Thursday, March 29, 2007 – and there were two big stories in Washington. They both looked like trouble for the administration.
If you are the president, what are you going to do when the former chief of staff to your Attorney General says, under oath in a public hearing, that as far as he can tell, the Attorney General flat-out lied to congress, and to everyone who wanted to know what was going on? That really is what it come down to –
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was briefed regularly over two years on the firings of federal prosecutors, his former top aide said Thursday, disputing Gonzales’ claims he was not closely involved with the dismissals. The testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by Kyle Sampson, the attorney general’s former chief of staff, newly undercut Gonzales’ already shaky credibility.
Gonzales and former White House counsel Harriet Miers made the final decision on whether to fire the U.S. attorneys last year, Sampson said.
“I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate,” Sampson told the committee as it inquired into whether the dismissals were politically motivated.
“I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign,” Sampson said.
Okay, the man did not say Gonzales lied. He didn’t say that at all. He just said that what Gonzales had been saying wasn’t accurate. There may be a subtle legal distinction there.
Whether that matters may be moot if Gonzales resigns – but he may not. The president is unlikely to ask him to do that. Gonzales, after all, was in from the start – Bush’s state Attorney General in Texas, then his White House Counsel, then bumped up to Attorney General, not working for Bush any longer but for us all. Yes, he may have missed the conceptual difference between those last two positions, but then he is not the brightest legal light in the universe, as the arch-conservative (or what passes for conservative) National Review explains -
While we defended him from some of the outlandish charges made during his confirmation hearings, we have never seen evidence that he has a fine legal mind, good judgment, or managerial ability. Nor has his conduct at any stage of this controversy gained our confidence.
His claim not to have been involved in the firings suggests that he was either deceptive or inexcusably detached from the operations of his own department.
The editors prefer he resign. The White House will cancel their subscription, no doubt. The hapless Harriet Miers – the White House Counsel after Gonzales was elevated – was nominated by Bush to the Supreme Court. Maybe Alberto is next. If he is anything, the president is defiant – those who question his decisions, particularly about those he appoints, will get the finger. That hasn’t worked out that well so far, but the impulse is there.
Kevin Drum does the heavy lifting and summarizes the day’s testimony –
Least surprising revelation: that Alberto Gonzales was indeed involved in discussions about firing those U.S. Attorneys. “I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate,” Sampson said. In other words, Gonzales lied. Knock me other with a feather.
Most bizarre revelation: that Sampson recommended firing Patrick Fitzgerald in the middle of his investigation into Plamegate. “That was a piece of bad judgment on my behalf to even raise it,” Sampson said. No kidding.
Most heartfelt revelation: that Sampson is all too aware he screwed up. “Looking back on all of this … in hindsight I wish the department hadn’t gone down this road at all,” he said. Roger that, Kyle.
Okay, fine -but then the real question was always why they fired those particular eight prosecutors anyway.
You can find Kyle Sampson’s odd answer to that in the Los Angeles Times’ account, and it’s a classic – “I don’t remember keeping a very good file,” he said. “It was a chart and notes that I would dump into my lower right desk drawer.”
Or as Drum comments -
And that, supposedly, was that. There were two years of plans to fire these guys, but we’re supposed to believe that no one really kept any notes and nobody really knows why these guys were selected. It was just a gestalt sort of thing.
Unbelievable. But which is worse: that he’s lying or that he’s telling the truth?
Take your choice. It’s a mess.
But the real mess was the Senate vote, following a parallel vote days before in the House, setting up a showdown -
A defiant, Democratic-controlled Senate approved legislation Thursday calling for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq within a year, propelling Congress closer to an epic, wartime veto confrontation with President Bush.
This was the supplemental spending bill, an emergency measure to fund the war (or the augmented occupation, if you wish). The president can have the money – as long as he agrees to at least try to wind things down and get the troops out of combat next year. There are strings attached – including more funds for the Veterans Administration and this and that about assuring proper equipment and rest and all that “readiness” stuff – but the main string attached in this case is the demand that he change direction – move from “combat only” to diplomacy with support and training and security and rebuilding for that new nation. Otherwise there will be no funding.
Of course, the president is a Texan. He understands a showdown when he sees one, and at his press briefing he went into full OK Corral mode. Yes, this is not Tombstone, Arizona with Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Virgil and Morgan Earp facing the Clantons and McLaurys – not Wednesday afternoon, October 26, 1881 – but it will do. He will veto any such bill, and has the votes in Congress to sustain the veto. And then the Democrats will be sorry. The troops will have no money and it will be ALL THEIR FAULT – or more accurately, the Department of Defense will not have the funds to pay the troops or feed them or equip them and they’ll all die and the bad guys will have won, all because of the damned Democrats, not him. He said what the Democrats’ proposal “is well outside of the mainstream.” (The evidence suggests otherwise.)
