Shooting Itself in the Foot Again

The Bush administration has a knack for shooting itself in the foot, or in the most recent example, the head. The latest self-inflicted wound, the botched firing of eight U.S. attorneys, may not prove fatal, but it has dealt a crippling blow to the White House at a time when the president can least afford it.

As in previous cases, most famously the response to Hurricane Katrina, basic competence seems to be a problem here. Congressional Democrats, no doubt, will go overboard and end up claiming the firings were illegal, which is nonsense, but the administration has basically handed them the issue.

There is nothing wrong with removing political appointees from office at any time, even U.S. attorneys, who are appointed for a four-year term but serve "at the pleasure of the president." Despite the sturm und drang being ginned up by the likes of Sen. Hillary Clinton, these firings weren’t all that extraordinary and may even have been justified on substantive grounds.

Sen. Clinton knows a good deal about how the process works — her husband summarily dismissed 93 U.S. attorneys in March 1993 even though previous practice when a new administration took office had been to keep attorneys in place until their replacements had been approved. President Clinton defended his actions at the time, claiming, "All those people are routinely replaced, and I have not done anything differently."

Republicans begged to differ, of course, not least because one of the prosecutors whom Clinton dismissed was involved in a high-level political investigation. Jay Stephens, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, was just days away from filing charges against former Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski when he got his pink slip. But the indictment went forward without him, and Rostenkowski was found guilty of mail fraud and served 15 months in jail, though he later received a pardon by none other than Bill Clinton.

So what’s different this time around? Obviously partisanship plays a role. When President Clinton was in a firing mood, his party controlled Congress. President Bush has no such luck.

And, of course, the media were not nearly as eager to turn the Clinton dismissals into a scandal. When the Clinton firings were announced, they garnered front-page stories in both the Washington Post and New York Times, with the latter even editorializing on the subject, though it blamed then Attorney General Janet Reno.

"Nobody questions her right to dismiss every Bush Administration holdover. But her emphasis on sweeping out the incumbents puts a premium on political control before she has established her own independence of White House politics," the Times wrote. But few follow-up stories appeared, and when they did, they were buried on the inside pages.

No question, there’s a double standard here, but hasn’t anyone in this administration figured that out by now? The Bush White House should have expected the thrashing it’s getting from the Democrats and the media, so why, then, did they so mishandle their decision?

Apparently, someone realized it might look bad to get rid of all U.S. prosecutors at one time, which was former White House counsel Harriet Miers’ original plan shortly after the 2004 election. So why did Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ former chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson — he resigned this week in the fallout over the firings — decide to set up a rating system of incumbents that included "loyalty to the president and attorney general" as a criterion for retaining prosecutors? And why did he send e-mails back and forth to the White House counsel’s office ranking them?

Worse yet, how is it Attorney General Gonzales testified about the firings in January without making sure he knew every detail about what happened? He claimed then that he would never allow politics to play a role in dismissing prosecutors, but he was clearly clueless about what was going on in his own office.

This entire episode was avoidable. Each and every one of the attorneys who was dismissed could have been let go one at a time over a few months with no problem. And if, as alleged, some of the attorneys were less than diligent in pursuing voter fraud, specifically cases where illegal aliens or ineligible felons voted, they should have been fired. But instead, the administration now faces yet another crisis of its own making.