Before yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for D. Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's former chief of staff, veterans of the Libby trial press corps took a minute to wave around to each other: "It's like a reunion!", NPR's Nina Totenberg chuckled. The press' trial veterans were there because the hearings were Justice-related, but their presence illuminated the hearing's dark, criminal atmosphere. Senate hearings, with their witness forced to sweat under lights and face judge-like inquisitors on an elevated dais, sometimes mimic trials--which is why Louis Brandeis, nominated to the Supreme Court in 1916 and subjected to the first public confirmation hearing, decided not to come at all. Sampson's hearing felt more like juvie hall. The baby-faced Sampson, wearing a happy, Easter-appropriate yellow tie, looked like he was fresh from a haircut; the gel in his hair gleamed like mama's spit.
But, unlike in a real trial, there wasn't an indictment here. The big revelation came when Sampson flat-out denied Gonzales's March 13 claim that he didn't have anything to do with the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys: He said Gonzales was involved in at least five meetings where the firings project was discussed--and that Gonzales and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers were the "decision-makers." Still, as the hearing got going, it wasn't altogether clear whether Sampson--and, by proxy, Gonzales and the Bush administration--was on trial for maliciously injecting politics into prosecutions, or just being stupid.
Sampson, for his part, clings to the latter theory. Mostly, he didn't remember much about the firings ("I'm not aware," was a frequent refrain in his testimony), but what he did remember doing--boy, did he screw it up! "I failed," he told Senator Herb Kohl. "I feel we failed," he said to Senator Jeff Sessions. "I regret it," he repeated, again and again. An hour into the hearing, Senator Chuck Schumer asked him about his short-lived suggestion to fire U.S. Attorney--and Plamegate special prosecutor--Patrick Fitzgerald. "That was a piece of bad judgment on my behalf to ever raise it," the relentlessly self-deprecating Sampson said. "It's really a harebrained scheme," Schumer went on, unable to keep a little smile off his face. "It does make me question your suitability for this job. Is that absurd?" Sampson shook his head meekly, looking like he was about to weep.
Watching a bunch of snooty senators harp on what an idiot he was made it easy to feel very sorry for Kyle Sampson. But, for the Bush administration, the conclusion that Sampson is a fool--and therefore simply botched the execution of a totally above-board idea--is actually the best of several possible outcomes. It's amazing--for six years, conservatives argued over and over that the Bushies aren't as bumbling as they seem. Then, a few weeks ago, National Review Editor Rich Lowry jumped ship, publishing a cover story suggesting that Bush really may be inept--something, he said, that "many Republicans" are starting to believe. And now, at his hearing, Sampson practically flung up his hand and shouted to the senators, I am incompetent! At this stage in the game, it's not a confession so much as a defense.
Thus, when the very conservative Sessions berated Sampson (somewhat of a surprise in and of itself), he pushed the incompetence interpretation of the attorneys scandal--demanding to know why Sampson hadn't told the victims their jobs might have been in jeopardy earlier. "That's part of the bungling, it seems to me," he said, and then, almost tauntingly: "You said it should have been done quietly. It really didn't happen that way, did it?" In this telling, a failure to anticipate bad press was the real sin.
Even senators who approached the more subtle (and provocative) question of motivation ended up tangled in a discussion of competence: Chairman Patrick Leahy tried to gauge political calculation at the department and uncovered only the fact that Gonzales and Sampson "don't communicate by e-mail"; and Schumer, when he asked whether Sampson had purposefully caused Gonzales deputy Paul McNulty to give inaccurate testimony to the Senate, learned that Sampson had just done a really crappy prepping job. Even the simple question of why the prosecutors were fired couldn't escape the incompetence trap: As Sampson revealed, the Justice Department's definition of "performance-related" grounds for dismissal is so vague as to be almost meaningless. Think of this almost like the mental-retardation defense in a criminal case: He can't be blamed for the crime if he can't distinguish a political reason from a performance-related one.
Sometimes, Sampson's emphasis on his foolishness just bordered on the bizarre. Discussing whether the administration manipulated provisions in the Patriot Act to sneak in new U.S. attorneys without Senate approval--something that Justice explicitly planned for a buddy of Karl Rove tapped to replace Arkansas's Bud Cummins--Sampson tried to take the fall by saying it was his horrible idea and that Gonzales had wisely dumped it. "It was rejected by the AG," Sampson explained. "He thought it was a bad idea, and he was right." So the AG rejected this strategy but, as Leahy put it, "miraculously it was used"? The incompetence defense, deployed incompetently. "I'm boggled," Leahy concluded.
So maybe the senators weren't able to divine the political motivations behind the firings. But on the competence question, they destroyed (maybe that's what Sampson had in mind). Sampson started off by claiming that two years of deliberation and careful input had gone into creating his list of attorneys to sack, but Maryland freshman Ben Cardin--who resembled, yesterday, an extremely angry and pink-faced Benjamin Franklin--pressed him to admit that the touted list was little more than doodlings on a napkin. Are there, Cardin demanded, any remaining documents at all relating to your list? "I don't think documents exist," said Sampson. "All I can say is, it wasn't scientific." Then Rhode Island freshman Sheldon Whitehouse elicited a confession that he hadn't kept any file on the large-scale firings project, either. But Whitehouse kept chasing, getting into Sampson's résumé: "Should we be concerned about the experience level of people who are making these decisions?"
"I wouldn't want to--" Sampson started. He paused. "I'll leave my answer at that." "You wouldn't want to what?" Whitehouse asked. "Senator, I lost my train of thought," Sampson said.