Some basics on the US Attorney story:
(1) Question: Isn't this just like what Clinton did? Answer: no. US Attorneys are often replaced at the beginning of a new President's first term. They are almost never replaced in midterm, like this. Here's a Congressional Research Study:
"At least 54 U.S. attorneys appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate left office before completion of a four-year term between 1981 and 2006 (not counting those whose tenure was interrupted by a change in presidential administration). Of those 54, 17 left to become Article III federal judges, one left to become a federal magistrate judge, six left to serve in other positions in the executive branch, four sought elective office, two left to serve in state government, one died, and 15 left to enter or return to private practice. Of the remaining eight U.S. attorneys who left before completing a four-year term without a change in presidential administration, two were apparently dismissed by the President, and three apparently resigned after news reports indicated they had engaged in questionable personal actions. No information was available on the three remaining U.S. attorneys who resigned."
So: at least two, and at most five, US Attorneys were removed from office in the middle of their terms between 1981 and the present firings. George W. Bush managed to fire more attorneys on one day than had been fired in mid-term during the previous 25 years.
(2) Question: So what? What difference does it make if the President fires people at the beginning of his term or in the middle, given that it's probably for political reasons either way? Answer: When a President replaces US Attorneys at the beginning of his term, he is generally doing so to put in people who fit his ideology or accept his priorities, or to reward supporters. It's a lot less likely that he will be replacing them because they have disobeyed his orders to investigate or indict someone, or to stop an ongoing investigation.
When a President replaces US Attorneys in mid-term, however, he can sack them not just for not being fully aligned with him ideologically, but for their actions on some specific case. He might want them to back off an investigation they think should be pursued, or to investigate or indict where they think there's no evidence. And that's a lot more serious, since it gives Presidents the power to direct the power of law enforcement at their political opponents.
Lest this seem like an abstract worry...
, consider that we know that two of the fired prosecutors were fired shortly after receiving completely inappropriate calls asking them to indict Democrats where they thought there was no evidence. The first:
"McKay's work on the 2004 election has become a national issue since he appeared last Tuesday at hearings into the Justice Department's firings of McKay and seven other U.S. attorneys in December. McKay testified that in late-2004 or early-2005 he received a call from Ed Cassidy, then chief of staff for Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who asked about the status of ongoing investigations of voter fraud.
McKay testified that he immediately cut off the call, telling Cassidy it would be improper for him to discuss the status of any future investigations with Cassidy."
From the same article:
"Had anyone at the Justice Department or the White House ordered me to pursue any matter criminally in the 2004 governor's election, I would have resigned," McKay said. "There was no evidence, and I am not going to drag innocent people in front of a grand jury."
"Iglesias testified that Wilson called him while he was visiting Washington on Oct. 16 to quiz him about an investigation of a state Democrat related to kickbacks in a courthouse construction project.
"What can you tell me about sealed indictments?" Iglesias said Wilson asked him.
Iglesias said "red flags" immediately went up in his mind because it was unethical for him to talk about an ongoing criminal investigation, particularly on the timing of indictments.
"I was evasive and unresponsive," he said of his conversation with Wilson. She became upset, Iglesias testified, and ended the conversation.
"Well, I guess I'll have to take your word for it," she said, according to Iglesias.
About 10 days later, Iglesias said, Domenici's chief of staff, Steve Bell, called Iglesias at his home in New Mexico and "indicated there were some complaints by constituents." Domenici then got on the phone for a conversation that lasted "one to two minutes," Iglesias recalled.
"Are these going to be filed before November?" Domenici asked, Iglesias testified, referring to the kickback case. Unnerved by the call, Iglesias said he responded that they were not.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Domenici replied, according to Iglesias, who added that the senator then hung up.
"I felt sick afterward," Iglesias said, acknowledging that he did not report the calls to Washington as required under Justice rules. "I felt leaned on. I felt pressured to get these matters moving.""
From the same article:
"In addition to Iglesias, four other fired prosecutors were conducting political corruption investigations of Republicans when they were dismissed. Carol S. Lam of San Diego, for example, oversaw the guilty plea of former Republican representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, and brought related indictments against a former CIA official and a defense contractor."
I know of two of these. (Anyone who knows about the other two, feel free to let me know in comments.) One:
"At least two of the U.S. attorneys who were later forced to step down, Iglesias in New Mexico and Paul Charlton of Arizona, were on Sampson's "retain" list in February 2005.
But by September of 2006 - after it became clear that Charlton had launched an investigation of Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz, - Sampson included the Arizona prosecutor on another list of U.S. attorneys "we now should consider pushing out.""
"In an e-mail dated May 11, 2006, Sampson urged the White House counsel's office to call him regarding "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam," who then the U.S. attorney for southern California. Earlier that morning, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lam's corruption investigation of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., had expanded to include another California Republican, Rep Jerry Lewis.
Cunningham is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence in Arizona. Lewis has not been charged with any crime. Lam was forced to resign."
As Josh Marshall says, this is the big one. And he adds this:
"What people tend to overlook is that for most White House's a US attorney involved in such a politically charged and ground-breaking corruption probe would have been untouchable, even if she'd run her office like a madhouse and was offering free twinkies to every illegal who made it across the border. Indeed, when you view the whole context you see that the idea she was fired for immigration enforcement is just laughable on its face. No decision about her tenure could be made without the main issue being that investigation. It's like hearing that Pat Fitzgerald was fired as Plamegate prosecutor for poor deportment or because he was running up too many air miles flying back and forth from Chicago.
Lam's investigation (and allied ones her probe spawned) were uncovering a) serious criminal wrongdoing by major Republican power players on Capitol Hill, b) corruption at the CIA -- which reached back to the Hill, c) and as yet still largely hidden corrupt dealings at the heart of the intelligence operations in the Rumsfeld Pentagon.
Nothing matters unless the investigation gets to the heart of what happened there."
He's absolutely right.
What this is about is an attempt to subvert the system of justice. People who should be prosecuted aren't. People who should not be prosecuted are. And in both cases, for political reasons.
It's one thing for a President to appoint like-minded people to jobs, or to want people who share his views on, say, whether or not cases involving the possession of small amounts of marijuana should be prosecuted or not, or whether white-collar crime is a major priority, or whatever. It's something altogether different for him (or his political appointees) to try to direct the course of individual investigations, especially when the basis on which they try to direct them is political, not legal. This means directing the formidable machinery of the criminal justice system at the innocent, or shielding the guilty. We should not tolerate either.
Also: Alberto Gonzales managed to reach new lows today. This is just risible:
"QUESTION: How could your chief of staff be working closely with the president on which U.S. attorneys to be let go and you not know?
GONZALES: Well, again, as -- I accept responsibility for whatever happens here in this department. But I have 110,000 working in the department. Obviously, there are going to be decisions made that I'm not aware of all the time."
PFAW has a petition calling for Gonzales' resignation here. I wish he had been forced out (better: not confirmed) over torture, but since he seems to be an all-around star performer in the idiocy world series, I'll take what I can get.