Unnecessary Scandal

Charles Krauthammer argues that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should resign or be fired sooner rather than later for his handling of the U.S. Attorney firing mess.

It’s not a question of probity, but of competence. Gonzales has allowed a scandal to be created where there was none. That is quite an achievement. He had a two-foot putt and he muffed it.

How could he allow his aides to go to Capitol Hill unprepared and misinformed and therefore give inaccurate and misleading testimony? How could Gonzales permit his deputy to say that the prosecutors were fired for performance reasons when all he had to say was that U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and the president wanted them replaced?

And why did Gonzales have to claim that the firings were done with no coordination with the White House? That’s absurd. Why shouldn’t there be White House involvement?

That’s exactly right. My only dissent would be to note, as I have before, that “the White House” is a nebulous term meaning different things to different people. Gonzales may have meant “the president” rather than “the president’s staff.”

Krauthammer is right, too, about the rules of the game:

But the fact is that there are thousands of laws on the books and only finite resources for any prosecutor to deploy, which means that one must have priorities about which laws to emphasize and which crimes to preferentially pursue. Those decisions are essentially political. And they are decided by elections in which both parties spell out very clearly their law enforcement priorities. Are you going to allocate prosecutorial resources more to drug dealing or tax cheating? To street crime or corporate malfeasance? To illegal immigration or illegal pollution? If you’re a Democrat today, you call the choice “political” to confer a sense of illegitimacy. If you’re a neutral observer, you call the choice a set of law enforcement priorities reflecting the policy preferences of the winner of the last presidential election.

For example, both voter intimidation and voter fraud are illegal. The Democrats have a particular interest in the former because they see it diminishing their turnout, while Republicans are particularly interested in the latter because they see it as inflating the Democratic tally. The Bush administration apparently was dismayed that some of these fired attorneys were not vigorous enough in pursuing voter fraud.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Pursuing voter fraud is not, as The New York Times pretends, a euphemism for suppressing the vote of minorities and poor people. It is a mechanism for suppressing the vote of (among other phantoms) dead people. Conservatives have a healthy respect for the opinion of dead people — conservatives revere tradition, which Chesterton once defined as “the democracy of the dead” — but they draw the line at posthumous voting.

If the White House decides that a U.S. attorney is showing insufficient zeal in pursuing voter fraud — or the death penalty or illegal immigration or drug dealing — it has the perfect right to fire him. There is only one impermissible reason for presidential intervention: to sabotage an active investigation. That is obstruction of justice. Until the Democrats come up with any real evidence of that — and they have not — this affair remains a pseudo-scandal. Which would never have developed had Gonzales made the easy and obvious case from day one.

That’s exactly right although there’s enough circumstantial evidence in the direction of interference to raise eyebrows.

I’ve written a piece for publication elsewhere on the need to depoliticize crime and decriminalize politics. Unfortunately, the two are not only related but self-reinforcing. While I take Krauthammer’s point that it makes sense for elected leaders to set priorities for prosecutors, drawing the line between that and political interference in the criminal justice system is problematic. Indeed, I’m not sure that we haven’t moved past the point where it’s possible.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    How could he allow his aides to go to Capitol Hill unprepared and misinformed and therefore give inaccurate and misleading testimony?

    I thnk that’s the key. Krauthammer assumes this, when the emails & other documents hint (and I predict the ‘missing gap’ material will prove) that the DOJ folks weren’t ‘unprepared’; they went there with the express intent of lying to cover up the politicizing of the USAs and the deliberate disruption of Dem candidates and ongoing investigations of GOP members and friends.

  2. Can we produce enough laws, rules and regulations to get people to do as they should without them? There has been a continuous epidemic of bad behavior that can only be solved if people around us instill honesty and integrity from our first breath.

  3. Bithead says:

    It’s not a question of probity, but of competence. Gonzales has allowed a scandal to be created where there was none

    The good Doctor should know better than most, that neither incompetence, nor actual crime is required on the part of Republicans to get the Democrats to start screaming ‘scandal’. And his resignation and or removal would be treated as an admission of it. Why hand the Democrats a victory without a fight?

    He’s wrong about this one.

  4. DaveD says:

    Mr. Matthews, I am beginning to ask myself that same question very often.

  5. Tano says:

    I think you are falling down on the political analysis here.

    My take on CK’s piece is that he senses that Gonzales is a dead man walking, and that he probably will soon discover that existential need for spending some more time with his family.

    So how should the official Republican spin on this be constructed. Certainly not that anyone was actually caught pressuring USAs to function as political hit men / party defenders. No. Lets get out the meme that Gonzo has to go because he was incompetent in his handling of a “non-scandal”.

    There, thats an outcome we can live with. And let the lesson be learned by all. Closely manage your spin – be very very attentive to crafting your messages to Congress. Allowing someone to testify without having the talking points lined up, and driven into their skulls – thats the cardinal sin.

  6. floyd says:

    This “Tempest in a teacup” has gone on for so long that one would start to suspect a spoon![lol]

    the arguements still fail to “stir” any indignation in people of common sense.