Subpoeana Showdown: Put Your Head Between Your Knees, and Kiss Your Next Two Years Goodbye

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Mar 21, 2007 3:13 PM

Why yes, I have been following the Attorney-gate scandal. And, yes, I have successfully avoided writing about it until now.

Why no writing?

Mostly because I spent half a week trying to figure out what the big deal was, and the other half of the week realizing we're plunging ourselves into another years-long Washington scandal that originated from little-to-no actual wrongdoing or illegality, the endgame of which is to injure Bush and get Karl Rove on some kind of stand under some kind of oath before the Great Sorcerer goes back to being just a magical civilian, and which will in the process simultaneously bore the American public to tears and remind them of why they hate all these jerks in D.C. and never want much to do with politics, but will give them that vague Bush-done-wrong feeling that has served Democrats so well for the past couple of years. And, in the end, only Tom Maguire and Bob Novak will understand what's going on anyway, so why bother?

You know?

Judging by the executive privilege discussion today on this blog, I'm guessing we've already entered the bored-to-tears phase for most Americans. I mean, seriously. This is what a sexy, front-page scandal is made of these days?

The decision by the president to refuse any subpoena directed by House or Senate Democrats to his former counsel Harriet Miers or his current aide Karl Rove will be made against a co-equal branch not authorized to conduct criminal investigations.  It will be a case of first impression if it reaches the Supreme Court, and if the Court does answer the question of whether the Congress can subpoena White House aides --it could invoke the political question doctrine and punt-- it will be fundamentally unbalancing the branches if it sides with the right of Congress to summon the president's most senior aides because the president fired eight officials who serve at his pleasure.
Sweet Lord. I just saw a glimpse of the next two years, and it is not pretty.

I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not jumping into that talk, though it's worth noting Dean takes a more pessimistic view than Hugh:

The president's invocation of executive privilege given this set of circumstances is weak. When the matter goes to court, the administration will likely lose. But big deal. The more protracted the affair is, the more apparent it will become that the Democrats' entire agenda has been reduced to pursuing Karl Rove.

Here were my thoughts on the scandal, from the beginning:

"They fired eight attorneys-- political appointees? How is that a story? Doesn't the President have the right to fire political appointees, and this seems a rather small number of firings to raise such a ruckus."

Hmm:

Legally, though, scholars said the Bush administration did nothing wrong.

Then I heard Harriet Miers wanted all 93 attorneys fired:

The emails released today show that then-White House counsel Harriet Miers and Gonzales' now former chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson discussed the possibility of asking for resignations from all 93 chief federal district prosecutors at the start of the 2004 term.

"Dang, that is one crazy chick!" and, "Well, I'm glad someone was there to tell her that might be both disruptive to the department and a political liability. Ya think?"

Then I thought, "Man, I bet Democrats have done this kind of thing before, and there's been no upheaval. Surely some Democratic president must have dismissed at least eight attorneys during his term, right?"

Right:

Unlike ABC, CBS and NBC watchers, cable viewers got a hint of context as Steve Centanni, on FNC's Special Report with Brit Hume, pointed out how “the White House acknowledged there were talks in 2005, just after the President won his second term, about terminating all 93 U.S. attorneys just as President Clinton unceremoniously did 1993 after he won the White House.” The point made it onto CNN's The Situation Room -- barely -- thanks to guest Terry Jeffries who raised it during the 4pm EDT hour of the program.

And, then there's this, too:

In other ways as well, Democratic presidents have long used federal law enforcement agencies for political purposes. Roosevelt often had his political enemies audited by the Internal Revenue Service. He also used the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate and tap the phones of journalists and newspaper publishers who opposed his policies.

In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and President Lyndon Johnson also used the FBI and IRS to investigate and harass their political opponents. As is well known, they bugged Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s phones and hotel rooms just to gain political intelligence—falsely justifying their actions on the grounds that King was in league with the Communists.

Then, "Well, the media line on this is that Gonzales and Bush fired these guys for insufficient loyalty to the Bush administration, which fits well with both the media's narrative on the stubborn, cronified president, and some conservatives' criticisms of the same faults."

