Bud Cummins on Gonzales' departure: "I felt relieved"

The man whose firing helped touch off the U.S. attorneys scandal recalls John Ashcroft warmly and sees better days ahead for the DOJ.

Published August 28, 2007 1:05AM (EDT)

If not for Bud Cummins, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales might still have a job. Cummins, formerly the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, was fired last year so his spot could go to Tim Griffin, a former aide to Karl Rove, and that firing helped set off the scandal that seems to have led to Gonzales' resignation on Friday. Cummins, who was one of nine U.S. attorneys hit by a Department of Justice purge, has always been a loyal Republican and the first to say that he believes the president had the right to fire him. But he's also been a staunch defender of his fired colleagues, and a critic of the administration and the DOJ for their conduct during the firings and the ensuing congressional investigation.

On Monday, the day Gonzales' resignation was officially confirmed, Salon spoke with Cummins about his feelings about the outgoing attorney general and the future of the DOJ.

What did you think when you first heard the news?

I guess more relief than anything. I wasn't necessarily surprised, because I always thought that at some point, given the pressure he was under, this was inevitable. But on the other hand, it hadn't happened yet, so it wasn't clear that it was ever going to happen.

But I think I felt relieved for the department, because I think this will give them the opportunity to move forward and restore themselves to the dignified institution that it has hopefully been historically. Also, really, relief for him, because he was in a no-win situation. It wasn't going to get any better, and it had to be personally painful for him and his family, so I think it was time to end it.

What was your opinion of him?

Well, originally I thought that he was an inspiring person, because of his personal story. I found him to be a very relaxed and easy person to be around, very polite. He was not, apparently, as engaged in the work that was going on in the field in the U.S. attorneys' offices as had been Attorney General Ashcroft, but everybody's style is a little bit different. So my initial feeling about him was that he was a different kind of leader than Attorney General Ashcroft, but I thought he was a very appealing person, and I still think there's probably lots and lots of reasons to admire Alberto Gonzales.

Unfortunately, he's also given us quite a few reasons to be disappointed in him at this point.

You mentioned Ashcroft, who was A.G. when you were first appointed -- you saw a big difference between the two?

Well, their personal styles are pretty different. General Ashcroft can be funny and entertaining and can sing and tell jokes and talk sports, but he can also get very intense very quickly, kind of like a tough football coach. So [Ashcroft was] not as easy a person to be around as Attorney General Gonzales was, but he seemed more engaged in the substantive issues that the U.S. attorneys were being charged with ...

General Ashcroft also seemed to recognize and articulated the fact that no matter how political you might have been in a previous life, the Department of Justice was not the place to be political, and he said it very clearly and loudly on more than one occasion. Obviously, we didn't hear that out of General Gonzales, and as it turned out, that wasn't really what was being practiced.

Care to speculate on who might be next in line?

No, that would be presumptuous of me, to try and suggest one person over another. I've seen discussions of a great number of very accomplished attorneys, and I think anybody that understands the mission of the Department of Justice and is a good lawyer could step right in and right this ship.

It's just a matter of understanding that there's gonna be times where you have to push back from the political people and say no, and you have to be prepared to weather that storm. If you're not prepared for that, then you shouldn't accept the job.

Do you have a feeling as to whether this will be the end of the scandal and the end of your having to deal with it? And are you happy to see it for that reason?

My role in this has pretty much been over for a while. The resignation of the attorney general has brought some attention my way today, but I think that'll pass pretty quickly.

I think that the attorney general's resignation will very likely take a lot of the air out of the ball. There's still some questions that are going to go unanswered, but I'm not sure anybody's going to care enough to keep them in the public spotlight ... So yeah, I think this will, to a great extent, put an end to this controversy. I think we know enough about what happened, even though we clearly don't know exactly what happened.

When you say you think we know enough, does that mean you think Congress should end the investigation, or that you think there should be further investigation or prosecutions of anybody?

I don't know. I think -- they're entitled to continue to investigate. I've always been a little skeptical that any actual prosecutions would come out of this, but I don't know all the facts, so that's an open question. If there was a criminal prosecution that came out of all of this, then obviously it's not over. That would continue to bring focus on the issues, but I think that short of that, we're down to kind of some fairly small-picture issues about who exactly put a name on the list and exactly why. We pretty much know in most of the cases, and the ones we don't know, it probably just means that it was even dumber, sillier reasons than the ones we know about.

Correction: An earlier version of this post quoted Cummins as saying, "So [Gonzales is] not as easy a person to be around as Attorney General Ashcroft was ..." It has now been corrected to say, "So [Ashcroft was] not as easy a person to be around as Attorney General Gonzales was ..."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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