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Comey Sheds Light on Gonzales; Immigration Bill Progresses

May 18, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, the conventional wisdom has it, as you know, that the testimony of James Comey, former number-two at the Justice Department, what he said this week about Gonzales, et cetera, means Gonzales is even in more serious trouble. Do you agree, for one?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: He was finished three weeks ago. He was more finished, and now he’s extremely more finished.

JIM LEHRER: Extremely more finished?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it was debilitating, in part because it was cinematic. People thought he was a mediocrity. They didn’t think he was chasing down sick people in hospital beds.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, tell the story quickly.

DAVID BROOKS: The essential story was, there was a dispute within the Justice Department over a secret operation, what we think was the NSA scandal or the NSA operation. The Office of Legal Counsel said, “We think this is not constitutional. We don’t want to approve this scandal.” The real attorney general, John Ashcroft, was sick. He was in a hospital bed, I think with gallbladder problems.

JIM LEHRER: That’s right, gallbladder.

DAVID BROOKS: And the acting attorney general said, “No, we’re not approving.” And so the supposition that somebody from the White House…

JIM LEHRER: That was Comey, James Comey.

DAVID BROOKS: That was the James Comey, and the supposition is that somebody from the White House told the two top assistants in the White House, Gonzales and Andy Card, who was then chief of staff, “Go down to the hospital. Talk to Ashcroft. Get him to sign the approval.”

And Comey got word of this. He beat Card and Gonzales to the hospital bed of Ashcroft, briefed him while he seemed semi-comatose at the time, and Ashcroft arose, when Gonzales and Card showed up, and said, “No, I’m not going to approve this. And that man over there,” pointing to Comey, “is the acting attorney general, not me, because I’m in the hospital.”

And so what it was, was the White House really trying to go around the normal procedure. And that’s what has people upset. And it is so demoralizing for people in the White House, in the Republican Party.

I had two officials today say, “You know, it’s an empty suit. The guy’s an empty suit. What is he doing?” And it is so demoralizing for people on the president’s team that they have to defend this guy. You can imagine the rest of Washington.

JIM LEHRER: But they are defending him, Mark. I mean, day after day after day, they’re defending him.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: They are, Jim, but I think this one is especially tough. Just a couple of things to add to it.

It wasn’t simply Comey, the deputy attorney general, or Ashcroft. It was the FBI director, Robert Mueller, who was there, as well, and said, “We will quit. We will resign if you try and go over our heads on this and ignore our policy decision.” Now, this is…

JIM LEHRER: And that policy decision, to clarify, was to…

MARK SHIELDS: Was to suspend what had been the FISA requirement for eavesdropping on American civilians.

JIM LEHRER: That’s right, OK.

MARK SHIELDS: And, Jim, the important thing is, this was March of 2004. This was a presidential election year. If you get the FBI director, the attorney general, and the deputy attorney general all resigning on a matter of principle at a time like that, it would have been a political firestorm. So they couldn’t handle that.

The other complication is this: Attorney General Gonzales testified in February of 2006, two years later, that there had been no dispute, in his own testimony, there had been no dispute about this matter. So finding out that this happened two years earlier puts him, once again, at odds with the truth.

And the administration is there with him. I don’t know if it’s a sense of loyalty. I think it’s obviously of deep concern.

The only person who could pass confirmation at this point would be a professional who is not a loyal Bushie, who has come with an independent reputation of integrity and character, and then, if that person goes in as a straight arrow and finds that there has been political meddling at the department, the kind that would feel duty-bound to blow the whistle on that. So they’re really in a very difficult place.

Senate vote of no confidence?

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
Understandable that the attorney general is a representative of an administration, elections count, and politics establishes priorities of the department, but it doesn't determine justice.

JIM LEHRER: And, of course, meanwhile, the Senate is now considering passing a resolution of no confidence. What does that mean, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that's the Democrats trying to register their opposition. It should be said, first of all, the president has sole discretion on this matter.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. It wouldn't mean a thing if they passed it.

DAVID BROOKS: It wouldn't mean a thing, but, nonetheless, day by day, Republicans are flaking off. And in private, they're all flaking off. But in public, Norm Coleman, I think, was today...

JIM LEHRER: He said he would...

DAVID BROOKS: And so you've had this whole series of people flaking off. But, listen, the other thing that -- the other element of the story is -- one of the things Comey, after this whole episode, was going to have an interview, was going to have a conversation with people at the White House, and he said, "I need a witness." And then he wanted Ted Olson, the solicitor general at the time.

