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Attorney General Hits the Murder Boards

Note to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: Make sure your staff buys the good brand of cookies for this week's "murder boards."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
Gonzales is undergoing self-imposed grilling sessions as he prepares for next week's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (AP)

That's one of the lessons learned by Chief Justice John Roberts, who for several weeks in the summer of 2005 underwent grueling preparation for his nomination hearing, in which aides from the White House and Justice Department pretended to be senators and peppered the nominee with question after question. These sessions are commonly known as murder boards.

Even Roberts, who went on to be considered one of the best performers in modern nomination history, buckled under the pre-hearing stress. As recounted in Ed Gillespie's book, "Winning Right," Rachel Brand, the associate attorney general heading up the Office of Legal Policy, tried to encourage the weary future chief justice by offering cookies she regularly bought for the prep sessions.

"That was great," she assured Roberts on one occasion. "You can have a cookie."

"Why do I feel like a seal that's just been tossed a fish," Roberts dryly retorted.

As Dan Eggen and I reported last week, Gonzales is now undergoing his own version of Sea World-meets-murder boards, as the Attorney General intensley preparing for next week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where he will answer questions about the 2006 firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

Capitol Briefing sought out Republicans familiar with previous murder boards and confirmation preparations to explain the highly sensitive process in exchange for anonymity. In addition, we read Gillespie's chapter on the Supreme Court fights in the recently published memoir by the former Republican National Committee chairman.

In the weeks leading up to the hearing, White House aides from the legislative affairs shop and the counsel's office work with Justice Department staff to prepare a briefing book. It contains just about every piece of information on the nominee, from previous work experience to legal writings and essays to financial background. The briefing book goes out to all relevant staff in the White House and Justice Department. According to one Republican familiar with the process, it does not go up to Republicans on the Hill.

With briefing books in hand, a handful of White House and Justice staffers lead the questions of the nominee when the murder boards start. Usually, they begin with half-hour sessions focusing on one topic, then another half hour on another topic, five or six times a day. But as the hearing draws closer, the blocs are stretched out to an hour or longer in order to replicate the hearing process, where questioning sessions last 90 minutes to two hours, or longer, before breaks.

During recent high-profile confirmations -- Gonzales's for AG, as well as Roberts's for chief justice and Samuel Alito's for Supreme Court associate justice -- Senate Republican aides worked very, very closely with administration officials. One of those Senate aides is Michael O'Neill, chief counsel for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

"We had worked closely on strategy for the Roberts hearings and were constantly in touch during the Alito hearings as well," Gillespie wrote of O'Neill in his book.

O'Neill and other senior Specter staff would gather information about what Republicans would want to ask the nominees, relaying that to administration officials. Also, knowing that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) would ask questions after Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Democrat on the panel, GOP aides would prepare "rehab questions" for Hatch to ask the witness in the event that Leahy's line of questioning was too tough.

On one rare occasion, O'Neil even stopped by a Roberts murder board session, according to a former Republican committee aide. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was even in attendance to watch Alito during one pre-hearing "moot" session.

But no such coordination is currently happening with Capitol Hill. No White House officials are helping with the prep, either, a stark contrast to Gonzales's confirmation in January 2005, which was managed by White House staff. Gonzales has isolated himself from his closest advisers, including Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, for fear of appearing to conspire to mislead Congress. Today's New York Times reported that Tuesday's murder-board session lasted five hours.

Gonzales has brought in outside advisers, including Gillespie, who is a lobbyist and now chairs the Virginia Republican Party. Gillespie prepped Gonzales for his lengthy interview late last month with NBC News's Pete Williams and has helped with other strategic media moves. (In last Thursday's print edition of The Post, I incorrectly wrote that Gillespie was helping with murder boards; in fact, Gillespie is vacationing with his family in the Caribbean this week.)

Specter, the former chairman and now ranking member, has counseled Gonzales to consider an apology at the start of Tuesday's hearing.

"I suggested this to him some time ago, that he ought to reexamine the cases of these eight U.S. attorneys, and, if the Department of Justice was wrong, he ought to start out by apologizing to them," Specter said recently on CBS's "Face the Nation."

If he heeds that advice, maybe Specter and the rest of the Judiciary Committee Republicans will give Gonzales a cookie.

By Paul Kane  |  April 11, 2007; 3:05 PM ET
Categories:  Hearing Watch , Senate  
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