Ding. Ding. Ding

As Matt Lewis notes, Gonzo ain't got no love from no one, which puts him in a dangerous spot.

But, assuming that firing eight attorneys for political reasons were even worthy of this much coverage, "Were they even definitely fired for insufficient loyalty?" Well, that's what the headlines say, but let's look at the text of the NYT's early coverage:

That is when Mr. Sampson, Mr. Gonzales’s aide, sent a document to Ms. Miers ranking the nation’s federal prosecutors.

“Bold=Recommend retaining; strong U.S. Attorneys who have produced, managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general,” the e-mail message from Mr. Sampson said. “Strikeout=Recommend removing; weak U.S. Attorneys who had been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against administration initiatives, etc.”

From the start, the “strikeout” list included Ms. Lam, Margaret M. Chiara of Michigan and H. E. Cummins of Arkansas, all of whom ultimately lost their jobs. But the “bold” list of stellar performers included Mr. Iglesias and Kevin V. Ryan of San Francisco, who would also be removed.

"Umm, so if they were all fired for being insufficiently loyal, why are several of the fired attorneys on the freakin' loyal list?"

Then I thought, "The White House claims some of these guys were fired for being insufficiently concerned about voter fraud. I'm sure I remember there being some voter fraud in one of these guy's areas..."

Meet John McKay of Washington State. Yep, that Washington State:

Why would McKay ignore the legitimate suggestions of election violations and fight back so aggressively now? Western Washington is overwhelmingly Democrat, especially Seattle. The dominant voices in the political establishment and the mainstream media were only too happy to put the embarrassing, if not incriminating, 2004 election behind them. It would be politically (and socially) risky for McKay (as a Republican appointee, no less) to be the first official to start turning over the rocks in county government. Much safer to stick with the in-crowd, call it a close but clean election and keep looking the other way. And now that McKay's in a public pissing match with Bush, who is extremely unpopular in Seattle? He's the darling of the local establishment. If he aspires to a career in state politics, this is his ticket.

Now, what's with the wimpo response from the White House on this? Like Laura Ingraham, I thought, "Why doesn't Bush tell them to shove it, and inform them he has the exact same right as Clinton to fire attorneys?"

The White House doesn't have a great history of speaking effectively to defend itself, and conducting smart damage control, so I guess that kind of response was more than we could hope for. The president spoke on the issue yesterday, saying he'd give over Miers and Rove for private interviews, but not for under-oath grillings.

I'm not sure exactly what that accomplishes for the White House or anyone who's not interested in reading and writing about this very uninteresting scandal for the NEXT TWO YEARS. If you're gonna fight, fight last week, Bush. Stand up, don't crouch. This feels like a half-measure, and he should know Democrats will never be shut up or shamed by private conversations with Bush's top aides.

Dean says Bush is itchin' for a fight, and this will all make the Congress look bad, since they'll be abandoning the war and other pressing matters for a witch-hunt. First, kudos to Bush for getting the word "witch-hunt" in there. It made the headlines and colored the issue his way for at least a news cycle.

Second, I'm not sure dragging this out makes Democrats look that bad. The media will continue to give them a pass, the American public won't know much except that they're tired of hearing about the varying definitions of "executive privilege, and it will blame both Congress and the president for that. Unfortunately for Bush, there have been too many complicated scandals (some legit, most not) pinned on him successfully, partially due to bad damage control at the White House, to suddenly convince people this is just a partisan witch-hunt, I think. And, also unfortunately for Bush, he earned the cronyism charges to some extent with the Brownie and Miers fiascoes, so that's hard to escape as well.

This skirmish also moves us away from the spectacle of the Democrats constantly swinging, missing, and making their defeatism explicit on the Iraq issue.

Today, the stage for the subpoena showdown is set.

And, the media distortion of the issue has already begun, big-time, on the front page of the L.A. Times, which means I have to keep following this to play defense. Welcome to your next two years, political junkies. Does it show that I'm bitter about it?