As a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee prepared to take testimony from outgoing Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty earlier today, Republican Rep. Chris Cannon set out the broadest possible justification for ignoring whatever happened as the Justice Department fired -- and then dissembled about firing -- a slew of federal prosecutors last year. "There is," Cannon said, "nothing wrong with firing U.S. attorneys -- nothing! -- at any time, for any reason. They serve at will."
While there was a kernel of truth to what Cannon said -- U.S. attorneys do serve at the pleasure of the president and the attorney general -- Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers rightly took him to task for overstating the case. "I regret that my good friend Mr. Cannon continues to describe the conduct of the Democrats on this committee as being politically motivated," Conyers said. "I just want to try to correct at least one thing here: that a U.S. attorney can be removed at any time, for any reason."
Cannon tried to interrupt Conyers to clarify his comments, but the chairman refused to yield the floor to him. "Well, you agree with me now, but you said the statement. I mean, you know, people aren't foolish. They're listening. There are reasons that a U.S. attorney can't be removed for any reason whatever or at any time. As a matter of fact, Attorney General Gonzales has repeatedly said there are times when it can't happen."
Cannon eventually got a chance to backtrack. Referring to Conyers, he said: "The gentleman's correct in saying that there are reasons -- I was giving a broad statement -- there are particular reasons, and that goes to corruption. If you're removing someone ... from a U.S. attorney's office for a corrupt purpose -- "
Conyers interrupted to say that it would also be improper to fire a U.S. attorney for political reasons. Cannon wouldn't go that far, insisting: "You can fire a U.S. attorney for political reasons."