Young Bush Staffer Gets Grilled

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J. Scott Jennings, at the tender age of 29, became the latest sacrificial lamb the White House has sent up to answer questions about the controversial firings of eight U.S. Attorneys last year. Or, rather, not answer questions, but sit in the hearing room and meekly absorb the ire and frustration of the panel's Senators, Democrats and Republicans alike.

So far the oldest person — other than Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who refuses to answer questions on the matter due to an ongoing investigation — to testify has been James Comey, the former No. 2 at the Justice Department. Excluding Comey, 46, the White House has sent five others to testify, none older than 36. Sara Taylor, for example, was Director of the White House's political office before the age of 30.

If there's one thing that the questioning of these staffers has revealed, it's that these were not the people making the decisions. As Kyle Sampson, 35, Gonzales' former chief of staff, repeatedly told the committee during the eight hours he was grilled: "I was the keeper of the list, not the one who put names on the list." Yet at the same time he claimed that he did not know exactly who it was who selected the attorneys for firing. And Sampson's own record — did practicing law for just a couple of years make him qualified for his job? — didn't help his standing on Capitol Hill.

At today's hearing, the seventh one in a series entitled "Preserving Prosecutorial Independence: Is the Department of Justice Politicizing the hiring and Firing of U.S. Attorneys?" Senator Arlen Specter, the panel's top Republican, seemed almost empathetic towards Jennings, whom he gently prodded: "Are you scared?"

"Yes, Senator," Jennings replied.

Specter continued in a matter-of-fact fashion: "Are you worried about a criminal contempt citation?"

"Yes," Jennings replied. "I'm worried people would think I've done something wrong."

Specter has threatened the possibility of holding a Senate contempt "trial" if the White House continues to block Congressional attempts at obtaining documents and testimony over the attorneys, whom critics say lost their jobs for purely political reasons.

Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, got right to the point. He thanked Jennings for his service, noting that the future of both political parties is based on the enthusiasm of young staffers like Jennings. "But where is Karl Rove?" Durbin continued, referring to President George Bush's top political aide who was also subpoenaed but refused to appear today, citing executive privilege. "Why is he hiding behind the curtain? Why does he throw another young staffer like you to us?"

Other top aides that have been subpoenaed by the House or Senate Judiciary Committees but have refused to comply are former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.

Not unsurpsingly there was little Jennings told the committee. He conferred repeatedly with his triumvirate of lawyers sitting next to and behind him. He told the committee even less than Taylor, who as a former employee of the White House had an iota of more freedom to answer frankly. (Taylor went so far as to confirm she did not discuss the firings with Bush and to state she believed he had no direct involvement in them — questions Jennings refused to answer.)

"I'm sorry, Senator," Jennings told Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, after invoking executive privilege. "This is as frustrating for me as it is you."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, interrupted: "No, I assure you, it is not."