Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont kicked off the hearing of the Judiciary Committee he chairs this morning by challenging President George W. Bush's discretion to control the system of United States Attorneys for political purposes.
"United States Attorneys may serve at the pleasure of the president, but justice does not serve at the pleasure of the president, or any president," he said.
The hearing got off to a slow and disrupted start as the Senate wrapped up a vote on Iraq.
Leahy thanked D. Kyle Sampson for testifying voluntarily, and without the need to issue subpoenas.
"The Attorney General admits mistake were made, but seems to say those mistakes were made mostly by Mr. Sampson," the Vermont Democrat explained.
He then charged the Bush administration with telling an inconsistent story about the firing of 8 U.S. Attorneys.
"Regrettably, what we have heard from the administration is a series of shifting explanations, excuses, a lack of accountability, or even acknowledgement of the seriousness of this matter," he argued.
Leahy was followed by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who assailed the Bush administration for downplaying the significance of the events.
"Just 7 weeks ago, the Department of Justice insisted we were making a big deal out of nothing," he said, and then noted the resignations of Sampson, other officials, as well as the decision by another Justice official, Monica Goodling, to plead her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
He then noted that White House aide Karl Rove and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had been directly implicated in the firing of the attorneys, and charged the Bush administration with dissembling.
"The list of contradictions, contortions, and distortions grows longer everyday," he warned.
Schumer insisted that today's hearing was not a partisan exercise.
"The purpose is not gotcha. The purpose is, as they said in Dragnet, 'just the facts ma'am.'"