Fact checking the president on the prosecutor purge

Bush says Gonzales just followed the "customary practice." That's not true.


Tim Grieve
March 14, 2007 10:50PM (UTC)

Geroge W. Bush was asked about Alberto Gonzales and the prosecutor purge at a brief press conference in Mexico today. Here's an annotated version of what he said in response:

Bush: "I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales. I talked to him this morning, and we talked about his need to go up to Capitol Hill and make it very clear to members in both political parties why the Justice Department made the decisions it made, making very clear about the facts. And he's right, mistakes were made. And I'm, frankly, not happy about it, because there is a lot of confusion over what really has been a customary practice by the presidents. U.S. attorneys and others serve at the pleasure of the president. Past administrations have removed U.S. attorneys; they're right to do so."

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Fact: There's nothing "customary" about firing a slate of U.S. attorneys during the middle of a president's time in office. While Bill Clinton asked for the resignations of all sitting U.S. attorneys when he first took office, it's not at all typical for presidents to remove U.S. attorneys in the middle of their presidencies. As former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson acknowledged in a January 2006 memo to Harriet Miers, the last two-term presidents -- Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- "did not seek to remove and replace U.S. attorneys they had appointed whose four-year terms had expired, but instead permitted such U.S. attorneys to serve indefinitely under the [U.S. Code's] holdover provision."

Bush: "The Justice Department recommended a list of U.S. attorneys. I believe the reasons why were entirely appropriate. And yet this issue was mishandled to the point now where you're asking me questions about it in Mexico, which is fine. If I were you, I'd ask the same question. This is an issue that -- let me just say, Al was right, mistakes were made, and he's going to go up to Capitol Hill to correct them."

Fact: Yes, the Justice Department "recommended a list of U.S. attorneys" to be fired, but only after Miers suggested firing all 93 of them. Further, it is now clear that White House officials -- including Karl Rove and the president himself -- had extensive contacts with the Justice Department about prosecutors on the list as the process moved forward.

Bush: "I appreciate the fact that he's taken some action, because anytime anybody goes up to Capitol Hill, they've got to make sure they fully understand the facts, and how they characterize the issue to members of Congress. And the fact that both Republicans and Democrats feel like there was not straightforward communication troubles me, and it troubles the attorney general, so he took action. And he needs to continue to take action."

Fact: The president said it's important to get the facts straight "anytime anybody goes up to Capitol Hill." What he didn't say: The White House is already signaling that it will resist efforts to have the people who might actually know what happened -- including Rove and Miers -- go "up to Capitol Hill" in the first place.


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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