Fired U.S. Attorneys, Political Considerations, Etc.

Via Daou Blog Report, I see that Kyle Mantyla, writing for People for the American Way’s Right Wing Watch, reports that two of the fired U.S. Attorneys had written op-eds and otherwise strongly lobbied for the renewal of the PATRIOT Act. Whether this demonstrates that “loyalty was a one-way street” within the Bush Administration is debatable, but it would seemingly rebut the idea that the firings were based on politics alone. Indeed, Mantyla points out that numerous USA’s who were “uncomfortable” with getting involved in a political campaign to influence the legislation managed to not get themselves fired.

Still, as Steven Taylor, hardly the poster boy for Bush Derangement Syndrome (commenter accusations notwithstanding), has been blogging up a storm on his discomfort with the process and how it has been handled. The fact that several moderate Republicans are coming out so strong this early is interesting.

I don’t find the fact that USA’s swear an oath “to uphold the nation’s laws and the Constitution” particularly compelling evidence that they are supposed to be “independent” of the president. I took that oath as an 18-year-old cadet and again upon commissioning as a second lieutenant in the Army. I can assure you, I was never under the illusion that I didn’t have to do what 26-year-old captains, much less the President of the United States, told me to do.

Nor am I too concerned about the fact that the AG’s office sent some emails back and forth about their newfound authority to expedite USA personnel issues, much less that they found senatorial intervention a nuisance. While I’m dubious of the PATRIOT Act’s getting rid of the traditional checks and balances here, that is in fact the law of the land. (I’m opposed to the Designated Hitter, too, but would use one were I, for some unexplained reason, managing an American League team.) Further, Senate approval can be a royal pain, not because of legitimate separation of powers scrutiny but because Senators are political creatures who have their own axes to grind.

On the other hand, allegations that the firings were motivated by political pressure to press specific cases, especially with impending elections in mind, are serious. Even more so, the idea that the AG and/or his senior staff misled or outright lied to Congress is problematic. I’m far from sold on either of those charges, especially since the second seems to hinge on the meaning of “politically motivated,” which is a pretty loose concept when you’re dealing with politicians and political appointees.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. no new US attorneys will be approved for an indefinite period of time. It’s called the “Preserving U.S. Attorney Independence Act of 2007”, which is silly because US attorneys aren’t supposed to be independent, they’re political appointees. That doesn’t mean that the US attorneys should overlook wrongdoing by allies of the President, but he is their boss. The Senate passed this bill that would prohibit the attorney general from filling U.S. attorney vacancies for an indefinite time

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  3. had written op-eds and otherwise strongly lobbied for the renewal of the PATRIOT Act. Whether… Trackback by Outside The Beltway | OTB — Friday, March 16, 2007 @ 10:46 am Hide Comments | Add your comment Outside The Beltway | OTB linked with Fired U.S. Attorneys, Political Considerations, Etc.

  4. It all depends on what “independent” and “loyalty” means in this context.

    The new Sampson e-mails released last night that speak of “loyal Bushies” is yet another possible source of concern.

    My point about oaths is that there is the sense in these e-mails that what was wanted were people who were loyal to the President specifically, rather than to the law. I suspect that when you were sworn into the military that while you expected to follow the President’s orders, that the issue at hand was not your loyalty to him, but to the Constitution itself.

  5. I will further add that I take the basic point about “political appointees” and politics. It is a problematic mix.

    However, I think that USAs (and prosecutors in general) should not be treated as mere executers of policy as handed down by the President. As was noted in Slate piece I noted, the client in these cases in the People of the United States, not the President. Further, the laws that they prosecute are not the laws of the President, but those passed and refined over time by the Congress. As such, this is different than, say, the SecDef.

    Further, the bottom line is that the Patriot Act issue does allow the AG to circumvent checks and balances indefinitely. To me, that is the most problematic part of the whole affair.

    If they simply had fired someone and said “you aren’t prosecuting enough immigration cases as per the DoJ guidelines” that would be one thing. However, there was nothing straightforward about any of this.

  6. Derrick says:

    I believe that the fact that these were all Republican appointee’s also serves to blunt some of the typical criticism of the USAs. It’s pretty hard to argue that they were biased towards Democrats, the only argument is that they weren’t biased enough towards Republicans and everyone except for the hyper-partisans probably feels a little bit queasy about that rationale.

  7. And in re: “law of the land”–point taken, but the alleged logic for the provision was to make terrorism prosecutions easier because it would limit vacancies or somesuch. While a dubious claim in may mind, fine.

    However, the e-mails I cite about ousting Cummins in Arkansas weren’t about terrorism, they were about kicking him out of his job so a guy who worked for the RNC could get the job.

    At a minimum, I think that that provision of the law should be excised and we should return to the status quo ante.

    Further, the the mid-term firings of USAs has been extremely rare, and mostly for misconduct–making this whole enterprise odd if nothing else.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Steven,

    Yep, I don’t disagree with any of that. It’s just a further extension of the “Politicization of Everything” trend that’s been going on the last 15 years or so.

    Such things as “kicking him out of his job so a guy who worked for the RNC could get the job” are unseemly, I think, but not “improper” in any sense under current rules. I’d be happy to go back to the old rules, though.

    (Note: I’ll be away from the computer for a couple hours, so no one should take further non-responsiveness as a sign of anything.)

  9. I take the point about “old” and “new” rules.

    Indeed, in a generic sense I expect persons to try and exploit a given set a rules to their advantage.

    However, in this case I find the attempt to exploit the rules to be sufficiently unseemly as to require further scrutiny.

    I haven’t personally called for anyone’s ouster, but have rather simply pointed to this story as one worthy of deeper attention.