Here’s one angry response to that (with an instructive video at the link) -
Bush’s veto pen kills troops.
Bush’s veto sends troops to Iraq without rest, without armor, and without training. No president in American history has ever abandoned troops in the field to die. But George W. Bush is about to show you he’s “man enough” to do it, just to prove he can.
That’s because he’s not serious about accomplishing anything in Iraq. Nobody could look at his record of failure there and conclude otherwise.
As for his concern about setting an artificial deadline, with or without this bill there’s already an artificial deadline: January 20, 2009. Because it’s simply not physically possible to elect another president so willfully ignorant and as openly traitorous as this one. In short, George W. Bush is the only person on the planet who believes this occupation can feasibly last one day longer than his term in office. So anyone who pretends that moving the date up a few months is going to make a damned bit of difference in this disaster just isn’t doing any serious thinking about the situation.
But in the meantime, George W. Bush will veto troop readiness, and then lock himself in his bunker while they die.
And he’s chomping at the bit to do it, too
Oh my. All he’s saying is that congress has no authority or right to tell the commander-in-chief how to run a war. The constitution says so. That’s in the rulebook, or the owner’s manual or whatever. You could look it up. All congress is saying is that, since they have the job to fund or not fund any government activity, including a war, they are, in effect, declaring this one is essentially over, and they’ll be glad to fund efforts to deal with terrorism and to stabilize things in the Middle East, but not what we’re up to now. The constitution says so – they control the money. You could also look that up.
It is a bit of a showdown.
Many have suggested that the Democrats are going about this all wrong – they should give him the money, all of it, with no strings attached. That way the war is his and no one can blame them for anything. Let him hang himself with the rope they provide – as everyone knows there is no good outcome to be had here. That would be good politics – perhaps the end of the Republican Party. The problem there is all the dead people from this point forward, and the enmity of the whole world. Good politics can be ghoulish – but Machiavelli explained that already, and the Democrats don’t seem to want to go there.
But maybe it is time for a reality check.
Fred Kaplan offers that in Listen Up, Mr. President -
Two myths have sprung up around the House and Senate bills that require President Bush to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. One is that he would have to pull out all the troops. The other is that, if Bush vetoes the final bill (as he is nearly certain to do), the war – and all other military activities- would grind to a halt, leaving the troops in the lurch, bereft of basic ammo and supplies.
Both myths are false, the product of spin.
He explains that the Pentagon has any number of ways to reroute money “if a veto locks the emergency-spending bill in temporary limbo.” That limbo is the Easter recess. And too, both the House and Senate bills keep our troops in Iraq, just doing different things – “less-ambitious missions.”
So there’s that veto, but its not what is seems -
The congressional demands for a troop withdrawal are merely sections of the much larger bill to provide $96 billion in emergency spending for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A veto would kill not only the language on withdrawal but also the $96 billion.
Administration officials invoke the time when President Bill Clinton vetoed the Republican Congress’ budget and House Speaker Newt Gingrich walked away, forcing the federal government to shut down – a series of events that politically tarnished the Republicans in the long run. Officials warn that the same thing will happen to the congressional Democrats if they force Bush to shut down the war.
That’s not going to happen. A story in today’s edition of the Hill outlines several ways the Pentagon could still get funds to the troops. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates could “reprogram” money from one account to another. He could shift “unobligated balances” from the operations and maintenance accounts. If worst comes to worst, he could invoke the Civil War-era Feed and Forage Act, which allows him to allocate money for the troops’ basic provisions without congressional approval.
Finally, it seems the Pentagon’s war chest won’t go bare until the beginning of June. If Bush vetoes the emergency-spending bill and Congress goes on recess until mid-April, it will be an administrative hassle but not a disaster.
The Feed and Forage Act? Cool. That would be Section 3732 of the Revised Statutes (41 U.S.C. § 11) – authorizing incurring deficiencies for costs of additional members of the Armed Forces on active duty-beyond the number for which funds are currently provided in DoD appropriations (Title 10 U.S.C.). This authority requires Congressional notification – and does not permit actual expenditures until Congress provides an appropriation of the required funds. But it is not arcane nonsense –
On September 21, 2001 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld invoked fiscal provisions available under the Feed and Forage Act to handle costs resulting from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the aircraft crash in Pennsylvania.
