good analysis. Here is my problem with Sampson’s claim that the firings were “legal and proper,” and note that my objections would apply equally to a Democratic Party administration.

    I understand that a president has the power to make appointments, even blatantly political appointments, but context is everything. In a number of key cases (the FEMA, the Supreme Court), Bush placed loyalty and cronyism above any reasonable nod to competence. Further, he refuses to learn from past errors and continues to plow ahead. Further still, the revision to the Patriot Act that eliminated the Senate’s “advise and consent” role was not only foolish, but dangerous.

    This president constantly makes false appeals to trust and to national security in order to justify an increasingly autocratic governing style. This president pays lip service to notions of credibility, conmpetence and professionalism, but does not appear to understand how his actions undermine the principles that he claims to be supporting.

    You can’t really blame Gonzales or Sampson. They are clearly following orders. Gonzales, like Sampson, needs to go. But the Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, are going to have to decide whether to restore some reasonable balance between ethics and political gamesmanship.

  • http://www.elitebloggers.com Dave Nalle

    People keep saying the firings were political, but that’s arrant nonsense. The administration sets its policies based on political preferences and priorities. If they choose to fire people based on those policies, that’s their perogative. Anyone who comes in later and says it was political is being opportunistic or naive, because it’s a given that the administration’s positions on various issues are political in origin. To expect otherwise would be idiotic.

    This looks like yet another case of a ‘scandal’ based on nothing but straw men erected by the opposition, and ironically as in the similar prosecution of Scooter Libby it looks like Gonzales stepped in and lied for no good reason and got himself in trouble.

    Dave

  • MBD

    “as in the similar prosecution of Scooter Libby it looks like Gonzales stepped in and lied for no good reason and got himself in trouble.”

    No good reason?

    Hah.

  • http://www.elitebloggers.com Dave Nalle

    I guess it depends on what you consider a good reason, MBD. There’s no crime to cover up, that’s abundantly clear. So the lying was petty face-saving bullshit. Weak and pointless and perhaps deserving of punishment just for that.

    Dave

  • Sisyphus

    Seeing Sampson testify, was it just me, or did anyone else notice Sampson’s uncanny resemblance to Radar O’Reilly from the TV series, M.A.S.H.?

    :)

  • moonraven

    Failure to have balls is always a punsihable offense.

    Either you are taking responsibility for living your life–or you are shoving that off on somebody else. And that´s abusive.

  • MBD

    Those in government who lie publicly are concealing something they believe is important enough to be lying about it.

    Then the question becomes the intelligence of the liar.

    If intelligent, they must be lying about something of importance that we should know about.

    If not intelligence, why are they working as highly-paid government officials?

    In either case…

  • moonraven

    They are working as highly=paid government officials because the folks in the US have permitted them to do so–and have been too lazy and too busy consuming to hold them accountable.

    Or because they truly represent you folks.

    Either way….

  • MBD

    “Or because they truly represent you folks.”

    Right now they represent about 30%.

  • moonraven

    Unfortunately, when the shit hit the fan they represented more than double that percentage.

  • MBD

    Yes, our illustrious media took care of that.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx jaz

    lots of misrepresentation about what all this means coming from both “sides” of the Coin

    much bullshit, plain and simple

    it’s all about placing unqualified political hacks into positions of Prosecutorial Power to further the “permanent Republican Majority” goal of this Administration in a quiet, behind the scenes coup of unprecedented proportions…

    Some weren’t prosecutors before… is an excellent link to an MSNBC article, outlining, sourcing and demonstrating why corrupting the theoretically impartial Justice department into hatchet men cronies with as much experience in actually Prosecuting crimes as good old “Brownie” had in disaster management.

    From the linked Article – “About one-third of the nearly four dozen U.S. attorney’s jobs that have changed hands since President Bush began his second term have been filled by the White House and the Justice Department with trusted administration insiders.

    The people chosen as chief federal prosecutors on a temporary or permanent basis since early 2005 include 10 senior aides to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, according to an analysis of government records. Several came from the White House or other government agencies. Some lacked experience as prosecutors or had no connection to the districts in which they were sent to work, the records and biographical information show.”

    Have a read, and decide for yourselves…but do NOT let the spinners, shills and hacks from EITHER corrupt gang of self serving pigfuckers stuff their marketing memes into your Soul and turn you into nothing more than parroting sheeple for their political “brand name”.

    nuff said…

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