The rise and fall of the Bush presidency has had four phases: the befuddled period of steady political decline during the president’s first nine months; the high tide of hubris from Sept. 11, 2001, through the 2004 election; the self-destructive overreaching to consolidate a one-party state from 2005 to 2006, culminating in the repudiation of the Republican Congress; and, now, the terminal stage, the great unraveling, as the Democratic Congress works to uncover the abuses of the previous six years.
Richard Nixon and George W. Bush both invoked secrecy for national security. Both insisted war — the war in Vietnam, the war on terror — justified impunity. And both offered the reason of secrecy to cover political power grabs.
In Watergate, “Deep Throat” counseled that the royal road to the scandal’s source was to “follow the money.” In the proliferating scandals of the Bush presidency, Congress is searching down a trail of records that did not exist in the time of Nixon: Follow the e-mails.
The discovery of a hitherto unknown treasure-trove of e-mails buried by the Bush White House may prove to be as informative as Nixon’s secret White House tapes. Last week the National Journal disclosed that Karl Rove does “about 95 percent” of his e-mails outside the White House system, instead using a Republican National Committee account. What’s more, Rove doesn’t tap most of his messages on a White House computer, but rather on a BlackBerry provided by the RNC. By this method, Rove and other White House aides evade the legally required archiving of official e-mails. The first glimmer of this dodge appeared in a small item buried in a January 2004 issue of U.S. News & World Report: “‘I don’t want my E-mail made public,’ said one insider. As a result, many aides have shifted to Internet E-mail instead of the White House system. ‘It’s Yahoo!, baby,’ says a Bushie.”
The offshoring of White House records via RNC e-mails became apparent when an RNC domain, gwb43.com (referring to George W. Bush, 43rd president), turned up in a batch of e-mails the White House gave to House and Senate committees earlier this month. Rove’s deputy, Scott Jennings, former Bush legal counsel Harriet Miers and her deputies strangely had used gwb43.com as an e-mail domain.
The production of these e-mails to Congress was a kind of slip. In its tense negotiations with lawmakers, the White House has steadfastly refused to give Congress e-mails other than those between the White House and the Justice Department or the White House and Congress. E-mails among presidential aides have been withheld under the claim of executive privilege.
When I worked in the Clinton White House, people brought in their personal computers if they were engaged in any campaign work, but all official transactions had to be done within the White House system as stipulated by the Presidential Records Act of 1978. (The PRA requires that “the President shall take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented and that such records are maintained as Presidential records.”) Having forsaken the use of Executive Office of the President e-mail, executive privilege has been sacrificed. Moreover, Rove’s and the others’ practice may not be legal.
The revelation of the gwb43 e-mails illuminates the widespread exploitation of nongovernmental e-mail by Bush White House officials, which initially surfaced in the investigations and trial of convicted Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Susan Ralston, Abramoff’s former personal assistant and then executive assistant to Rove, who served as the liaison between the two men in their constant dealings, used “georgewbush.com” and “rnchq.org” e-mail accounts to communicate with Abramoff between 2001 and 2003. In one of her e-mails, Ralston cautioned that “it is better to not put this stuff in writing in [the White House] … email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc.” Abramoff replied: “Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her rnc pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system.”
The Ralston e-mails were not fully appreciated as a clue to the vast cache of hidden e-mails at the time the Justice Department’s inspector general conducted a probe into whether Abramoff had been involved in the firing of the U.S. attorney in Guam in 2002. That prosecutor, Frederick Black, who had been appointed by George H.W. Bush and served for 10 years, had opened an investigation into the $324,000 in secret payments Abramoff received from the Guam Superior Court to lobby in Washington against court reform. The day after Black subpoenaed Abramoff’s contract, he was fired. In a 2006 report, the I.G. found no criminal wrongdoing — but he did not have access to the nongovernmental e-mails (i.e., those sent outside the official White House system). Now, the I.G. may have cause to reopen his case.
Under the RNC’s gwb43.com domain a myriad of e-mail accounts flourish, including the ones used by Rove’s office to conduct his business with Abramoff. Among these accounts are ones for Republican Senate campaigns, for RepublicanVictoryTeam.com and the like, and, curiously, for ScooterLibby.com. The latter e-mail account serves the Web site of the defense fund of Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. ScooterLibby.com amounts to an in-kind contribution from the RNC.
On Monday, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent letters to RNC officials demanding that they preserve the White House e-mails sent on RNC accounts. “The e-mail exchanges reviewed by the Committee provide evidence that in some instances, White House officials were using the nongovernmental accounts specifically to avoid creating a record of the communications,” he wrote. “What assurance can the RNC provide the Committee,” he asked, “that no e-mails involving official White House business have been destroyed or altered?”
Even as the Bush administration withholds evidence that would allow Congress to fulfill its obligation of oversight, administration officials are having difficulty keeping their stories straight. The release of each new batch of e-mails forces them to scramble for new alibis.
