Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York where this article first appeared.
It’s a John Grisham novel, this whole scandal swirling about the Justice Department. Like “The Pelican Brief” maybe, in which the motive for the murder of two Supreme Court judges of disparate ideologies remains mysterious until a plucky law student turns up an obscure case on appeal that would ravage protected wetlands for oil and gas development. Mayhem ensues.
In other words, nothing is as it first seems and it can take a while before some semblance of truth emerges. Especially in Washington, home of the scheme and the fraud. You have to peel back the layers of the onion, just as that plucky law student did (pluckily played in the movie version by plucky Julia Roberts).
What’s the real motive for knocking off those eight, now nine, maybe more U.S. attorneys—Republican appointees all—apparently replaced for insufficient fealty to the Bushie party line? In part, the truth may be lurking in the upcoming 2008 elections.
The White House, Attorney General Gonzales and the Justice Department have tried to hide their real reasons, citing “performance concerns” as the reason for firing the prosecutors and blaming various underlings for mishandling the dismissals, then throwing them to the wolves, too—the latest being Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who announced his resignation Monday. McNulty’s the guy who indiscreetly told a Congressional hearing that the person behind the dismissal of Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins was Karl Rove, who wanted Cummins replaced with his buddy Tim Griffin. Oops.
Scratch the surface of anything vaguely nefarious at 1600 Pennsylvania and sooner or later you’re likely to hit The Rovester. His most famous bit of dark wizardry is to take a negative about his own guy and turn it into a positive—or, rather, a negative against the other side. In 2004, Rove defused rumors about the president’s blotchy National Guard career by orchestrating attacks on John Kerry’s legitimate Vietnam combat record. The Swift Boat Vets for Truth set sail and the rest is revisionist history. Klassic Karl.
Rove’s dancing the same kind of fandango around the issue of scamming at the polls. With the notoriety of alleged electoral skullduggery in 2000, 2002 and 2004 snapping at collective Republican rear ends, he has swiveled those allegations 180 degrees into attacks against Democrats for supposedly encouraging fraudulent registration and voting.
It is, as Garrett Epps recently wrote in Salon.com, an “urban legend that American elections are rife with voter fraud, particularly in the kinds of poor and minority neighborhoods inhabited by Democrats. In 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that fraudulent voting would be a major target of the Department of Justice. As the New York Times reported last month, the main result of this massive effort was such coups as the deportation of a legal immigrant who mistakenly filled out a voter-registration card while waiting in line at the department of motor vehicles.”
This paucity of felons was confirmed by studies conducted for the Election Assistance Commission, a government group established in the wake of the 2000 Florida debacle. But according to the Times and other media, at the insistence of Republican commission members, language was toned down to say, merely, “There is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud.”
Several of the dismissed U.S. attorneys failed to pursue voter fraud allegations with the ferocity Rove and the White House desired. (For one thing, it is a clearly stated Justice Department guideline that “Federal prosecutors and investigators should be extremely careful to not conduct overt investigations during the pre-election period or while the election is underway”—so as to not influence results. In at least two instances, this policy was trod upon by overzealous administration officials.)
Monday’s Washington Post reported, “Nearly half the U.S. attorneys slated for removal by the administration last year were targets of Republican complaints that they were lax on voter fraud, including efforts by presidential adviser Karl Rove to encourage more prosecutions of election-law violations.”
Federal prosecutors in four jurisdictions deemed voter fraud trouble spots by the administration (New Mexico, Missouri, Washington State and Nevada) were let go. A fifth, Steven Biskupic in Milwaukee, was kept on for fear of offending Wisconsin Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner, who at the time was chair of the House Judiciary Committee. (A similar concern may have protected Philadelphia federal prosecutor Pat Meehan, a protege of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, now ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.)
At least two of the terminated Feds—John McKay, former U.S. attorney for western Washington State, and David Iglesias, former U.S. attorney for New Mexico—are on record as believing that Karl Rove and other White House aides were directly behind the dismissals. “That would explain why the wagons are so tightly circled,” Iglesias told a Seattle Times editorial meeting that he and McKay attended last week. (McKay noted, “I think there will be a criminal case that will come out of this. This is going to get worse, not better.”)
But the real motive for all this chasing of phantoms in the polling booths may be far more than a diversion. Note, for example, that the aforementioned Tim Griffin, Rove’s choice to take over as U.S. attorney in eastern Arkansas, has been the focus of accusations that in 2004, while research director of the Republican National Committee, he was involved in “caging” minority voters—unfairly, and possibly illegally, making challenge lists of African- and Hispanic-Americans registered in Democratic districts.
All signs point to a continuing, concentrated GOP campaign to curtail voting rights, to intimidate impoverished and elderly citizens, to suppress voter turnout in minority neighborhoods that would lean Democratic, to take control of who gets to vote. Hence the upswing in punitive state voter ID laws, attempts to restrict registration, purge voter rolls and other legislation allegedly aimed at quashing illegal voting. And the U.S. attorney firings.
“We have, as you know, an enormous and growing problem with elections in certain parts of America today,” Rove told the Republican National Lawyers Association last spring. “We are, in some parts of the country, I’m afraid to say, beginning to look like we have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are, you know, colonels in mirrored sunglasses.”
Rove and his gang would do well to look at the reflection in those sunglasses to see who the real perpetrators of fraud are. Hey, Karl, is cheating the only way left to achieve your “permanent majority?”