Thompson Courts the Hard-Right Base
Timothy Griffin, the Karl Rove protégé at the center of the federal prosecutor scandal, is negotiating for a senior position on Fred Thompson’s Republican presidential campaign, another sign that the actor and former senator is positioning himself as the reddest of red-meat candidates appealing to the right-wing base.
A litmus test among devoted followers of George W. Bush remains an instinctive rejection of all scandals considered important by liberals, from the deceptive intelligence behind the Iraq War to the torture of terror suspects to the exposure of CIA officer Valerie Plame to the politicization of the U.S. Attorneys.
If the liberals think it’s a scandal, Bush’s followers know the talking points from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing media outlets explaining why it isn’t.
Thompson is courting those votes by making himself the stick-it-in-your-ear candidate, the guy who doesn’t give a hoot what the New York Times editorial page says.
While other Republican presidential contenders also may vouch for the rightness of the Iraq War and defend torture (with a couple of exceptions), Thompson has jumped out front demanding a pardon for convicted White House aide I. Lewis Libby.
Now Thompson’s consideration of Griffin for a top job is a sign of what Law & Order’s fictional D.A. thinks about the prosecutor scandal.
By letting it be known that Griffin is under consideration for a senior campaign post, Thompson’s nascent campaign is signaling to the Republican base that Thompson won’t shy away from Republicans under fire.
“I can tell you I’ve had discussions with my good friend Tim Griffin,” Thompson’s spokesman Mark Corallo told me.
Corallo also made clear that the Thompson campaign was not fazed by allegations implicating Griffin in so-called “caging” operations to disqualify black voters or by charges that Griffin inflated his résumé as a prosecutor.
The 38-year-old Griffin was appointed interim U.S. Attorney in Little Rock, Arkansas, in December 2006 after former U.S. Attorney H.E. “Bud” Cummins was one of nine regional federal prosecutors pushed out of their jobs to make room for “loyal Bushies.”
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales put Griffin in the job by using emergency powers that were slipped into the USA Patriot Act, thus evading the normal confirmation process before the U.S. Senate.
Despite the unusual appointment, the Bush administration and its political allies touted Griffin’s supposedly strong experience as both a civilian and military prosecutor. Under inspection, however, Griffin’s prosecutorial record looks less than impressive – and indeed his résumé appears misleading.
For instance, Griffin’s official Web site claimed that he had prosecuted 40 cases while stationed for nine months at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. But Army records showed him serving as an assistant on only three, all of which were settled with guilty pleas.
Republican supporters also appear to have exaggerated Griffin’s experience during another nine-month stint as an assistant U.S. attorney in Little Rock.
Though the federal case tracking system lists Griffin as having secured 25 indictments, there is no evidence that he took any of them to trial before quitting to go to work on the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign. I learned from Griffin’s former colleagues that some of his cases needed corrections (or superceding indictments) before other prosecutors could take them to trial.
Griffin didn’t agree to be interviewed, but his spokeswoman Cherith Beck suggested that Griffin’s higher number on the Ft. Campbell cases might refer to all prosecutions that he worked on in any capacity.
“Just wanted to clarify, make sure you had an understanding that prosecuted means it’s a case he handled while he was there; it doesn’t mean that it went to trial necessarily,” Beck said. “Prosecuted means he handled those cases in one form or another.”
However, I could find no evidence that Griffin tried either a civilian or military case; no examples of him presenting a case to a jury, like the prosecutors do on "Law & Order," the TV series in which Thompson plays a crusty New York district attorney. [For more on Griffin’s legal experience, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Did Rove Protégé Puff Up His Resume?”]
Though perhaps light on prosecutorial experience, Griffin impressed Bush’s chief political adviser Karl Rove with his campaign skills.
In September 1999, Griffin joined the Bush-Cheney campaign as deputy research director handling what’s known in the Washington political world as “oppo” or opposition research, digging up dirt on political opponents. He also worked as a legal adviser in the Florida recount battle that gained Bush the White House in December 2000.
As research director and deputy communication director for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, Griffin’s initiatives included the use of a technique known as “caging” to identify suspect voters. Griffin’s team sent letters to newly registered voters in envelopes barring any forwarding, so they would be returned if a voter wasn’t at that address.
BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast uncovered Griffin’s role in this practice that proved especially effective in “caging” African-Americans who lived in low-income areas or who were in the U.S. military. “Caged” voters would then be challenged by Republican lawyers when they arrived at the polls or cast absentee ballots.
After Bush secured a second term, Griffin joined the White House staff as deputy director for political affairs under Rove. Over the next two years, White House and Justice Department officials collaborated to oust Little Rock U.S. Attorney Cummins, a well-respected Republican, so a vacancy could be created for Griffin.
Although the Justice Department initially denied knowing “of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Griffin,” an e-mail by Gonzales’s chief of staff Kyle Sampson revealed that Griffin’s appointment was “important to Harriet, Karl, etc.,” in a reference to then-White House counsel Harriet Miers and Karl Rove.
Griffin got the U.S. Attorney’s job in December 2006, but his interim appointment soon was caught up in the scandal over the firing of nine prosecutors. He quit the job abruptly on June 1, as House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers began collecting evidence on the Bush-Cheney “caging” operations.
Despite Griffin’s baggage, Thompson is reportedly considering giving Griffin an important job on the campaign. When I asked what role Griffin might play in the campaign, spokesman Corallo answered, “that’s something that’s still under discussion.”
Thompson has been out front, too, in urging President Bush to pardon Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff who was convicted of obstruction of justice in the investigation into who leaked the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Thompson, a member of an advisory committee for Libby’s defense, called Libby’s conviction and 30-month sentence “tragic” and said he “absolutely” should be pardoned.
In a June 5 appearance on Fox’s Hannity & Colmes, Thompson reiterated the chief pro-Libby talking points that have become articles for faith for the Republican base.
"What they were looking at didn’t constitute a crime,” Thompson said, arguing that Plame was not a covert CIA officer as defined by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. “Scooter Libby didn’t leak her [Plame’s] name. … They picked him out to bring the burden of this entire political witch-hunt on him.”
All Thompson’s comments on Plamegate are treasured Republican talking points, but not necessarily accurate.
Though it’s true that prosecutors faced a difficult challenge in charging senior administration officials of illegally divulging the identity of a covert agent (especially since President Bush was involved in the broader operation), the willful leaking of such sensitive classified information is often treated as a crime. Attorney General Gonzales himself has suggested using the Espionage Act to punish other leaks of classified material.
Also, despite claims by right-wing lawyers that Plame was not a “covert” agent, the CIA confirmed that she was and Plame testified before Congress that she had served abroad in the past five years, meaning that she would have come under the protection of the agents identities act.
Contrary to another Thompson assertion, Libby did leak Plame’s identity to at least two reporters, although it turned out that another journalist, Robert Novak, who had received the information from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Rove, published the leak first.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald presented an ironclad case proving that Libby had lied about his role in peddling Plame’s identity, which was done with the goal of discrediting her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was challenging Bush’s use of bogus intelligence about Iraq seeking uranium from Africa.
But Thompson’s eagerness to embrace Libby and Griffin, as well as his support of controversial actions by the Bush administration, suggests that he doesn’t see these scandals as political liabilities but rather as a way to burnish his bona fides with the hard-right base of the Republican Party.
Richard L. Fricker is a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based freelance reporter/writer and two-time winner of the American Business Press Editors Award for Investigative Journalism. He writes regularly for the Swiss newsweekly Sonntags Blick and Consortiumnews.com. Fricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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