Following up the last post, on the politicization of justice — speaking at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, Karl Rove addressed the recent purge of U.S. attorneys.
“My view is this is unfortunately a very big attempt by some in the Congress to make a political stink about it,” he said. “The question is, did they have the same reaction if they were in the Congress in the ’90s or did they have the same reaction if they were in the ’80s? Every president comes in and appoints U.S. attorneys and then makes changes over the course of their time.”
Funny he should say that. In fact, the Republicans made a big stink when Bill Clinton replaced U.S. attorneys at the beginning of his first term. Shortly after her confirmation, Attorney General Janet Reno asked for the resignations of U.S. attorneys that had been appointed by Reagan and Bush I. As I explained here and here, this is standard practice for a president at the beginning of his first term. I believe Bush II replaced all of Bill Clinton’s appointees, and no one complained.
But in 1993 the GOP Noise Machine made the replacing of U.S. attorneys by Clinton into a big scandal. Wingnuts alleged that Clinton was trying to impede the investigation of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. (Rostenkowski was indicted the following year; I assume the indictment was brought by a Clinton appointee.)
It is extremely unusual, however, for U.S. attorneys to be replaced in mid-term except for cases of gross misconduct, which doesn’t seem to be the case with the eight who have been purged so far.
As Paul Krugman wrote this morning,
For now, the nationâ€™s focus is on the eight federal prosecutors fired by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In January, Mr. Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee, under oath, that he â€œwould never, ever make a change in a United States attorney for political reasons.â€ But itâ€™s already clear that he did indeed dismiss all eight prosecutors for political reasons â€” some because they wouldnâ€™t use their offices to provide electoral help to the G.O.P., and the others probably because they refused to soft-pedal investigations of corrupt Republicans.
In the last few days weâ€™ve also learned that Republican members of Congress called prosecutors to pressure them on politically charged cases, even though doing so seems unethical and possibly illegal.
See also this editorial in yesterday’s New York Times:
The [congressional] hearings left little doubt that the Bush administration had all eight â€” an unprecedented number â€” ousted for political reasons. But it points to even wider abuse; prosecutors suggest that three Republican members of Congress may have tried to pressure the attorneys into doing their political bidding.
… Two of the fired prosecutors testified that they had been dismissed after resisting what they suspected were importunings to use their offices to help Republicans win elections. A third described what may have been a threat of retaliation if he talked publicly about his firing.
David Iglesias, who was removed as the United States attorney in Albuquerque, said that he was first contacted before last fallâ€™s election by Representative Heather Wilson, Republican of New Mexico. Ms. Wilson, who was in a tough re-election fight, asked about sealed indictments â€” criminal charges that are not public.
Two weeks later, he said, he got a call from Senator Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, asking whether he intended to indict Democrats before the election in a high-profile corruption case. When Mr. Iglesias said no, he said, Mr. Domenici replied that he was very sorry to hear it, and the line went dead. Mr. Iglesias said heâ€™d felt â€œsick.â€ Within six weeks, he was fired. Ms. Wilson and Mr. Domenici both deny that they had tried to exert pressure.
John McKay of Seattle testified that the chief of staff for Representative Doc Hastings, Republican of Washington, called to ask whether he intended to investigate the 2004 governorâ€™s race, which a Democrat won after two recounts. Mr. McKay says that when he went to the White House later to discuss a possible judicial nomination (which he did not get), he was told of concerns about how heâ€™d handled the election. H. E. Cummins, a fired prosecutor from Arkansas, said that a Justice Department official, in what appeared to be a warning, said that if he kept talking about his firing, the department would release negative information about him.
At Raw Story you can watch (or read a transcript of) an interview with George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley from Wednesday night’s Countdown. Be sure to watch (or read) this if you haven’t already. Here’s just a bit —
TURLEY: … First of all, it is very uncommon for U.S. attorneys to be fired or asked to resign. To have eight of them put in this position is truly unprecedented. It does send a very chilling message to other U.S. attorneys that, but for the grace of god, go you. These are very successful U.S. attorneys.
And what theyâ€˜re reporting about these phone calls is extremely unusual and extremely unsettling.
ALISON STEWART: The attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, told Congress the firings were not political at all. Now, has he backed himself into a corner, if it is proven in some way that they were fired for simply not toeing a political line?
TURLEY: Well, this is not the first time that Attorney General Gonzales has been challenged in terms of sworn testimony. He really had to say they were not fired for political reasons. He can hardly say we really needed to use the spot for some kid Karl Rove likes. That would not have gone over very well. What is really getting to a serious point, are the allegations that some of these U.S. attorneys seem to be threatened or thought they were being threatened about speaking to the media or the public.
Also, these calls from politicians really took me back. I have to tell you, Iâ€˜m a criminal defense attorney. I have been around the city in the criminal defense system for a long time. I find it shocking that politicians today would feel comfortable picking up a phone and calling the U.S. attorney about sealed indictments. It is other-worldly. …
… U.S. attorneys are supposed to retain an element of independence. Theyâ€˜re not supposed to be constantly looking over their shoulder to see if Karl Rove is coming on them with a wood chipper.
One part of the U.S. attorney scandal has allegedly been resolved. Laurie Kellman reports for the Associated Press:
Slapped even by GOP allies, the Bush administration is beating an abrupt retreat on eight federal prosecutors it fired and then publicly pilloried.
Just hours after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales dismissed the hubbub as an “overblown personnel matter,” a Republican senator Thursday mused into a microphone that Gonzales might soon suffer the same fate as the canned U.S. attorneys.
“One day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later,” Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said during a Judiciary Committee meeting.
A short time later, Gonzales and his security detail shuttled to the Capitol for a private meeting on Democratic turf, bearing two offerings:
â€” President Bush would not stand in the way of a Democratic-sponsored bill that would cancel the attorney general’s power to appoint federal prosecutors without Senate confirmation. Gonzales’ Justice Department had previously dismissed the legislation as unreasonable.
â€” There would be no need for subpoenas to compel testimony by five of Gonzales’ aides involved in the firings, as the Democrats had threatened. Cloistered in the stately hideaway of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., the attorney general assured those present that he would permit the aides to tell their stories.
The Justice Department is shifting from offense to accommodation.
Regarding the item about appointments without Senate confirmation — this refers to a clause in the Patriot Act that allows the Attorney General to appoint “interim” attorneys who can serve indefinitely without Senate confirmation. Jonathan Turley said of this provision:
According to Turley, the provision in the Patriot Act that allowed such firings was no accident. “When you see an administration trying to try to put into legislation something this specific, this tailored, it does not come out of nowhere,” said Turley.
“It did not come out of the head of Zeus,” Turley said. “It came out of the head of someone at the White House who wanted to use it. I think there are serious questions there and this is a scandal that is getting worse by the day.”
Now President Bush will not stand in the way of a Dem bill to revoke this little privilege. Just wait for the signing statement.