Comey testifies --- and the logic of the process of elimination begins to set in. Even the congressional GOP may have to acknowledge that the Department of Justice was not the instigator in those weirdly self-destructive, unprecedented firings of several mostly Republican US Attorneys, mid-term, during a Republican administration. That was the impression I got while sitting in the hearing room this morning at the U.S. Capitol.
Former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey testified at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law this morning. Spending no time or ink on a prepared statement, Comey, who had been subpoenaed by the Committee, devoted approximately two hours to answering questions from the mostly Democratic members present. The hearing, which most GOP members skipped, was chaired by Linda Sanchez (D-CA).
As Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) said in opening, “What we don’t know is who actually placed the names of the US Attorneys on the firing lists.”
Comey plugged up one hole: it was not he.
Unlike Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at a previous hearing, Comey did not testify under oath (a staffer for the Subcommittee explains that anyone who testifies to Congress is subject to penalty for perjury). Comey did, however, speak clearly and unequivocally. He said in answer to questions that, as Deputy Attorney General, he was the supervisor directly above the US Attorneys, and in response to key questions from Democratic members, Comey stated flatly that...
- He was not aware of any process underway for evaluating all US Attorneys for possible replacement;
- He did not know of any list being prepared, by Gonzales Chief of Staff D. Kyle Sampson or by anyone else at Justice, of USAs who were to be fired;
- He did not know independently of a ‘chart’ [in the Washington Post characterization, see later post] of all USAs prepared by Kyle Sampson;
- He never saw this version of Sampson’s list, later turned over to Congress, or any version; and
- Never saw the list himself until it was released among thousands of DOJ documents subpoenaed by Congress.
Comey could hardly have been more comprehensive, also responding clearly and unequivocally in Q & A that...
- He did not have any idea that the ‘chart’ existed;
- He had no idea that the ‘chart’ was being transmitted to the White House; and
- He also had no knowledge of a plan suggested, according to Sampson’s previous testimony before Congress, of replacing all 93 USAs – which, Comey said, would have been “very disruptive.” Comey said he knew that US Attorneys had been asked for their resignations at the beginning of Clinton’s term but that widespread replacements in the middle of a term would have been unprecedented.
I have to admit, this is getting somewhat interesting. I already thought those DOJ firings took place only at the behest of the White House, but now it looks that way more than ever: according to the testimony of two then-top officials in the Justice Department, the firings occurred with negligible input from the Attorney General and with no input at all from his Deputy Attorney General.
One item – or rather, one name – on the dread list is particularly interesting, that of Kevin V. Ryan, formerly of the San Francisco USA’s office, District of Northern California.
The backstory here is that, in answer to questions, Comey stated that he was familiar with Gonzales’ former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, and that he had had a 15-minute meeting with Sampson – on February 28, 2005, according to his notes --- about sharing names of US Attorneys who needed replacing. Comey said “I’m quite sure he did not mention the White House,” which is interesting, and that he would have remembered such a mention from Sampson. “I gave him my reaction,” Comey said – a quick list of about ten “weak performers,” mainly “poor managers.” The gist of the exchange seems to be that Comey supplied names in the first place only at Sampson’s request. BTW, it is well-nigh impossible to believe that a lower-ranking official at DOJ made such a request of the second in command UNLESS at the behest of the White House.
Moving on: that short list was not spelled out in the hearing but did include Kevin Ryan of San Francisco. Ironically, the short list prepared by Sampson then included Ryan’s name among the bold-faced type – that is, the names of individuals to be retained.
IT's INTERESTING THAT NO ONE HAS ASKED, OR ANYWAY ASKED FORCEFULLY ENOUGH TO GET AN ANSWER, WHY SAMPSON WAS SO EAGER TO RETAIN ONE OF THE FEW HIT-LIST NAMES, Ryan, HE WAS ABLE TO GET FROM HIS DAG...
In other words, having gotten from Comey 10 names of people to be let go, why did Sampson then hot-foot it back to his office and (apparently) leave out 9 names and then put the remaining one on his list of people to keep? The reason this one might matter, in particular, for all you fans of the Constitution out there, is that the oath of office for taking the White House includes seeing that the laws are well and faithfully executed. If one of the few names of prosecutors to be retained, on Sampson’s own list, is the name of one of the few that his Deputy Attorney General specifically suggested for replacement, it looks odd for that well-and-faithfully-executed thing. More on that later.
Not to be too hard on Ryan, since he has already been fired, but what makes the whole thing even odder is that 1) Comey stated clearly that none of his ten “weak performers” were among Sampson’s firees; and conversely 2) Comey stated rather forcefully that he had quite a high opinion of the other prosecutors on Sampson’s list who were later fired. When asked whether the reasons for the terminations “ring true to you,” Comey said he was not sure he understood the reasons – adding that the USAs let go, with the exception of Ryan, were ones about whom there were numerous “positives.”
Of Carol Lam of California, Comey said, “my interactions with her were always positive”; “She was a fine US Attorney”; and “I never had experience of insubordination with her.” Lam was also not, underscore not, listed among his ten “weak performers” – nor were any of the other USAs fired on the basis of Sampson’s list. [TPMMuckracker has more, including video, on the Lam exchange with Comey.]
Comey had nothing but praise for USA John McKay of Seattle, whom he lauded for being “very passionate” about some issues including ones that Comey said he himself felt strongly about, including the murder of Assistant US Attorney Thomas C. Wales in Seattle in 2001.
N.b.: Comey also mentioned, more or less in passing, “I don’t remember discussing that tragedy with anyone besides McKay.”
Admittedly the horrendous murder of Mr. Wales may not tie in to the firings of several US Attorneys even including McKay, who was apparently investigating the Wales matter. But Wales left two grown children behind, and they and we deserve more mention of that loose-ends case than has heretofore been given; I intend to follow up. For now, Comey’s testimony seems to suggest that the Department of Justice did not pay very much attention to the murder of one of its own, a well-regarded prosecutor in the state of Washington on October 11, 2001.
Why not? And speaking of emails, would anyone care to hazard a guess as to what internal White House emails and RNC emails, about the abrupt death of a well-known gun-control advocate like Wales, would look like? More on that will have to wait for another day.
BTW, that ridiculous WashPost reading of someone unranked as ‘undistinguished’ has still, regrettably, not been corrected. More on that later as well...