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."
Still, he was surprised when Justice officials called him and told him he should step aside. He expected to leave under his own terms. Nevertheless, "I worked hard to make it a smooth transition. I went to pretty great pains to make it a situation that represented what should have happened instead of what actually happened. I mean, as far as I can tell, all of us [the fired USAs] were going away like good soldiers. But this wasan unprecedented move. I'm not aware of any president before who removed his own appointees without malfeasance."
But he and Griffin worked out a transition plan, and things seemed basically okay -- until Gonzales told Congress that all the replacements were made because of issues of poor management or the like. Suddenly, the good soldier found himself chafing as his own performance was publicly questioned. When McNulty then repeated the explanation in more explicit terms, while specifically exempting Cummins from the criticism, Cummins was quoted in the press as defending the reputation of the other fired USAs. He received a phone call from McNulty's chief of staff Michael Elston which, according to Cummins, seemed like a thinly veiled threat to escalate the public criticism of him and the other seven if they didn't stay quiet.
That was the last straw. Cummins testified before Congress to that effect, and on Wednesday he told me he blamed "certainly the attorney general [Gonzales] and the deputy attorney general [McNulty] too. Paul McNulty, especially, as a former U.S. Attorney himself, should have seen that the public explanation of the firings were inadequate on their face, specious on their face....It's just wrong. These people are being disparaged wrongfully."
ALL OF WHICH SHOWS a severe lack of political tact by the Gonzales team. There is nothing wrong with wanting new blood after four years or six years. The president never spends a lot of time explaining Cabinet replacements whenever he makes them. If handled one by one instead of as an attention-getting group of eight replacements in very short order, the changes would have attracted little attention. As well they should have, because there is no inherent scandal in such replacements.
Instead, the administration created its own quicksand and stepped right into it.
It did so even in the case of the loyal Cummins, who showed every intention of going quietly into the night. The press and the cut-throat left, predictably, homed in on the utterly innocent appointment of Griffin and used it to wrongly infer that Rove's supposedly evil hand was responsible for all eight firings, and to further infer (or in some cases say outright) that by very virtue of his association with Rove, Griffin was no more than a political hack. The truth, of course, is the opposite (again, see Kane Webb's article): that Griffin was a Rove favorite because Griffin was so talented.
All of which means that what should have been a simple set of administrative changes -- some perhaps wise, some almost certainly not, but none of them nefarious -- instead is dominating headlines and treated as a scandal. That is not the legacy of a tremendously competent attorney general.
Meanwhile, Griffin is keeping his head low. Reached by phone yesterday morning, he would say next to nothing. Finally he offered this, almost wistfully: "I was honored to be offered the post and I was honored to accept. Despite all the criticism, I just want to stay focused and try to do the best job I can."
That's what Cummins was doing, too, and what Kevin Ryan in San Francisco was trying to do, and what Kyle Sampson was in his own way trying to do. Now they all are victims of a "scandal" that should not have snared them.
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