The Department of Defense last invoked the Feed and Forage Act in fiscal 1996 for force protection measures in Saudi Arabia, following the attack on Khobar Towers. While it was invoked at that time, it was not used.
And what of the bills? Kaplan notes they don’t have that much force -
The Senate bill does take out the cleaver. No later than 120 days after the bill’s enactment, the president “shall commence the phrased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq,” with “the goal of redeploying” all combat troops by March 31, 2008.
Even so, there are some loopholes. First, there are those two words I’ve italicized above: The March 2008 deadline is put forth as not the requirement but rather “the goal.”
Second, the bill allows “a limited number” of combat forces to stay “that are essential for the following purposes: (A) Protecting United States and coalition personnel and infrastructure. (B) Training and equipping Iraqi forces. (C) Conducting targeted counter-terrorism operations.”
Force-protection, infrastructure, training, counterterrorism – these missions could justify keeping at least 50,000 American troops in Iraq for a long, long time.
All they do is change the mission back to what it was before the surge – less counterinsurgency combat and more of a support role.
And in any event the Senate bill has a loophole -
The bill allows Bush to keep in Iraq not only troops that perform those three allowed missions but also troops “that are essential for” the purposes of those missions. It would be a stretch to claim that, say, maintaining the counterinsurgency surge is “essential” to train Iraqis or to defeat al-Qaeda; but if Bush were somehow forced to swallow this bill, he could make the argument that all the troops were “essential” for the more modest missions and dare Congress to disagree. It’s a less loopy claim than some of Alberto Gonzales’ parsings of the Constitution.
So even if the president were to give in he could game this. It’s all in how you define things. Yeah, he should lower America’s profile, scale back its mission, turn the bulk of the fighting over to the Iraqis, and get most of our own troops out by March 2008. But stuff happens.
Kaplan thinks the house bill is more subtle – it links our military commitment to Iraq’s political stability and lays out specific benchmarks that the Iraqi government needs to meet. In fact, these are the same sort of benchmarks that the president himself has listed in the past. That’s not nice.
Kaplan lists them all. They’re quite specific, and then it gets ugly -
If Bush reports that the Iraqis have not met these benchmarks, or if he doesn’t issue a report at all, then the secretary of defense “shall commence” the redeployment immediately and complete it within 180 days- in other words, by March 30, 2008, the same date as in the Senate bill, except this is a deadline, not a “goal.”
Even then, there are complications, as, just like with that nice teacher, you can get an extension (in this case six months) -
One could argue that the House bill’s distinguishing features – specifying benchmarks and holding out the lure of a six-month extension of the current U.S. troop presence if the Iraqis meet them – are a tease and a ruse. If Iraqi officials can’t disarm the militias or reconcile factions now, an extra six months – followed by a withdrawal – isn’t likely to do the trick. Or if the extension is seen as an incentive, a reward for good governance, doesn’t that suggest that the Iraqis want us to stay? If they meet the benchmarks by October, might that mean the surge is working? If so, should the withdrawal proceed? Maybe the success warrants a reassessment.
None of it matters. The veto is coming.
So what is the point? Kaplan tries this -
Is it to put the Democratic Congress on record as favoring a (sort of) withdrawal? Is it a ploy to force Bush and the Republicans to endorse an unpopular war one more time and thus bury themselves in a still deeper hole?
Yes, probably, to some degree.
But the House bill can also be read as a road map that Bush might fruitfully follow. Bush has laid out benchmarks that the Iraqi government must meet; they’re pretty much the same as those laid out in the House bill. But Bush didn’t attach any penalties if the Iraqis didn’t meet them – or any rewards if they did. Without any incentives, the Iraqis will be inclined to take the easiest path – and do nothing that requires extraordinary measures or risks.
If Bush were shrewd, he would use the congressional bills themselves as potential penalties. He would thrust the documents in the faces of the Iraqi leaders and say, “This is what will happen if you guys don’t shape up. I don’t want to go this route, but the Democrats are going to make me. I’m not fully in control.”
Yeah, the old god-cop, bad-cop routine – but that too is not going to happen. The president is not the sort of man who would ever utter “I’m not fully in control.”
Kaplan suggests all that is happening here is congress trying “to shake Bush’s lapels and get him to listen, to do something sensible – if not to end the war (neither bill really seeks to do quite that), at least to offer the Iraqi government some incentives to devise a political settlement and, more important still, to draw the neighboring governments into a diplomatic forum that might keep the conflagration from spreading if Iraq goes up in smoke.”
One suspects the “up in smoke” scenario is what we’ll get. Everyone is blowing smoke anyway.