Bush’s Monica Problem: The Gonzales Mess

The United States Department of Justice has not always been above politics. John F. Kennedy, after all, appointed his brother and consigliere Robert to be attorney general. But the Justice Department is supposed to stand for the rule of law—to be the enforcer of the laws of the United States, not the place presidents go to get around the law. Independence is an important tradition in the columned limestone building on Constitution Avenue. It is worth remembering that before Richard Nixon could find someone at the Justice Department willing to fire the Watergate special prosecutor in 1973, he had to accept the resignations of the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, and the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus. (Solicitor General Robert Bork finally did the deed.)

So consider these scenes from March 2004, described by two former top Justice officials who, like other ex-officials interviewed by NEWSWEEK, did not wish to be identified discussing sensitive internal matters. Attorney General John Ashcroft is really sick. About to give a press conference in Virginia, he is stricken with pain so severe he has to lie down on the floor. Taken to the hospital for an emergency gallbladder operation, he hallucinates under medication as he lies, near death, in intensive care. On the night after his operation, he has two visitors: White House chief of staff Andrew Card and presidential counsel Alberto Gonzales. As described in public testimony, they want Ashcroft to sign a document authorizing the government's top-secret eavesdropping program to go on. The attorney general, who thinks the program is illegal, refuses.

Back at the Justice Department, there is an equally extraordinary scene. Appalled by the White House's heavy-handed attempt to coerce the gravely ill attorney general, virtually the entire top leadership of the Justice Department is threatening to resign. The group includes the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum and the chief of the Criminal Division, Chris Wray. Some of them gather in the conference room of Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who describes Ashcroft's bravely turning away the president's men from his hospital bed. The mood that night in the conference room was tense—and sober. "This was a showdown," says a former senior Justice Department official who was there. "Everybody understood the choice they were making and the gravity of the situation. Everybody knew what the stakes were." A different source estimated that as many as 30 top DOJ officials would have resigned.

The next day Comey is summoned to the White House to meet with President Bush. The details remain murky. But it takes two weeks before a compromise is reached—averting the spectacle of mass resignation by putting more legal controls on the eavesdropping program.

Gonzales, the president's lawyer and Texas buddy, went on to replace Ashcroft as attorney general. Today he is twisting slowly in the wind—a phrase from Watergate—facing a vote of no confidence from the U.S. Senate. Only the president's still unflagging support has kept him in office. Gonzales has been accused of politicizing the Justice Department by presiding over the firing of U.S. attorneys—apparently so they could be replaced by more dependably loyal partisans. While late-night comics have ridiculed Gonzales as clueless, congressional investigators and reporters have looked for more-sinister plots. For weeks, Washington awaited the testimony of Monica Goodling, who was described as the administration's enforcer of political purity inside the Justice Department.

Goodling's testimony last week was a soft sell. She did not seem like a cold-blooded commissar. On her Regent Law School Web site (class of '99), she comes across as sweetly naive, hoping to make the world "a better place" and urging everyone to "smile." Under oath (and given immunity from prosecution), she seemed shy and a little overwhelmed, more Rosemary Woods than Madame Defarge, although she never got rattled or resorted to histrionics. Wringing her hands beneath the witness table, she acknowledged that she may have improperly used political considerations to choose career prosecutors. "I crossed the line," she said, taking a deep breath, a Christian girl who succumbed to temptation. Carefully prepared by a shrewd lawyer, John Dowd, she suggested, almost in passing, that Gonzales may have crossed another line by discussing with her his account of how the U.S. attorneys were fired. The implication was that Gonzales had been subtly trying to coach her testimony. "I just thought maybe we shouldn't have that conversation," she said.

If Goodling's testimony helps to bring down Gonzales, a distinct possibility, President Bush will be exposed to more questions and dragged into a messy confirmation battle over Gonzales's successor. And so Goodling, like Nixon's unfortunate secretary Rosemary Woods, may be destined to be a footnote in history—but an important one.

Goodling admitted checking the political donations of some job applicants before hiring them for jobs that are supposed to be apolitical. While crass, her actions did not threaten to bring down the republic. Still, they are part of a broader and more troubling picture—a slow and stealthy erosion of the independence of the Justice Department. President Bush's personal involvement remains uncertain, as does the precise role of his chief political adviser, Karl Rove. Nonetheless, the clearest evidence of legal subversion comes not from congressional Democrats, but from once loyal Bush conservatives who worked at the Justice Department.

The trouble began shortly after 9/11, when the administration began looking for tough measures to head off another terrorist attack. The Justice Department has a relatively obscure department known as the Office of Legal Counsel. Typically staffed by brilliant young lawyers, the OLC opines on the legality and constitutionality of administration policies. One of the stars of OLC was a cocky young lawyer named John Yoo. After 9/11, Yoo began writing opinions giving the administration exceptional latitude to fight terrorism. Yoo's memos were used to justify both the secret eavesdropping program, which for the first time allowed the government to listen in on American citizens without obtaining a court warrant, and aggressive interrogation methods, like water boarding.

While easygoing and congenial on the surface, Yoo was a fierce bureaucratic infighter with a penchant for circumventing his superiors. Though all the top officials at Justice were conservative Republicans, Yoo seemed to regard them as political dolts. "He had this calm, unruffled, almost 'devil may care' attitude when he talked about issues that were extraordinarily sensitive," recalled a former Justice Department official. "He would sort of come flying by your office and say things like, 'We've done a little analysis, it's no big deal'." Only later, the official said, would he discover that Yoo had sent the White House an opinion authorizing some sweeping new—and constitutionally dubious—program.

