Published on TheHill.com on March 20, 2007.
When will the Bush administration grow some guts? Except for its resolute – read: stubborn – position on Iraq, the White House seems incapable of standing up for itself and battling for its point of view. The Democratic assault on the administration over the dismissal of United States attorneys is the most fabricated and phony of scandals, but the Bush people offer only craven apologies, half-hearted defenses, and concessions. Instead, they should stand up to the Democrats and defend the conduct of their own Justice Department.
There is no question that the attorney general and the president can dismiss United States attorneys at any time and for any reason. We do not have civil servant U.S. attorneys but maintain the process of presidential appointment for a very good reason: We consider who prosecutes whom and for what to be a question of public policy that should reflect the president’s priorities and objectives. When a U.S. attorney chooses to go light in prosecuting voter fraud and political corruption, it is completely understandable and totally legitimate for a president and an attorney general to decide to fire him or her and appoint a replacement who will do so.
The Democratic attempt to attack Bush for exercising his presidential power to dismiss employees who serve at his pleasure smacks of nothing so much as the trumped-up grounds for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Back then, radical Republicans tried to oust him for failing to obey the Tenure of Office Act, which they passed, barring him from firing members of his Cabinet (in this case, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton) without Senate approval. Soon after Johnson’s acquittal, the Supreme Court invalidated the Tenure of Office Act, in effect affirming Johnson’s position.
But instead of loudly asserting its view that voter fraud is, indeed, worthy of prosecution and that U.S. attorneys who treat such cases lightly need to go find new jobs, the Bush administration acts, for all the world, like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. All Republican supporters of the administration can do is to point to Bill Clinton’s replacement of U.S. attorneys when he took office. Because the president and the attorney general insist on acting guilty, the rest of the country has no difficulty in assuming that they are.
Bush, Rove, Gonzales and Co. should explain why the U.S. attorneys were dismissed by emphasizing the importance of the cases they were refusing to prosecute. By doing so, they can turn the Democratic attacks on them into demands to go easy on fraudulent voting. A good sense of public relations – and some courage – could turn this issue against the Democrats for blocking Bush’s efforts to crack down on the criminals he wanted prosecuted.
In making such a big deal over the routine exercise of a presidential prerogative to fire these prosecutors, the Democrats, led by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) may be biting off more than they can chew. Unless the administration turns and aggressively defends its decision to get rid of these particular appointees, it could be left holding the bag and defending the U.S. attorneys’ decision to avoid prosecuting voter-fraud cases.
If the administration continues to follow its run-and-hide policy, it will look terrible asserting claims of executive privilege as it seeks to shield its appointees from Senate interrogation and its documents from committee scrutiny. But if it contextualizes the issue by using the specific failings of the dismissed appointees to prosecute particular cases, it will assume the high ground and its procedural objections will be seen in a more positive light by the American people. If only the administration would show some courage.