The cornflakes defense

The games they play on the way to the stonewalling the Senate.

Published August 2, 2007 6:34PM (EDT)

One more glimpse into the legal gamesmanship going on today as White House political aide Scott Jennings testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Sen. Chuck Schumer asks Jennings about a meeting he had at the White House in 2006 with Mickey Barnett and Pat Rogers, two Republican leaders from New Mexico who were unhappy with U.S. Attorney David Iglesias' refusal to press voter fraud cases against Democrats in the state. Jennings acknowledges that the meeting happened, that it happened in the White House mess and that the meeting was mostly social, and he says he doesn't remember there being any discussion of Iglesias, who was ultimately fired during last year's purge of federal prosecutors.

So, if it was a purely social meeting, Schumer asks, why did Jennings shortly thereafter set up a meeting between the Republican leaders and then Alberto Gonzales aide Monica Goodling? "Senator," Jennings responds, "I believe, pursuant to the president's assertion of privilege, I respectfully decline to answer that question at this time."

Schumer asks how Jennings can answer all the other questions about the breakfast meeting but not that one. Jennings' lawyer, Mark Paoletta, volunteers an answer: "Senator, it's been a very tough morning. Scott's trying to navigate between the president's claim as a current White House employee and ... responding to questions pursuant to the subpoena. I think we're trying to navigate on a question-by-question basis, quite frankly, as to ..."

Schumer: Yes, but you have to -- you can't just answer the ones you want to answer and not answer the ones you don't want to answer. What is the rationale -- the legal rationale -- of answering all the others and not this one? It seems to me the level of privilege is about the same.

Paoletta: I think Scott's recollection as pertains to that meeting -- that breakfast meeting -- had nothing whatsoever to do with the U.S. attorney matter. And it's with an outside person ... not within the White House. And we have the White House counsel official here, Emmet Flood, if you care to have the White House's take on it.

Schumer: But right after -- OK, look. Right after the meeting or about the same time as the meeting, a memo was sent to ... Monica Goodling ... Mickey Barnett's name is mentioned. And it says ... that Monica ought to see [him], and it's sensitive. And it just doesn't square with the testimony ... I mean, we can't get to the bottom of it if Mr. Jennings can't answer. Why ... after a purely social meeting would there then be a memo sent to Monica Goodling on a sensitive matter asking her to see Mr. Barnett?

Paoletta: Sir, all I can do is read the president's -- Mr. Fielding's letter reflecting the president's invocation of executive privilege and look at the content of this e-mail, which ...

Schumer: Let me ask the question just once more and I want you to think carefully, Mr. Jennings. It is your testimony you have no recollection of Mr. Barnett ever complaining about Mr. Iglesias at that breakfast or at any other time.

Jennings: Senator, I think that question falls in the external deliberation category covered by Mr. Fielding's letter asserting executive privilege.

Schumer: A minute ago, you answered the question -- the same question.

Jennings: Senator, I would submit you asked me specifically a moment ago about the breakfast, and in this case you asked me [about] the breakfast and any other time.

Schumer: How is one privileged and one not? It depends -- if you're having eggs it's privileged, and if you're having cornflakes it's not? I mean, I don't get it.

Jennings: Senator, I'm doing the best I can. And, believe me, this is likely as frustrating for me as it is for you but I'm doing the best ...

Sen. Patrick Leahy: No, trust me, it is not.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chuck Schumer D-n.y.