My last post not withstanding, the U.S. Attorney scandal is not about broken laws. It’s not about the executive branch of government exercising power it does not have. For me, it’s about abuse of power. This is the reason this scandal has an air of Watergate about it.
Conservative bloggers are mostly correct on at least one point: there are no smoking guns. There are no emails, no sworn testimony, no documents… nothing that draws a straight and invulnerable line between the President, the Attorney General, and questionable deeds. However, the saying “where there’s smoke there’s fire” is pertinent.
A group of prosecutors were involved in investigations with political implications – investigations which could have swayed elections (in what was perhaps the most bitterly fought mid-term election in the last thirty years) – were fired (or asked to resign) after the election was lost (depending on your perspective), and after they did not pick the most politically advantageous avenue for their investigations (for the folks that lost).
Seen in a vacuum, without reference to political party affiliation or subsequent explanation – you’ve just got to admit there’s a little smoke in this picture. There may be perfectly reasonable explanations for the firings (once you get below the surface)… but the suggestion that Democrats are on a baseless fishing expedition is crazy – or at least spectacularly disingenuous. Had the tables been turned, Republicans would be all over this like spittle on a pulpit after a sermon on Revelations.
I haven’t said anything new here, and I’m sure I won’t in the lines to follow. If you’re not interested, so be it. This has always been a personal exercise anyway. That said, here’s my personal breakdown of why this story matters to me.
1. The evidence of political pressure on prosecutors. I must admit this wasn’t terribly surprising to me at first. If you think a politician has never weighed in with their thoughts on who should be prosecuted, for which crime, and when… well, you’re a little naive. The difference between a U.S. Attorney (who prosecutes violations of federal laws) and your garden variety State/District Attorney (who prosecutes violations of state laws – which constitutes the vast majority of criminal court proceedings) is that most State or District Attorneys are independently elected. Other politicians can pressure them all they want… but they don’t have the power to hire or fire the guy, because only the voting public can do that. In this way they are truly independent. On the other hand, U.S. Attorney can be fired, and not only can he be fired, but he can be fired without cause. It doesn’t take the angry mob of an electorate… just one guy. To me, this doesn’t make this story less scandalous… it makes it more so. This means that the typical displeasure with a prosecutor that comes with a disagreement in strategy potentially has more teeth to it. This means that when a U.S. Senator calls a U.S. Attorney AT HOME to hassle him about a case, it has all the more stench of political shenanigans… because the Senator can do more than just bluster… he can actually get the guy fired. Still not sure why this is important? How about this… U.S. Attorneys may have as much power over individual Americans as any other politically appointed position. They’re potentially deciding whether you are going to be pursued for breaking federal law. Still don’t see why this is important? How easy do you suppose it is to ruin a person’s life with a simple accusation? Now multiply that power to ruin by about a thousand, and you’ve got the power of a U.S. Attorney.
That’s why U.S. Attorneys should be isolated from politics – completely and absolutely.
2. Just because you can’t go to jail for something, it doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. As a registered Democrat, I’ll be the first to admit that Clinton screwed up (figuratively if not literally). How many people remember that the Clinton impeachment started with a civil court action for harassment (in other words, he got sued) which was ultimately dismissed? No one familiar with the case can honestly say that Clinton didn’t do anything wrong. He may not have done any harassing, but having Arkansas State Troopers escort his women around so he could get a little on the side was not an example of good judgment. And let’s not forget that his real trouble began when he lied under oath (I believe during a deposition for said civil lawsuit) about “sexual relations with that woman.” That leads me to my next subject…
3. The cover-up is always bigger than the crime. Nixon was not on the brink of impeachment because of breaking and entering. He was teetering on the edge of Johnsonian infamy for abusing the powers of the office (POTUS) perpetrating a cover-up. That may sound relatively harmless to you, but I’m not jiggy with my president using the IRS, FBI, et al to lean on me or anyone else who might get in the way. The Bushies may not have gone as far as Nixon, but my point is that obstruction of justice isn’t always as harmless a crime as it sounds. And don’t forget, obstruction of justice doesn’t require the successful prosecution of an underlying crime… only that the search for truth and justice has been thwarted. In that light, it’s nearly irrelevant that Bush/Gonzales has the underlying authority to fire U.S. Attorneys. However, with the right circumstances (and this is a BIG, UNSUBSTANTIATED IF)… if U.S. Attorneys were dismissed with specific investigations in mind – it COULD rise to the level of obstruction. This alone makes the Senate investigation warranted. Given what we know (and what many people suspect) about the current administration and the government agencies under the direct authority of the executive branch of government, it’s not a stretch to believe someone in the White House thought it was a good idea to punish “lack of loyalty” with a little comeuppance. Think about it… has anyone under the pervue of this administration ever been accused of shaping reality to suit it’s purpose? Has the administration been accused of politicising departments for partisan purposes or gain? Prosecutors, judges and juries don’t ignore someone’s track record when considering culpability for subsequent misdeeds; so is it unreasonable that we don’t do so now?
4. Innocence usually seems easier to explain. I’m always suspicious whenever someone twists themselves into a pretzel trying to explain their actions. With Clinton, that moment came when we discussed the meaning of “is.” With Gonzales, it’s the definition of “involved.” My theory is that anytime you need to lawyer up your vocabulary, you’re not being completely forthcoming. Is it any wonder the Democrats in the Senate are sticking to their subpoena guns, looking for a transcript of sworn testimony?
So yeah, the possibility that Republicans in power may have tried to use the Justice Department (via appointed U.S. Attorneys) for political advantage is a big deal. Now lets see where it leads.