Jonathon Turley was on MSNBC’s Countdown last night (you can watch the video here, under Gonzales’ Secret Order) to discuss the latest revelations by National Journal’s Murray Waas regarding Alberto Gonzales and the White House’ efforts to politicize the Justice Department and turn it into the legal arm of the Republican Party. Even describing the topic suggests how serious a danger this effort was/is, not just to Democrats but to democratic government. And with Gonzales still Attorney General — by definition, people without honor can never be counted on to do the honorable thing — that effort will continue, since providing cover for this anti-rule of law coup and those who led it is apparently the only reason why the White House has not forced Gonzales to resign.
As Christy highlighted in this post yesterday, Waas revealed that Gonzales secretly delegated to Kyle Sampson, in an order signed by Monica Goodling, the authority to hire and fire non-civil service DoJ employees, including political appointees other than those requiring Senate confirmation. The original delegation, deemed too broad, was then revised to require at least the Attorney General’s pro forma approval, though little more. Gonzales and the DoJ had previously failed to disclose this highly relevant information to Congressional investigators trying to figure out how and why US Attorneys were forced to resign, who made the decisions, and who selected their replacements.
While delegating authority is not unusual by itself, secretly doing so apparently is. According to Waas’ sources at DoJ,
“It was an attempt to make the department more responsive to the political side of the White House and to do it in such a way that people would not know it was going on,” the official said.
As was the case with the fired U.S. attorneys, the employees targeted for dismissal would never know that they had been selected by the White House or the Justice Department aides, according to records and interviews. Most of the eight fired U.S. attorneys were given the news by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty; by McNulty’s chief of staff, Michael Elston; or by Michael Battle, another senior Justice official, typically with no mention of any role by anyone else.
Delegating such important authority to relatively inexperienced attorneys is not a good idea, delegating it to political operatives is a bad idea, and delegating it to the people at DoJ most directly connected to White House political operative Karl Rove is a transparently dangerous one. And that would be true even if Mr. Sampson had not already resigned under fire for his role in the political firings of the US Attorneys. For her part, Ms. Goodling first declared her intention to invoke her 5th Amendment right against self incrimination to avoid testifying about her role. She too has since resigned and is now facing a subpoena to testify before the Judiciary Committee(s) after having been granted limited immunity. These people were deciding who works in our Justice Department based on whether they deemed the candidates to be “loyal Bushies.” For Monica Goodling, that presumably also meant, fellow religious alumni.
The notion that the White House’s chief political operative and Republican campaign strategist would have two compliant minions essentially deciding who would be hired, fired or promoted in the Justice Department should be enough for Congress and the media to demand immediate resignations at Justice and the White House of everyone involved in the scheme. But somehow, in the only conceivable benefit of being responsible for multiple scandals and outrages all at once, the White House is apparently hoping this latest outrage can slip by just below the cover of some other scandal’s headlines. We shouldn’t let it.
As usual, Professor Turley got straight to the point on why this scandal is so important and such a threat to our system. He described the White House effort by evoking images of the old Soviet system, in which political apparatchiks reporting to the Party leaders were placed in key positions throughout the bureaucracies to ensure that only those loyal to the Communist Party were hired and advanced, while those disloyal to the Party would either never get hired or have their careers ended at any sign of political disloyalty. That appears to be exactly what Rove’s minions were doing at the Department of Justice. One is tempted to add that in the Soviet system, a great many government officials “served at the pleasure of the President,” so I”m just waiting for the rightwing pundits to pull out that chestnut and deal with the parallels. But I suspect they’ll choke on the irony that the Republican party that once defined itself by it’s anti-communism now permits its Leader to function under essentially the same model.
Our high school civics books describe the “genius” of the US constitutional system in which checks and balances prevent the American ship of state from being seized by any single branch of government, let alone by any one person or cabal of zealots. But astute observers at least since the Nixon years have always understood that the design is vulnerable; its success depends on each element remaining healthy and independent, and courageously, honestly doing its job.
We now understand that the entire rule of law at the federal level rests to a surprising extent on trust — a faith that no matter what else happens in Washington, there will be enough integrity and political courage residing in the career professionals at the Department of Justice to demand that the laws be faithfully executed. Sooner or later, this faith holds, those who believe in the rule of law will prevail, and those who sought to abuse government will be reined in, if not brought fully to justice.
That belief was justified in the Watergate era, but many of us remember it as a close call. And with over a decade of faux conservatives in power attacking all the premises of that system and co-opting many of the media watchdogs — thank the gods for folks like Murray Waas — we are not sure the system will work this time. We are still waiting — hoping — for that moment, and doing everything we can to support those who come forward, to help spread their stories. There are lots of encouraging signs — such as the DoJ officials coming forward to tell Murray Waas about Gonzales’ secret delegation. But why did they wait this long? And what else do they know? More please; it’s your country, and this is the moment that will define who you are.