On March 12, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had nothing to do with the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys late last year. How they happened to be removed remained a mystery to him. “I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on,” he said. But e-mails released last week show that he was informed of the plan twice in late 2006. In fact, on Nov. 27, 2006, he met with at least five senior Justice Department officials to finalize a “five-step plan for carrying out the firings of the prosecutors.” With the appearance of the incriminating e-mails, Gonzales’ spokespeople have been sent out to tell the press that there is “no inconsistency,” a brazen assertion of the Groucho Marx defense: Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?
Despite the resignation of Gonzales’ chief of staff and counselor, Kyle Sampson, on March 12, another fall guy has emerged, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. On Jan. 18, Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, presenting a public explanation that politics had nothing to do with the U.S. attorney firings — “we would never, ever make a change in the U.S. attorney position for political reasons” — and private assurances to Republican senators that they were dismissed for disagreements over policy.
Three weeks later, McNulty appeared before the committee, contradicting his boss, explaining that the U.S. attorneys were fired for “performance-related” reasons. Then he admitted that the U.S. attorney for Arkansas, H.E. “Bud” Cummins, was being replaced by a Rove protégé, Tim Griffin. McNulty’s testimony incited the U.S. attorneys to defend their reputations, agitated the Democrats to ferret out the underlying political motives and forced the administration to react with a spray of excuses.
On Monday, the administration leaked an e-mail to ABC News in an attempt to blame the entire scandal on McNulty. “McNulty’s testimony directly conflicted with the approach Miers advised, according to an unreleased internal White House e-mail described to ABC News,” it reported. “According to that e-mail, sources said, Miers said the administration should take the firm position that it would not comment on personnel issues.” The leak fit the administration scenario that the U.S. attorneys scandal was nothing but a P.R. mistake — and now McNulty was the one fingered as the culprit. But in trying to shift blame the leaking of the e-mail would seem to undercut the White House’s claim of executive privilege that it cannot give internal communications to Congress.
Also on Monday Gonzales’ senior counselor and White House liaison, Monica Goodling, invoked the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in her refusal to testify before the Senate. (Goodling, who graduated from law school in 1999, is one of the highest-ranking officials in the Department of Justice. Her doctor of jurisprudence degree comes from Regent University, founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson. Its Web site boasts that it has “150 graduates serving in the Bush Administration.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Kay Coles James, a former Regent University dean, was director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 2001 to 2005.)
Goodling’s lawyer’s extraordinarily argumentative letter explaining her silence accused “certain members” of the committee of “already” having “reached conclusions about the affair”; stated that the inquiry is “being used to promote a political party” and that it lacks a “legitimate reason … basic fairness … objectivity”; and stated that an unnamed “senior Department of Justice official” had told Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that he was “not entirely candid” to the committee because “our client did not inform him of certain pertinent facts.”
McNulty, of course, is that official. As Goodling’s lawyer’s letter reveals, he is refusing to go gently into that good night and declining to cooperate with the latest cover story. Hence, she is taking the Fifth, perhaps more because she doesn’t know what story to tell than because she might face a perjury trap before the committee. So the fall gal blames the fall guy.
As Congress extends its oversight, President Bush stiffens his resistance. He treats the Democratic Congress as basically illegitimate. He reacts to every assertion of oversight as an invasion of presidential prerogative. Not only does he reject compromise and negotiation, but he also transforms every point of difference into a conflict over first principles, even as every new disclosure reveals his purely political motivation.
Bush’s radicalism becomes more fervent as he becomes more embattled, and separates him from presidents past. Richard Nixon compromised regularly with a Democratic Congress, even as he secretly laid the foundation of an imperial presidency, his unfinished project left in ruins after the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan, the old union leader, president of the Screen Actors Guild, stood resolutely on his convictions until the better part of political valor led him to cut a deal, as he did when he abandoned his long-held belief in privatizing Social Security, conceding his supposedly inviolate ground to Speaker Tip O’Neill, and happily proclaiming the pact afterward. George H.W. Bush, a former congressman with many friends across the aisle, famously jettisoned his tenuous conservative bona fides as Reagan’s heir, a credo he embraced in his 1988 acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention — “Read my lips: no new taxes” — when, anxious about the expanding deficit, he cut a deal with the Democratic leadership to lower it through tax increases.
The Republican right’s excoriation of the elder Bush’s betrayal, rather than his overriding sense of responsibility, was the lesson learned by the son. His imperative to avoid making enemies on the right is compounded into his larger notion of an unfettered presidency.
For six years, Bush had a Republican Congress whipped into obedience — and it provided him his only experience in legislative affairs. The rise of the Democratic Congress, reviving the powers of oversight and investigation, is a shock to his system. But he is not without an understanding of his changed circumstances. Bush sees the new Congress as the same beast that ensnared his father in fatal compromise and as a monstrous threat to the imperial presidency he has spent six years carefully building.
As the return of oversight suddenly exposes pervasive corruption throughout the executive branch, Bush struggles against Congress as though it were an alien force. Bush has no sense that the Framers, wary of the concentration of power in the executive, deliberately established the powers of the Congress in Article I of the Constitution and those of the president in Article II. Once again he straps on his armor and clasps his shield. His defense of secrecy, executive fiat and one-party rule has become his battle of Thermopylae.