Let’s all acknowledge that the organized political left is way out of line in suggesting that the latest Republican “scandal” has criminal ramifications — and move on. The reality is that the left is taking advantage not of formal malfeasance but of sheer incompetence and political tone-deafness on the right. (For original reporting on one case study of that tone-deafness, see the final section of this column.) Therefore:
The time has come for President George W. Bush to significantly shake up the Department of Justice (DoJ) and perhaps parts of the White House counsel’s office as well. It’s also time for the administration to (A) start defending Arkansas interim U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin; (B) stop trashing the reputations of the U.S. Attorneys it let go; (C) stop making just-resigned Justice Department chief of staff Kyle Sampson serve as the fall guy for his superiors; and (D) begin a concerted effort to better explain and advocate its positions on law enforcement, judicial appointments, and anti-terrorism initiatives.
The current controversy about the eight fired U.S. Attorneys (USAs) is only the latest piece of evidence, albeit the biggest so far, that the entire Bush legal team, both in the White House and at Justice, needs selective but significant refashioning. It has been slow to forward judicial nominees to the Senate and weak at supporting them both in terms of Capitol Hill politicking and of public communications. It has failed on a number of other fronts as well (see Andy McCarthy here).
From a PR standpoint, it doesn’t help that where it does do a good job (for instance, counterterrorism, presumably, judging from the lack of successful terrorist attacks on our homeland since 9/11), its triumphs are of necessity in the shadows.
But the topic du jour is the ham-handed management of the U.S. Attorneys. The administration has somehow allowed eight separate stories, some of them more defensible than others, to be wrapped into one big, bad story. Its treatment of the fired USAs was execrable. It’s not that it had no legal right to fire them all, or no practical, legitimately policy-driven reason to replace some of them. The problem is that it pushed out all of them not with a pat on the back but with a kick in the head.
Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty infamously justified the firings by citing supposed deficiencies in performance. Whether or not that was true in all the cases, it ensured that these loyal soldiers who had mostly gone quietly instead got riled up to defend their own reputations. That’s when all Hades really broke loose, and served up a big target for the left to exploit.
McNulty’s public rebuke looked especially odd, for instance, in the case of Kevin Ryan, the San Francisco USA who faithfully executed administration policies right down the line while famously prosecuting, with great success, the steroid case made famous by the alleged involvement of baseball star Barry Bonds. The president himself publicly complimented that prosecution, and earned political points in so doing.
The now-public e-mail trail about the whole imbroglio shows that as late as Sept. 13 of last year, Ryan did not appear on the list of USAs who the administration “should consider pushing out.” Surely McNulty or his top associate David Margolis should have made sure that Ryan wasn’t so embarrassingly thrown under the bus.
In sworn testimony before congressional committees, both McNulty and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales repeatedly misstated the facts of the firings in these cases. When the errors came to light, they threw chief of staff Kyle Sampson under the bus as well. But it beggars belief that neither of them kept abreast with Sampson’s work on personnel issues both so important and so politically sensitive. Frankly, Sampson’s e-mail trail shows almost nothing out of the ordinary. There is nothing inherently wrong with a chief of staff considering the political ramifications of making changes for politically appointed positions, when he has been specifically tasked with making those changes. In most parts of the e-trail, he comes off decently. Faced with a ludicrous request from then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers to replace all 93 U.S. Attorneys, Sampson showed the good sense to recommend a much more targeted list.
Thinking he was doing the bidding of the top levels of the White House — after all, the public perception was that Miers channeled President Bush like a super-talented medium — Sampson diligently went about the now-narrowed task he was assigned. Miers’ deputy Bill Kelley, whose judgment has been questioned by conservatives before, also was kept fully within the e-mail chain.
Unlike Gonzales and McNulty, both of whom are Senate-approved policy appointees, Sampson was a staff guy. No matter how much he was trusted, his final recommendations on such key appointments as USAs would not have been approved without a careful sign-off from his superiors — not in any system that makes any sense at all.
ALL OF THAT SAID, none of this bumbling and none of DoJ’s ill treatment of the fired USAs would have lent itself to quite such a level of bloodlust from the left if the firings couldn’t be somehow laid at the feet of the left’s favorite uber-villain, Karl Rove. In reality, though, Rove’s fingerprints are on only one of the replacements, that of his onetime deputy Tim Griffin. And there was no good reason for Rove to stay out of that appointment. Here was a loyal, qualified, and extremely talented underling whose job at the White House was filled because Griffin went off to serve his country in the military. And word was that the USA in Griffin’s home state of Arkansas, Bud Cummins, was already open to leaving his post for more lucrative private employment after a grinding four-year term.
Even here, though, DoJ couldn’t handle the replacement with grace.
On Wednesday night, Cummins told me how he experienced the developments. First, though, understand that Cummins is a consummate gentleman and a Bush and Republican loyalist who served as official Arkansas elector for Bush in 2000. He might have expressed resentment of Griffin, on whose behalf Cummins was nudged aside. Instead, here’s what he said of his onetime aide: “Tim did a good job when he worked in the office. He worked hard. He took a real leadership role. He did a good job as a prosecutor. I certainly don’t take issue with any of Tim’s credentials for this job…. I feel very comfortable saying that.” (For more on Griffin’s superior qualifications, see the excellent accompanying piece on the Spectator website today by Kane Webb.)
While Cummins ended up not leaving the USA job of his own volition, he said he had spoken a number of times to Griffin about his intentions to do so, and probably mentioned it casually to others at the Justice Department along the way. “There is no question that my wife and I had talked it over….Right about a third to a half of the U.S. Attorneys I had started with in 2001 had moved on….I had a willingness and intention to leave in the time frame of early 2006, but my First Assistant became ill, and subsequently died, and it just seemed a bad time to leave.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?