Another 'Casablanca' Moment

Senate Democrats are proclaiming themselves shocked, shocked that there were political discussions in the White House about removing some or all of the U.S. attorneys shortly after the 2004 elections. It’s too bad they have to rely on Pat Leahy and Chuck Schumer to express their indignation. If only Claude Raines were alive to do it properly.

Raines, playing Vichy police captain Renault in "Casablanca," was told by his Nazi boss to find a pretext to close Humphrey Bogart’s saloon after the crowd drowned out the Germans singing “Die Wacht on Rhine” with its own chorus of the French anthem, “the Marseilles.” Raines duly blew his whistle and proclaimed his shock at finding gambling going on at the same moment a roulette croupier handed him his evening’s winnings. The Dems — taking advantage of the White House’s ineptness in handling the U.S. attorney removal matter — are trying to raise money on it while maximizing the political impact.

It all comes down to Karl Rove. The Plame Name Blame Game was first aimed at him, but Patrick Fitzgerald wasn’t able to do to Rove what he did to Scooter Libby. Poor Joe Wilson’s dream that presidential advisor Karl Rove be frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs for outing Glam Gal Val never came true. But political hope springs eternal. And though the Democrats and their amen chorus among the media began the feeding frenzy over the fired U.S. attorneys by aiming at Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales, the AG is now little more than a side issue. Gonzales’s resignation, if it comes, will be collateral damage. The prime target, again, is Rove.

Tomorrow, White House Counsel Fred Fielding will announce his decision whether to allow current and former White House officials to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the firings. Behind-the-scenes bargaining between the Committee and the White House resulted in Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy (D.-Vt.) delaying a vote on subpoenas to the White House until March 22.

Leahy and Schumer want to produce a media extravaganza that Republican Judiciary Committee members — notably Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) — are resisting. Cornyn speaks of the inquiry in terms of a “witch hunt” and objects to what he characterizes as a conflict of interest the Democrats have. Sen. Chuck Schumer — both a member of the Judiciary Committee and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — is pushing hard for the most invasive investigation of the White House possible while, as Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) accused, leveraging the information Schumer is obtaining as head of the inquiry to generate fundraising for the DSCC. The DSCC website was saying that New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici “could be the focus of an obstruction of justice investigation by an independent counsel that could result in criminal penalties.”

On Meet the Press, Schumer argued that the inquiry was justified by different explanations dribbling out of the White House and Justice Department. Echoing Leahy’s demands, Schumer said the conflict requires resolution by testimony under oath before the Judiciary Committee. When host Tim Russert asked Schumer about the e-mails indicating that Rove was involved, Schumer tried to make his case. First, Schumer said, the White House maintained that only (now-former) White House Counsel Harriett Miers was involved. Later, e-mails showed that Karl Rove was also involved. Schumer intoned his advice to the White House to “come clean,” and harrumphed that this inquiry was, “much too serious to be about politics.”

Leahy said Sunday that he wants “these subpoenas”, requiring Miers, Rove and Miers’ deputy, William Kelley to testify under oath. He and Schumer clearly want to generate the maximum political impact to force ther removal of both Gonzales and Rove and to discredit the president.

The kerfuffle over Rove’s involvement was created by White House e-mails from January 2005. According to a Fox News report, the Rove involvement is explained in a January 5 series of e-mails between White House staffers:

"Karl Rove stopped by to ask you (roughly quoting), `How we planned to proceed regarding U.S. Attorneys, whether we were going to allow all to stay, request resignations from all and accept only some of them, or selectively replace them, etc.,"’ Colin Newman, a legal aide in the White House counsel’s office, wrote deputy counsel David Leitch.

Leitch immediately forwarded that message to [Gonzales chief aide Kyle] Sampson. Three days later, on Jan. 9, Sampson sent back a lengthy reply.

"Judge and I discussed briefly a couple of weeks ago," Sampson wrote, referring to Gonzales, a former Texas state Supreme Court justice. He said the Justice Department was looking at replacing "underperforming" prosecutors.

"The vast majority of U.S. Attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc., etc.," he said. Sampson noted that, at the time, all 93 prosecutors were in the middle of their terms.

"Although they serve at the pleasure of the President, it would be weird to ask them to leave before completing at least a 4-year term," he wrote.

Politically, Sampson said the firings would upset home-state senators who recommended the prosecutors who lost their jobs.

"That said, if Karl thinks there would be political will to do it, than so do I," Sampson wrote.

January 2005 was two months after George W. Bush was re-elected. After every presidential election, the political staffs consider which political appointees will stay, which will go, and who will be appointed in their place. Schumer and the rest of the Dems are having another “Casablanca moment.”

Like the Dems, I am shocked — shocked that the White House is engaged in politics. I’d thought they had almost given up on it.

This mini-mess will probably result in the removal of Alberto Gonzales, but not of Rove, for the simple reason that the man was doing his job. Funny thing about political advisors: they perform political tasks.