Saturday, March 24, 2007

Firing the U.S. Attorneys Story

Attorney General Alberto GonzalezHalf of me is in shock that this story (first reported at the beginning of February) is still in the news.

The other half is disgusted. Especially since Congress has aproved subpoenas about this.

In most of the coverage I've heard on this story, the press "dutifully" reports the Clinton administration was subpoenaed thirty odd times (it's been unclear to me whether those were all Congressional subpoenas or if they include subpoenas from other government branches as well.).

There's a world of difference between this "scandal" and the things the Clinton administration was subpoenaed for those 30-odd times. The Clinton subpoenas were over matters where strong evidence suggested the law had been broken.

Chuck Schumer, who has a conflict of interest in the US Attorney issueThat's not the case here.

The closest we come to evidence the law was broken was that Senator Pete Domenici and Representative Heather Wilson, both of New Mexico, apparently tried to pressure former U.S. attorney David Iglesias into giving them information as to why he wasn't prosecuting Democratic voter fraud.

If Iglesias's allegations are true, what these two legislators did was clearly inappropriate (speaking of inappropriate behavior...), but I haven't heard any charges that it was illegal. And even if what they did was illegal, they aren't part of the approved-to-be-subpoenaed Bush administration.

As the Wall Street Journal aptly points out (with my own emphasis added):

[The] House Judiciary Subcommittee promptly approved subpoenas yesterday for Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and other top current or former Presidential aides to testify before Congress, publicly and under oath.

The Beltway is now abuzz with talk of a "Constitutional crisis." We'd put it another way: What's at stake here is whether George W. Bush is going to let Congress roll up his Presidency two years early. Democrats are trying to use the manufactured outrage over the entirely legal sacking of Presidential appointees to insert themselves into private White House deliberations. Mr. Bush needs to draw a line somewhere, and fast, or Democrats will keep driving until the White House staff is all but working for Democratic Senate campaign chief Chuck Schumer.

These columns have long supported the principle of "executive privilege," though we realize it is not a blanket prerogative: Both the Burger Supreme Court in United States v. Nixon and the Rehnquist Court in Clinton v. Jones upheld the principle that a President cannot use the claims of his office to protect himself from criminal or civil legal claims.

But there's little doubt that this or any other President has the right--we'd say the obligation--to protect the confidentiality of internal White House discussions, especially over Presidential appointments. If Congress can solicit any email concerning advice to the President, or haul any White House official before Congress, then executive branch deliberations will soon be an oxymoron.


U.S. attorneys are "political appointees," and so by definition can be replaced for political reasons. If San Diego's Carol Lam was out of step with the Administration's priorities on immigration enforcement, or New Mexico's David Iglesias was judged insufficiently aggressive on voter fraud, then it was entirely appropriate for the President to replace them with officials more in line with his views. What's the alternative? Presumably, Mr. Bush's Congressional critics would have him--and his successors, Republican and Democratic--preside over political appointees who are unaccountable to anyone except Congress.

What would be genuine grounds for outrage is if a U.S. attorney were dismissed to interfere with a specific prosecution, or to protect some crony. This was the root of our objection, in 1993, to Janet Reno's dismissal (at Webster Hubbell's instigation) of all 93 U.S. attorneys in his Administration's earliest days. But there is no such evidence involving any of the eight Bush attorneys.

There are no criminal or civil claims here. The firings were done for increasingly obvious political reasons, and the Bush administration foolishly tried to paint them as having been done for performance reasons. But that's where this "scandal" ends. It's about time for the Congress and the Press move on to more important things.

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