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Attorney General Michael Mukasey may have been thrashed last week by Senate Democrats. But compared to the receptions his predecessor Alberto Gonzales often received, the hearing was practically a lovefest. Senators were clearly frustrated by Mukasey’s refusal to answer questions about torture, but they went out of their way to praise the new AG � even while grilling him. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) thanked Mukasey for limiting contact between Justice Department personnel and the White House. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) congratulated Mukasey for opening a criminal investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes. And Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) complimented Mukasey for opening the lines of communication between lawmakers and the department. In fact, senior Justice Department officials now say privately that they saw the hearings as a victory: Mukasey left with his reputation and his relationships with senators intact � and, maybe more importantly, he didn’t reveal much. It helps that, since his confirmation in November, Mukasey has been quietly but steadily reaching out to some of his most vocal Senate critics through a series of phone calls and personal meetings. “He and I talk a lot, get along well .�.�. and are in contact on a regular basis,” says Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “I told him the day he was confirmed that I’d start the clock all over again.” Peter Carr, Mukasey’s deputy press secretary, says the department is “cautiously optimistic” that all will work out well with Congress. “No doubt we’ll have our challenges, given that we have divided government, presidential politics, and heightened congressional oversight,” Carr says. “Attorney General Mukasey realizes we have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time.” A high-ranking Justice Department official says Mukasey, a longtime resident of New York, is still learning the ways and culture of Washington politics and that he has played his “outsider” card to his advantage. “Everybody, and up to the most vocal critics, has been willing to give us, at least initially, the benefit of the doubt .�.�. for the attorney general to prove himself,” the official says. LAYING GROUNDWORK In December, just weeks after his bruising Nov. 8 confirmation vote, Mukasey placed calls to Leahy and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. He invited the pair to join him as his guest at the annual lighting of the Hanukkah menorah on the White House south lawn. Specter couldn’t make it, but Leahy did. Leahy, in return, has given the AG, a New Yorker, tips on where to take his family in the District. “I suggested to him at the time that his grandchildren might get a kick out of the botanical gardens. He told me he followed the suggestion, he went to it, and he had a good time.” The rapport appears to be extending to the pair’s professional relationship � at least on issues not involving torture. Leahy says that his motive is to simply see that the Justice Department “succeed” under Mukasey, and that he told Mukasey he “would work with him in any way possible to restore the morale.” Cardin, another Judiciary Committee member, says he has had phone conversations with Mukasey to follow up on election-related issues, such as voter rights and voter fraud, that he raised during Mukasey’s confirmation hearings in October. Cardin has also run into the attorney general in less formal settings, including a White House function and a dinner party. Cardin says the extra time with the attorney general has allowed the senator to emphasize issues that are important to him. “He knows my specific interest in the elections issue,” Cardin says. Not all has been rosy between Mukasey and senators. Underlying the niceties is a feeling among some senators that Mukasey remains an enigma, and there is uncertainty about his motives. “There’s still that sense that we don’t fully understand where he’s coming from on some of his positions,” Cardin says. “He’s open and is leading the agency in a much more professional manner, but there’s still this friction because of his views on torture.” Mukasey isn’t working alone. At his side on most Capitol Hill matters is Brian Benczkowski, acting assistant attorney general of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the Justice Department. Benczkowski, who joined the department after the departure of Richard Hertling this past summer, is a seasoned Hill veteran. He is a former senior counsel on the House Judiciary Committee under Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and also worked as an aide to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). Benczkowski is in constant contact with the aides to key senators and helps Mukasey prepare his responses to congressional inquiries. He also handles the confirmation process for all Justice nominees, including Mukasey. Thus far, most of Mukasey’s outreach efforts have been limited to the Senate, where Mukasey took his first steps as a nominee and where a lot of the close votes and legislative fights have taken place. And a big part of that strategy has been keeping senators informed of policy and personnel decisions before they become public � simple communication that keeps them in the loop. “It’s kind of Congressional Relations 101, doing the thing you’re supposed to do,” says the Justice official. That focus may be a problem, given the House Judiciary Committee announced late last week that it will hold its own oversight hearing on Feb. 7. PERSONAL CALLS, PET PROJECTS It’s a far cry from Gonzales’ rocky tenure and acrimonious exchanges with Democrats and Republicans over charges that he politicized the department. At Gonzales’ last Senate hearing on July 24, Leahy bluntly told him: “I don’t trust you.” In contrast, Mukasey has wooed legislators by appealing directly to their concerns and responding to their requests. In at least two instances, Mukasey has granted the wishes of Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. In December, Mukasey implemented a policy restricting contact between the officials in the White House and Justice Department personnel. Days before announcing the change, Mukasey alerted Whitehouse, who had pushed for such a firewall. Late last month, Mukasey called Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) to say that he would allow a gay and lesbian organization in the Justice Department to host its annual awards event in the Great Hall at Main Justice. At Mukasey’s confirmation hearing, Feingold complained that the group had been blocked from doing so by ex-Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Gonzales. He also consulted with Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) before submitting Frank Magill’s name to replace Rachel Paulose as U.S. attorney for Minnesota. And he called Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) to alert him that Mark Filip, a Chicago federal judge, would be nominated for deputy attorney general. Mukasey also has not hesitated to personally lobby senators on the department’s legislative priorities. In December, Mukasey spoke with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to try and persuade her to withdraw an amendment she proposed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that would have expanded the FISA court’s authority over telephone companies that aid the government in wiretaps. Feinstein didn’t budge, but the amendment failed after Congress reconvened last month. Mukasey has tried to pacify senators by stating his positions on certain issues in detailed letters. The latest was sent on the eve of last week’s hearing. The letter revealed that waterboarding is currently not in use by the CIA, but it did little to quiet his critics. During Mukasey’s four-plus hours of testimony on Jan. 30, nearly all the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee pummeled Mukasey over his reluctance to answer specific questions on waterboarding and the criminal investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes. Some of the harshest remarks came from senators Mukasey had courted. Nevertheless, there were flashes of praise. Whitehouse, a former prosecutor, sparred with Mukasey for several minutes on why the nation’s chief law enforcer had not ordered that the investigation into the destroyed CIA videotapes also examine the tapes’ contents. At one point, Mukasey appeared visibly angry. Whitehouse’s time expired before the line of questioning concluded. But before the next senator could speak, Whitehouse said he had one more thing to say: “If I may, I would like to thank you and applaud you for the re-erection of the firewall between the Department of Justice and the White House. And I’m sorry we seem to be at loggerheads again on this subject, but I didn’t want to close my questioning without letting you know that in that area and many others I appreciate and applaud the work you’re doing at the Department of Justice.”
Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be contacted at [email protected].

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