There is no question that the attorney general and the president can dismiss United States attorneys at any time and for any reason. We do not have civil servant U.S. attorneys but maintain the process of presidential appointment for a very good reason: We consider who prosecutes whom and for what to be a question of public policy that should reflect the president’s priorities and objectives.When a U.S. attorney chooses to go light in prosecuting voter fraud and political corruption, it is completely understandable and totally legitimate for a president and an attorney general to decide to fire him or her and appoint a replacement who will do so.
The Democratic attempt to attack Bush for exercising his presidential power to dismiss employees who serve at his pleasure smacks of nothing so much as the trumped-up grounds for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Back then, radical Republicans tried to oust him for failing to obey the Tenure of Office Act, which they passed, barring him from firing members of his Cabinet (in this case, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton) without Senate approval. Soon after Johnson’s acquittal, the Supreme Court invalidated the Tenure of Office Act, in effect affirming Johnson’s position.
But instead of loudly asserting its view that voter fraud is, indeed, worthy of prosecution and that U.S. attorneys who treat such cases lightly need to go find new jobs, the Bush administration acts, for all the world, like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
All Republican supporters of the administration can do is to point to Bill Clinton’s replacement of U.S. attorneys when he took office. Because the president and the attorney general insist on acting guilty, the rest of the country has no difficulty in assuming that they are.