Monday, March 19, 2007

The Pleasure of the President

The official Republican talking point throughout much of the Sunday talk show rounds with respect to the firing of eight US Attorneys was that the US Attorneys "serve at the pleasure of the President." He appoints them, and he can fire them whenever he wants. In today's NY Times, Adam Cohen takes issue with that meme in an "Editorial Observer" piece.

The Bush administration has done a terrible job of explaining its decision to fire eight United States attorneys. Story after story has proved to be untrue: that the prosecutors who were fired were poor performers; that the White House was not involved in the purge. But the administration has been strangely successful in pushing its message that the scandal is at worst a political misdeed, not a criminal matter.

It is true, as the White House keeps saying, that United States attorneys serve “at the pleasure of the president,” which means he can dismiss them whenever he wants. But if the attorneys were fired to interfere with a valid prosecution, or to punish them for not misusing their offices, that may well have been illegal.
[Emphasis added]

Mr. Cohen then proceeds to list some of the federal laws that may have been broken by the wholesale firing.

1. Misrepresentations to Congress. The relevant provision, 18 U.S.C. § 1505, is very broad. It is illegal to lie to Congress, and also to “impede” it in getting information. ...

2. Calling the Prosecutors. As part of the Sarbanes-Oxley reforms, Congress passed an extremely broad obstruction of justice provision, 18 U.S.C. § 1512 (c), which applies to anyone who corruptly “obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so,” including U.S. attorney investigations. ...

3. Witness Tampering. 18 U.S.C. § 1512 (b) makes it illegal to intimidate Congressional witnesses. ...

4. Firing the Attorneys. United States attorneys can be fired whenever a president wants, but not, as § 1512 (c) puts it, to corruptly obstruct, influence, or impede an official proceeding. ...

All four provisions seem to be directly on point, given what the fired US Attorneys have said about their terminations and given what the various investigating committees have learned so far. This has become more than just a question of political misjudgment, and Sen. Leahy and Rep. Conyers had better get those subpoenas drawn up, because they will clearly be needed.

In the meantime, Democrats and those Republicans who are seriously concerned about this debacle would do well to brush up on the federal laws cited by Mr. Cohen in his editorial.

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