The Difference Between Eight and 93
The Media Research Center defends the Bush administration over the firings of U.S. attorneys by picking the wrong Clinton administration analogy to contrast it with.
By Terry Krepel
It's a given that the Media Research Center automatically defends Republicans and conservatives, which makes it a valuable resource for the Bush administration. But sometimes, that defense is so automatic that it defies logic.
That is what has happened to the MRC in the burgeoning scandal over the Bush administration's firing of several U.S. attorneys. To assume its normal defense mode, the MRC has had to ignore the obvious and refuse to acknowledge facts that interfere with its playbook.
The big (and pretty much only) play out of that playbook is the claim that the Bush administration's replacement of these eight attorneys is no different that President Clinton's replacement of all 93 U.S. attorneys shortly after he took office.
This talking point appeared quite suddenly on March 13, almost as if there was a meeting among conservatives to decide on this course of action. It first surfaced in a March 13 NewsBusters post by Scott Whitlock, in which he complained that ABC reported on the apparently politically motivated firings of several federal prosecutors by the Bush administration, but "when President Clinton fired 93 attorneys at the beginning of his first term, ABC never mentioned the story." A few hours later, MRC head Brent Bozell's syndicated column -- in which he made the same exact claim -- was posted on NewsBusters.
This meme spread throughout the MRC empire, showing up in:
And a March 14 "Media Reality Check" by Tim Graham made a further stab at reinforcing the point, complaining that network reporters interviewing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales never "mentioned that the Clinton administration fired all 93 U.S. Attorneys in 1993. How can firing eight be a 'crisis' and firing 93 be not worth a solitary mention?"
The MRC is so invested in this talking point that none of these items bothered to put Clinton's firings in historical context.
In fact, while Clinton did replace all but one of the 93 U.S. attorneys shortly after he took office, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush similarly replaced them when they first took office as well. But neither Reagan nor Clinton proposed replacing all the attorneys again -- that is, replacing its own appointees -- upon being re-elected for a second term, as Bush officials reportedly contemplated; the firing of the eight attorneys was the ultimate outgrowth of that proposal.
A corollary of this is claiming that Clinton replaced all those attorneys to thwart an investigation of Democratic congressman Dan Rostenkowski, as Justin McCarthy did in a March 15 NewsBusters post. This is undermined by the fact that a Clinton-appointed federal prosecutor did, in fact, indict Rostenkowski on 17 counts. (He pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud and was sentenced to 17 months in prison.)
Perhaps realizing that an honest account of the facts demolishes the Clinton-did-it argument, some stabs were taken at finessing it. In a March 15 NewsBusters post, Ken Shepherd attacked CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen for calling that argument "apples and oranges" because "every new administration expects holdovers to submit letters of resignation and generally accepts most if not all of them" by responding: "But, no one is arguing that point. What is at issue, however, is the manner in which the media failed to find controversy in the unprecedented way [Clinton's attorney general, Janet] Reno handled resignation." In fact, since all those previous statements by MRC writers and bloggers never mentioned the fact that presidents other than Clinton replaced the attorneys upon taking office, they implied that Clinton's doing so was "unprecedented" and was, thus, "arguing that point." Finkelstein also tried to work that same ground in his NewsBusters post by citing a Wall Street Journal editorial to claim that "it is simply untrue that 'everybody did it.' "
Baker also cited that flawed Journal editorial to claim that fired Washington prosecutor John McKay "ignored very real evidence of voter fraud" in the 2004 Washington governor's race. In fact, McKay did investigate but found "no evidence of voter fraud."
Which brings us to our second point. The MRC has studiously avoided discussing the issues regarding the fired Bush prosecutors that made this a controversy in the first place: Reports indicate that they were fired for prosecuting too many Republicans and not enough Democrats; for instance, one of the fired attorneys, Carol Lam, had prosecuted corrupt Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham and was expanding her investigation in May 2006 when Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff, sent a message urging the White House counsel's office to call him regarding "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam." when emails started circulating urging that Lam be fired. And when initially challenged about the firings -- allegations have centered on Republican members of Congress who pushed one attorney for an indictment of Democrats prior to the 2006 election -- administration officials claimed that the attorneys had "performance issues" when, in fact, nearly all of them received high marks on their most recent performance reviews before getting canned (in fact, one ousted prosecutor was told he could use Gonzales as a job reference, which hardly speaks to poor job performance). The administration has also admitted that one of the attorneys was replaced specifically to put a former aide to White House adviser Karl Rove into the job.
Further, the firings coincided with a new provision inserted without debate into the 2006 USA Patriot Act authorization that allows U.S. attorneys to be replaced on an interim basis who can serve indefinitely without approval from the Senate, which normally confirms attorney nominees, or the U.S. district court system, which had appointed interim attorneys.
Really, this sounds less like Clinton's start-of-term replacement of attorneys and more like a different situation -- the replacement of employees at the White House travel office.
As independent counsel Robert Ray summed up the case in his 2000 final report on Whitewater-related investigations, the travel office employees, like the U.S. attorneys, serve at the pleasure of the president, and Clinton had the right to fire them. There were also allegations of what Ray called "improper fiscal conduct" that had some merit to them (though other allegations were "without factual foundation").
But, contrary to its behavior in Bush's firing of the U.S. attorneys, Bozell was one of the loudest voices criticizing the Clinton administration over the firing of the travel office employees, applying the name "Travelgate" to the imbroglio.
In an Oct. 17, 1996, column, Bozell lamented that "[t]he Clintons brought in their Hollywood pal Harry Thomason to take over the White House Travel Office by firing seven workers" and "dragged [former travel office head] Billy Dale through $500,000 of legal expenses defending himself against cooked felony accusations." Bozell did not mention that the travel office employees served at the pleasure of the president and that there was some truth to financial improprieties there, though Dale was eventually acquitted of embezzlement charges.
A June 1999 Bozell column attacked Hillary Clinton: "We know she wanted the civil servants in White House Travel Office like Billy Dale fired, and not just fired, but smeared as crooks and run through a legal gauntlet costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars." But the fired Bush attorneys were smeared as having "performance issues" despite evidence to the contrary, and Bozell hasn't said a thing about that.
A June 2004 column complained that the Clintons "fired career employees of the White House Travel Office and replaced them with Clinton relatives, and directed travel business to their crony Harry Thomason." Again, no mention that Clinton had every right to do that.
So if the travel office firings were such a big deal to Bozell and the MRC, why aren't the U.S. attorney firings, which follow roughly the same template? Because, silly, there are Republicans involved, and the MRC doesn't apply the same rules to Republicans that it does to Democrats. And it certainly won't hold President Bush to the same standard it held Clinton.