And to me, that suggests a level of distrust, a level of brutal, bare-knuckles tactics, which is not the way we want our government to work. And, you know, Washington is a rough place, and these sorts of things happen, but the whole thing -- there was nothing illegal that happened. There was a disagreement over this FISA statute. Nonetheless, the way it went about was so disrespectful to the institutions, that's what leaves a bad taste.

MARK SHIELDS: And it's incredibly demoralizing within the department. I mean, the Justice Department has been a very special place, I mean, whether it's Ed Levi under Jerry Ford as attorney general. It's been a special, professional place.

Understandable that the attorney general is a representative of an administration, elections count, and politics establishes priorities of the department, but it doesn't determine justice. And I think that's really...

JIM LEHRER: Because the responsibility of the Justice Department is so heavyweight, I mean, you can put people in jail. That's one branch of government that can do that.

DAVID BROOKS: Attorney generals, to be fair, have always -- many of them have been very political.

JIM LEHRER: That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: But the offices within the Justice Department have generally not been.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, that was your point.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. They've accepted that responsibility that they're not just an extension or an annex of the White House. I doubt, with all due respect to Senator Schumer, I don't think it will come up next week. The Senate's going to be dealing with the immigration bill. When I say "it," I mean, the censure vote.

JIM LEHRER: The censure thing.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the immigration bill is complicated enough without complicating it further with a vote on censure, which would just be divisive at a time when they're trying to put together a very precarious majority.

Wolfowitz's departure

David Brooks
The New York Times
Wolfowitz' real sin was that he comes into the World Bank with a reputation of the Iraq war and with a reputation of someone who doesn't manage an organization well.

JIM LEHRER: Of course, meanwhile, David, Paul Wolfowitz did not hang in there. Eventually, he left. What's your reading of not only the causes of his leaving and the way he left?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I thought the scandal was 75 percent bogus. You know, he tried to recuse himself from raising his companion's salary. What he did was approved in a general way by the ethics committee. I thought, you know, there was some wrongdoing, but nothing that would warrant anybody leaving.

His real sin was not that. His real sin was that he comes into the World Bank with a reputation of the Iraq war and with a reputation of someone who doesn't manage an organization well. It seems it me, if you're coming in under those circumstances, with vast political differences with the World Bank employees, who tend to be Democrats, you're going to make sure the first thing you do is you're going to win over the building.

You're going to involve people in decisions. You're not going to erect barriers between you and the people who dominate your building and who happen to be extremely well-connected in Washington. He failed to do that. He failed to communicate and show respect to the career staff, many of whom actually do deserve respect.

And they were just looking for something, looking for a pretext to get rid of him. So, to me, that was the real failure. The scandal was the pretext. But you've got to win over your building if you're going to lead an organization.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?

MARK SHIELDS: I think David is onto something very important here. And it's something I think that many Bush people have suffered from in this administration.

If you view the professional staff, most of whom are dedicated people who are public servants, who probably could be doing a lot better, in many instances, in the private sector, if you come in and you view them as the enemy and you treat them with disdain and contempt, which is exactly what Paul Wolfowitz did -- he did it at the Pentagon, as well, but he did it in spades at the World Bank, and there was greater retaliatory capacity there.

Paul Wolfowitz, as even his greatest admirers even acknowledge, was a miserable manager. He was a miserable manager where he spectacularly failed at the Pentagon, so he's rewarded with an even tougher management job at the World Bank. I mean, it was just terrible -- he's the kind of person Walker Percy was talking about when he wrote...

JIM LEHRER: Great columnist from Louisiana, right.

MARK SHIELDS: ... do not be the kind of person who gets all A's and flunks ordinary living. And he's a towering intellect, and he just had terrible relations with the people.

Senate immigration bill deal

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
From conservatives, who are just -- they're not even listening. You couldn't come out with any bill that would please conservatives, unless it was a roundup of 12 million people and put them all on buses tomorrow.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned immigration. What do you think of this big deal that was announced yesterday by the Senate and with the agreement of the White House, some people at the Senate?

MARK SHIELDS: You know, everybody in Washington, including people on this show who sit in that chair, talk about bipartisanship and how wonderful it is.

JIM LEHRER: Which chair did they say the in?

MARK SHIELDS: This is bipartisanship, Jim!

JIM LEHRER: This is real bipartisanship?

MARK SHIELDS: This is what it looks like.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, my goodness.

MARK SHIELDS: It's three months of work. It's hours. It's people that don't agree, like Ted Kennedy and Jon Kyl, sitting across, and Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary...

JIM LEHRER: Saying great things about Ted Kennedy.

