It’s just days before the mid-term elections, and you’re sitting in the White House watching a close Congressional race when it bubbles up that the the Republican incumbent, long dogged by corruption rumors, is under federal investigation.
That’s the situation the Bush White House found itself in when it was reported in late October 2006, first on blogs, that U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton was investigating Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ).
And that’s when the damage control machine kicked into gear.
Scott Jennings, deputy to Karl Rove, and White House Counsel Harriet Miers intervened to try to get the Justice Department to throw cold water on the reports of an investigation, despite the DOJ’s policy not to confirm or deny the existence of ongoing probes, according to e-mails released by the House Judiciary Committee today. (Read them here.)
One piece in the Arizona Republic, speculating that the news about the investigation was politically-motivated, quoted a DOJ official: “I want to caution you not to chop this guy’s (Renzi’s) head off.” That’s the type of statement that surely helped Renzi in the heated days before the election.
Renzi went on to win reelection, but was indicted on wide-ranging corruption charges in April 2008. The case is still pending.
The Jennings/Miers e-mails make for rich reading. On October 24, Jennings wrote, under the subect “re: our call”:
“The person I called you about [Renzi] said the USATTY in his area, as well as the local FBI office, said they were unaware of any investigation.”
Miers replied, describing how she intervened to pressure the DOJ on its public stance:
Scott, I just finished speaking with [Deputy AG] Paul McNulty. He said what we suspected he would. He has been contacted by a number of frustrated members of the Congress asking why people can’t be vindicated in the event nothing is going on. He acknowledged that the situation is frustrating, but reiterated their position that they cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. He said the AG did an interview last week to put things in as good as a perspective as possible by explaining that no one should be talking and that a refusal to deny should be given no meaning beyond that Justice does not admit or deny the existence of an investigation. I observed that at some point, immediately preceding an election, unattributed statements about the existence of an investigation was rankly unfair. He is continuing to think about the situation, but I did not get a lot of encouragement that they will deviate from normal course.
In other words: despite being told it was DOJ policy not to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, Miers asked Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general, to knock down the reports of a probe. But she “did not get a lot of encouragement that they will deviate from normal course.”
In the next two days, the articles citing anonymous DOJ officials appeared, falsely reporting the probe was in early stages. It’s still not known who made those leaks and whether anyone directed them to do it.
Asked about the emails in her House Judiciary interview, Miers had — surprise — a hard time recalling specifics.
In a lengthy exchange, the lead House interviewer, Rep. Adam Schiff, attempts to pins down Miers on the Renzi episode — and gets nothing but denials and claims of ignorance. Asked how she hoped the DOJ would “deviate” from its standard practice, Miers says “I didn’t hope one way or the other.”
That claim, of course, is belied by her email to Jennings.
The whole exchange is worth a look; here’s an excerpt:
Q … Now, what course were you hoping that they would deviate from?
A That they would try to do something to clarify that there should not be read into anything — I mean, just exactly what the e-mail says, and what the attorney general said, that they should not take any reading from a refusal to either confirm or deny.
Q So in the normal course of business, the Department of Justice wouldn’t confirm or deny an investigation, right?
A That’s correct.
Q And in this case, you wrote that you didn’t get a lot of encouragement that they would deviate from that course. How were you hoping he would deviate?
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