    Although, it won’t surprise me if Gonzalez goes, insofar as he appears to have made incorrect comments to Congress that either indicate lying or managerial incompetence.

    Beyond that, I have to confess that I do not trust Gonzalez after his evasiveness in regards to the FISA warrants and the wiretapping business, hence making me more suspicious of this situation from the get-go.

  10. Steve Verdon says:

    Steven,

    I admit I haven’t been following this issue that closely, but I have heard that Clinton fired 93 (all of the USAs?) when he came into office. Is that true, and why is this situation different other than the mishandling of the PR aspect of it?

    Update: Nevermind Steven, I found this post which answered that question.

  11. cian says:

    Its the incidentals of this case that I find so disturbing. USA John McKay has clearly stated that the alleged instance of voter fraud he was being pressurised to investigate by Washington Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance had already been looked into by the FBI and determined that there was no case to answer. He was not prepared to drag innocent people in front of a grand jury to satisfy Mr Vance. On foot of McKay’s refusal to participate in this charade, Vance lobbied for him to be replaced. If this doesn’t shock you, James, then you’re shock proof.

  12. Ugh says:

    I admit I haven’t been following this issue that closely, but I have heard that Clinton fired 93 (all of the USAs?) when he came into office. Is that true, and why is this situation different other than the mishandling of the PR aspect of it?

    Income presidents, especially when party changes, routinely replace all (or almost all) of the US Attys then serving. Clinton’s replacement was notable because (a) it happened all at once (the explanation for which, I read recently, was that some had indicated they wouldn’t be resigning) rather than gradually; and (b) it hadn’t happened in 12 years as there had been no party switch since 1980. GWB did the same thing when he came into office but didn’t do it all at once.

    The present situation of firing US Attys who were happy to continue in their job in the middle of a presidential term appears to be eitehr unprecedented or highly unusual – with or without the PR blunders and/or suspicious circumstances.

  13. Ugh says:

    Income should be incoming

  14. Steve Verdon says:

    Ugh,

    Thanks, I read the same thing just a few minutes ago at Steven’s site. Yep, it does sound suspicious and that “Clintion fired all 93” doesn’t really work given the specifics of the two situations.

  15. Ugh says:

    No problem, there’s also this from an email from Kyle Sampson to Miers:

    In recent memory, during the Reagan and Clinton administrations, Presidents Reagan and Clinton did not seek to remove and replace U.S. Attorneys they had appointed whose four-year terms had expired, but instead permitted such U.S. Attorneys to serve indefinitely.

  16. Anderson says:

    Down here in Mississippi, we had a long, ugly effort by the U.S. attorney to convict a liberal MS Supreme Court justice, on what turned out to be surprisingly flimsy evidence — there were some unattractive dealings with trial attorneys, there was a mistress brought out purely to make the justice look bad (and the afternoon after she confessed their affair, she was fired by the Baptist law school she taught at) — but even the more conservative attorneys I talked to were like, “is that it?”

    Then, having kept the justice off the bench (suspended w/ pay) and thus not voting for over a year, and failing to get a conviction, the USA then brought a SECOND trial against him, on tax charges that also went nowhere — instead of having them brought in the 1st trial — and thus kept one of the court’s 3 consistent liberals from voting “the wrong way.” Mission accomplished, as they say.

    I daresay that’s the kind of thing that’s been winning brownie (Brownie?) points at DOJ under Bush.

  17. legion says:

    Re: the “Clinton firead all 93” issue.. there’s another part to that too – As Steven & others have noted, USA’s a) are typically replaced by a new President at some speed or other, and b) USA’s are typically appointed for a 4-year term.

    So, when Rove, Meyers, Gonzalez, whoever, started discussion the idea of replacing USA’s in (I think the latest info is) early 2005, it was just the beginning of Bush’s second term – a reasonable time to consider renewing or replacing the expiring crop of USA’s.

    But then, the discussions went on, and no removals actually occurred until late 2006. Which means even if they had followed the old procedures of appointment, the new USA’s would have at most 2 years in the office before the next President came to office. In other words, the trial balloon that these firings were part of the ‘normal cycle’ of USA replacement just doesn’t fly…

  18. just me says:

    However, the e-mails I cite about ousting Cummins in Arkansas weren’t about terrorism, they were about kicking him out of his job so a guy who worked for the RNC could get the job.

    Honestly, other than the fact that this action wasn’t exactly “nice” I don’t think it is neccessarily wrong. USA’s are not civil servants, they technically have no job security, and the president can decide for any reason that they want to replace them.

  19. Anderson says:

    and the president can decide for any reason that they want to replace them

    Sighhhhhhhh … YES. And, the Senate can decide that the President isn’t to be trusted, and that it should therefore resume confirmation hearings on nominees, to prevent this kind of b.s. from happening.

  20. just me-

    It was more that just not nice, it was the abuse of a new power, in my opinion. The power was in place to supposedly make managing terrorism cases more efficient and instead it was used to give the job to a political ally. That is problematic in my view.

  21. just me says:

    and that it should therefore resume confirmation hearings on nominees, to prevent this kind of b.s. from happening.

    If the argument is that you don’t like this provision, then by all means write your congress member to change it, but the reality is that these are political appointments and they don’t come with job security, and the president isn’t required to prove just cause to ask somebody to leave, even if the reason is that he wants to appoint some other person he likes better.

  22. Congress Wastes Time…

    Congress wastes a lot of time on useless posturing, but sometimes they actually pursue policies that seem designed to harm American citizens. Most recently, the Senate just passed a bill 94-2 declaring that no new US attorneys will be approved……