Associate Deputy Attorney General Patrick Philbin didn’t play by Dick’s rules. He was present at John Ashcroft’s hospital bed the night of March 10, 2004, as Andy Card and then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales tried to strong-arm the woozy Ashcroft into reauthorizing the controversial warantless wiretapping program. But Philbin advised Ashcroft not to reauthorize it. Eventually, facing the threat of 8 politicized resignations, Bush and his band backed down and modified the plan to address concerns shared by Philbin, Ashcroft, and the Acting A.G., James Comey.
After Gonzales (whose initials are A.G.—isn’t that nifty?) assumed the post of Attorney General, he sought to promote Philbin to Deputy Attorney General. James Comey indicated today in written Senate testimony that word came down from Cheney’s office that the dark lord would oppose the promotion. “I understood that someone at the White House communicated to Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales that the vice president would oppose the appointment if the attorney general pursued the matter,” Comey wrote. “The attorney general chose not to pursue it.”
At first blush, this sounds like standard tit-for-tat politics. But one of the Justice department’s main functions is to advise the White House on the legality of its proposed policies. If telling them that a policy would violate the Constitution (even when bringing it into line wouldn’t mean throwing it out entirely) means being blacklisted, that sends a clear signal that the White House has no interest in abiding by the terms of the 200-plus-year-old document. Not that that should come as news to anybody.