The purge of U.S. attorneys (partially) explained.
Mark Follman, writing this week in Salon, posits that having lost control of Congress in November, the White House is clinging even more desperately to the few levers of power it still holds. Regardless of the specific rationale, it seems to be a truism among editorial writers that the firing of independent-minded federal prosecutors was part of a deliberate and cunning power grab by the White House.
But there's one other theory worth putting out there—one I have heard from folks on the Hill who are following this battle quite closely. This was merely a monumental screw-up. The DOJ never expected these firings to turn into a scandal. Indeed, many folks there still can't quite figure out what they have done wrong.
A few data points:
1) The DOJ is currently staffed by its C team, all of its best members having left long ago for better-paid jobs in the private sector. And C teams, particularly C teams with little political experience, make mistakes.
2) This scandal may not have gone anywhere had McNulty not testified that the U.S. attorneys were canned—with the exception of Cummins—for subpar "performance." This misstep forced Lam, Iglesias, and other very loyal Republicans to come forward and defend themselves. Had McNulty not publicly questioned their effectiveness, most would probably have packed up and left without a word.
3) The White House is unaccustomed to real oversight. It's been virtually bulletproof for so long that it has almost forgotten how to account for its blatant ideological acts of jiggery-pokery. It wasn't until control of Congress changed over in November that anyone even began to look askance at executive overreaching. As a result, this administration simply misjudged the amount of likely blowback from these firings.
The U.S. attorney purge probably exploded into a scandal as a result of a perfect storm that the White House never anticipated: Players at the highest levels were making strategic, ideological decisions to consolidate executive power and reward party loyalists while folks on the ground at the Justice Department bungled the firings with inflammatory comments and false ("performance-related") statements. Incumbent U.S. attorneys surprised the White House by punching back, just as a Congress under new Democratic control decided to exercise meaningful oversight.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the purge isn't that the Bush administration puts ideology above the rule of law. That isn't exactly news. The real point may be that between inexperienced fumblers at Justice, energized Democrats in Congress, and a public that seems finally to have awoken from its slumber, it's just become harder for the administration to get away with it.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.