MARK SHIELDS: The secretary of commerce there, as well, and Mel Martinez, concerned about the Latino vote, which fell from the Republicans from 44 percent to 29 percent in the last election. And they fashioned this, and immediately it got a very cool reception. And I think...

JIM LEHRER: From Republicans, from conservatives.

MARK SHIELDS: From conservatives, who are just -- they're not even listening. You couldn't come out with any bill that would please conservatives, unless it was a roundup of 12 million people and put them all on buses tomorrow.

And, secondly, you get it from labor, that is upset about the guest worker, that they're going to further depress wages. You get it from Latinos and Hispanics who are concerned about the family separation, without the policy that's been in effect...

JIM LEHRER: They're going to change that.

MARK SHIELDS: They're going to change that and reward people on the basis of their skills and their talents and so forth.

JIM LEHRER: And not just automatically do the family...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. Landscapers go by, and computer programmers get rewarded. So Democrats are a little nervous right now. They know they need 70 Republicans in the House to pass it.

And not sure the president has the clout, has the clout politically to do it, and this is his legacy. This is what he wants, and I think he's committed it, but he squandered an awful lot of political capital on privatization of Social Security and Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think is going to happen with this? Is this real?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm a little worried about it, in part, you know, when you have something that's bipartisan...

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Mark that this really is bipartisan?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I mean, at the moment it's got sort of 70 soft votes in the Senate, one imagines, a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats. But you run into -- and I basically think it's a good bill -- but you run into two risks.

One, to square the circle between Jon Kyl and Ted Kennedy, you have to create some complicated mixture of policies that don't actually work together. And I don't know if that's true or not, but that's what we're going to have to look at over the next couple of weeks, because it does -- it's a complicated piece of legislation, which always raise flags.

And then the second thing you have to worry about is the opposition on the party bases just whipping away people from this middle ground. And I have to say, there's nothing lukewarm or cool about the -- especially the conservative reaction to this bill. It's hot, it's hot and fevered.

And it's legitimate, to be honest. I don't agree with it. But they've been through this road before, where people promised to close the border and establish some security on the border, and it never happened.

JIM LEHRER: Didn't happen.

DAVID BROOKS: So they're right to be skeptical. I don't blame them at all, and they raise very legitimate points. But the anger is there, and the anger on -- at least opposition on the Democratic side. And we're in a primary season, and Obama is skeptical, to say the least.

Romney is opposed. Giuliani is skeptical. I think, really, only of the presidentials, only McCain has really said he's for it. So, you know, you're just going to have strong pressure from both sides to pull people away.

South Carolina Republican debate

David Brooks
The New York Times
Crisp answers, presidential-seeming, persuasive candidate, so [Guiliani] did himself an enormous amount of good.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the presidential candidates, what was your reaction to the latest Republican candidate debate this week or this weekend? The one in South Carolina. You knew what I was talking about, right?

DAVID BROOKS: And the white guys standing in a row...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, right, right, all the white guys there, right, right.

DAVID BROOKS: As opposed to us.

JIM LEHRER: And us three white guys are going to talk about the 10 white guys talking.

DAVID BROOKS: Welcome to 1952.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, exactly.

DAVID BROOKS: The big story out of the thing was that Rudy Giuliani -- it wasn't sure he was running a presidential campaign. What he was running, for the last couple of weeks, looked like a speaking circuit tour, talking about himself, 9/11, all that stuff.

But this debate, he came and ran a presidential campaign. Crisp answers, presidential-seeming, persuasive candidate, so he did himself an enormous amount of good. And then the second thing is, of the top three, Romney, McCain, and Giuliani, separated themselves from all the rest. I thought those three did well.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing on the immigration.

JIM LEHRER: One quick thing.

MARK SHIELDS: It is so hot, it is so hot, Jim, on the Republican side, that Sam Brownback, who was one of the supporters in the Senate last year, has done a 180. He's now against immigration. Romney has done a 180. It's just one of Romney's eighteen 180s on issues in the past three months.

I thought McCain was the star. I mean, Rudy Giuliani, he doesn't want to talk about 9/10. He only wants to talk about 9/11. His life began and ended in 9/11 to 9/18 of 2001. He doesn't want to talk about 9/10, when he was going through all kinds of troubles and people couldn't wait to get him out of office. I didn't think -- I mean, going after Ron Paul and that, it didn't look Churchillian to me.

On the defining issue of these people, on torture, John McCain was the only one who spoke to and for American values and spoke to and for American troops, who might, Heaven forbid, be captured some day. The others were all cheap-shot, political artists.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.