Yoo was increasingly seen as a rogue operator inside the Justice Department. Officials were suspicious of his ties to David Addington, counsel to Vice President Cheney. The vice president's office took a hard-line view that the executive branch should not be trammeled in the war on terror by legislators and bureaucrats. Yoo was "out of control," recalled a former Ashcroft aide. Almost without exception, this conflict stayed behind closed doors. (Yoo declined to respond on the record, but he has told others that Ashcroft was fully briefed by him and approved his memos, and that his critics are now engaged in creative "Monday-morning quarterbacking.")

The bad feelings seemed to come to a head in 2003, when there was a vacancy to head OLC. At the White House, Gonzales wanted Yoo, and was so insistent that he took the matter to Bush. According to the former Ashcroft aide who did not want to openly discuss matters involving the president, Bush was surprised to learn that Ashcroft opposed Yoo as a renegade. A compromise was reached: a conservative lawyer named Jack Goldsmith was put in charge of OLC.

But the fight was really just beginning. Carefully reviewing Yoo's carte blanche memos, Goldsmith became convinced that the Justice Department had been signing off on memos approving initiatives, like wiretapping and water boarding, that were not legally supportable. Goldsmith took the matter to Ashcroft's deputy, Comey, and to Patrick Philbin, Comey's No. 2. Philbin's sterling conservative legal résumé tracked Yoo's—they had both clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas at the U.S. Supreme Court. But Philbin and Goldsmith were adamant. The Justice Department could no longer sign off on the wiretapping program, which had been expanded to wiretap more U.S. residents. "This was not ideological," recalled a former Ashcroft aide. "This was about the difference between pushing the limits to the edge of the line and crossing the line."

Bush's role has remained shadowy throughout the controversy over the eavesdropping program. But there are strong suggestions that he was an active presence. On the night after Ashcroft's operation, as Ashcroft lay groggy in his bed, his wife, Janet, took a phone call. It was Andy Card, asking if he could come over with Gonzales to speak to the attorney general. Mrs. Ashcroft said no, her husband was too sick for visitors. The phone rang again, and this time Mrs. Ashcroft acquiesced to a visit from the White House officials. Who was the second caller, one with enough power to persuade Mrs. Ashcroft to relent? The former Ashcroft aide who described this scene would not say, but senior DOJ officials had little doubt who it was—the president. (The White House would not comment on the president's role.) Ashcroft's chief of staff, David Ayres, then called Comey, Ashcroft's deputy, to warn him that the White House duo was on the way. With an FBI escort, Comey raced to the hospital to try to stop them, but Ashcroft himself was strong enough to turn down his White House visitors' request.

The morning after the scene at Ashcroft's hospital bed, the president met with Comey. "We had a full and frank discussion, very informed. He was very focused," Comey later testified, choosing his words carefully. But it wasn't until Bush had met with Mueller that the president agreed to take steps (still unspecified, but probably involving more oversight) to bring the eavesdropping program back inside the boundaries of the law. Mueller has never said what he told the president, but it is a good bet that he said he would resign if the changes were not made. Bush could not afford to see Mueller go, nor could he risk losing the rest of the Justice Department leadership over a matter of principle in an election year.

The confrontation over the eavesdropping program "seared" the relationship between the White House and Ashcroft's team at Justice, according to a former senior Justice official. Within months, many of the top officials had resigned or started making plans to do so. Solicitor General Ted Olson was the first to go that summer. On Election Day 2004, Ashcroft—sensing that he would not be asked to stay for a second term—personally wrote his letter of resignation, and Bush promptly tapped Gonzales to replace him. Comey announced his resignation the next summer.

In some ways, the squabbling over political appointments to the Justice Department seems small time, at least in comparison with the dramatic constitutional confrontations over wiretapping and torture. In her job as White House liaison to the Justice Department, Monica Goodling behaved more like a Chicago alderman than the usual Harvard- or Yale-trained legal scholars who fill those types of prestigious jobs for young lawyers. The Justice Department's inspector general is investigating whether Goodling broke civil-service laws, which require nonpartisan appointments for career prosecutors and immigration judges. Goodling is one of many recent graduates of conservative Christian schools like Regent Law School (founded by evangelist Pat Robertson) to come to Washington to work in the Bush administration. But she denied ever using a religious litmus test.

Goodling's only crime was her lack of subtlety, said Mark Corallo, the Justice Department's chief of public affairs under Ashcroft, and Goodling's onetime boss. "She probably was a little too overt about it," Corallo told NEWSWEEK. "But let's face it—the Democrats do this, too, they all do it. The idea that career employees are above politics is total crap. The so-called career employees are mostly liberal Democrats." He noted that in the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco, career employees refused for months to hang portraits of Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft.

Still, there were some former Justice officials who took a loftier view. One of them was Comey. Every day, he told the House Judiciary Committee, prosecutors must argue cases before juries of all political stripes; if they are seen as little more than political apparatchiks, it will be the death knell for many legitimate cases. To him, the charge that prosecutors were being picked for their politics was the "worst" allegation he had heard yet about the Justice Department. "If that's what was going on," he said, "that strikes at the core of what the Department of Justice is." Or was.