Two major developments took place in the controversy over Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the firings of eight federal prosecutors late last year. Gonzales offered his first public explanation of the apparent discrepancy between his statement on March 13th and the release of a memo on Friday, while one of his aides revealed that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if forced to testify.
First, Marcia Goodling announced through her attorney that she would not cooperate in any Congressional probe into the firings and the documentation:
The senior counselor to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales will refuse to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the unfolding U.S. attorneys scandal, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, her attorneys said today.
Monica M. Goodling -- who is on an indefinite leave of absence from Gonzales's office -- also said that at least one senior Justice Department official blames her for failing to fully brief him prior to a Senate appearance, leading to "less than candid" testimony. ...
In the declaration presented to the Senate committee and released by her attorneys today, Goodling, 33, says Schumer, Leahy and other lawmakers have already "drawn conclusions" about the U.S. attorney firings. As a result, Goodling says, she has decided to "invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege against self incrimination and decline to answer any and all questions from the committee or its staff."
"I have decided to follow my lawyer's advice and respectfully invoke my constitutional right, because the above-described circumstances present a perilous environment in which to testify," Goodling says.
It sounds like Goodling fears a perjury trap. It's how Fitzgerald nailed Scooter Libby, after all, and Goodling probably sees a likely repeat. However, having a senior aide to the AG taking the Fifth in front of Congress will do no good for Gonzales' political fortunes. People will rightly wonder why senior Justice officials cannot testify honestly to Congress without incriminating themselves -- and they're not going to blame Congress. The assumption will be that some crime got committed, because without a crime there's no chance of incrimination, at least not in the legal sense.
Gonzales took a stab at explaining himself to Pete Williams of NBC in an attempt to head off any more political damage. After sounding wounded about having his integrity challenged, he offered this explanation of how he could have attended a meeting which approved the firings and the response plan while claiming on March 13th that he had seen no memos or had been involved in no discussions on the terminations:
Williams: Can you answer some of the questions that have come up over the weekend? As you know, there was a — an email that came out Friday night that showed that ten days before the firings there was a meeting in your office which you attended to discuss the firings. And yet when you talked to us here at the Justice Department two weeks ago, you said you were not involved in any discussions about the firings. Can you — can you explain what seems like a contradiction?
Gonzales: Let — let me just say — a wise senator recently told me that when you say something that is either being misunderstood or can be misunderstood, you need to try to correct the record and make the record clear. Let me try to be more precise about my involvement. When I said on March 13th that I wasn't involved, what I meant was that I — I had not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not United States attorneys should resign.
After I became attorney general, I had Kyle Samson [sic] coordinate a department review of the performance of United States attorneys. And I expected him to — to consult with appropriate Department of Justice officials who had information and knowledge about the performance of United States attorneys. From time to time, Mr. Samson would tell me something that would confirm in my mind that that process was ongoing.
For example, I recall him mention to me that — inquiry from the White House about where were we in — in identifying underperformers? And there are other similar type reminders that occurred during this process that I'm going to discuss specifically with the Congress. I was never focused on specific concerns about United States attorneys as to whether or not they should be asked to resign. I was more focused on identify — or making sure that the White House was a prop — was appropriately advised of the progress of our review. And I was also concerned to ensure that the appropriate Department of Justice officials, people who know — knew about the performance of — of United States attorneys, that they were involved in the process.
Now, of course, ultimately at the end of the process or near the end of the process, the recommendations were — were presented to me. There had been a lot of work done to review the performance of the United States attorneys. And recommendations were presented to me that reflected the recommendations of Kyle Samson and of others in the department. And so there was obviously a discussion with respect to that — that recommendation.
And, of course — having decided there will be changes, there was — there was a discussion about how do we implement this change? And so that is in — in essence — the context of my involvement and the substance of my comments on March 13th.
First, let me make an observation about MS-NBC's transcription. It stinks. Not only do they misspell Kyle Sampson's last name repeatedly, but they refer to a "Senator Menacheet" later. It took me a moment to realize Gonzales said Senator Domenici. Doesn't MS-NBC employ editors and fact-checkers?
More to the point, Gonzales offered an extended version of the Scolinos explanation over the weekend. His categorical statement of March 13th that he "was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on" still doesn't square with this version of events. He claims that he never had any discussions about the selection of the attorneys to be fired, but then acknowledged at the end of the process that Sampson presented him with the list for approval. It's certainly possible that Gonzales had so little interest in the project that he never asked a single question about why these people missed the cut, but if so, it hardly paints Gonzales in a good light as a "CEO", as he has described himself.
Later in the interview, Gonzales insists that he was committed to ensuring that no one got terminated for "improper" reasons, such as interfering with ongoing investigations and the like. In fact, he insists that none of them got fired for partisan reasons -- but how could he know that if he never discussed the reasons for their termination with Sampson? Williams asked Gonzales to explain that, but Gonzales only will say that "I know the reasons why I made the decision," which means that he had to have understood the reasons at the time of the November 27th meeting when he approved the terminations. Either he learned them by osmosis, or he and Sampson discussed the selection process for the terminations, which again makes his March 13th statement a lot less than candid.
This explanation and Goodling's use of the Fifth will do nothing to calm the waters. All of this could have been avoided had Gonzales followed Bush's example and told everyone what appears to be the truth -- that he had been involved in the decision to terminate federal prosecutors who hadn't pursued the administration's objectives to their satisfaction. A competent AG would have spoken plainly, just as Bush did with the NSA surveillance program, and taken what political benefit the terminations might have held. Instead, now we have administration officials taking the Fifth and Gonzales still ignoring the First Rule of Holes.