Absolute Power, No Responsibility: White House reaction to the Department of Justice hiring scandal
It had been two days since the Department of Justice released a report accusing itself of illegally discriminating against political enemies in its hiring of supposedly independent judges and prosecutors, and no one in the White House press corps had bothered to ask the administration for its reaction. As usual, I'd been trying, but the press secretary rarely calls on me. Wednesday was going to be the last briefing in Washington for at least a couple of weeks, so I went in for one more try. The question I hoped to ask:
Any reaction to the Inspector General's report that found that the Department of Justice illegally discriminated against Democrats in the hiring of non-political judges and prosecutors?
Followed up if necessary by:
Does the President take responsibility for the failed leadership that allowed the nation's top law enforcement agency to break the law and abandon its long tradition of independence from politics?
I attended both the morning "gaggle" and the more formal, televised briefing in the early afternoon. The gaggle was sparsely attended. I was one of only six reporters sitting in the first two rows, so I thought my chances were pretty good. Dana Perino called on the other five—they asked about the housing bill, offshore drilling, and Iran's defiant nuclear enrichment program—but then Perino abruptly ended the session after just 13 minutes.
A couple of hours later I went back for the briefing. The room was crowded, but again I got a good seat in the second row. This time, however, the second reporter called on—I believe it was Jim Axelrod of CBS—asked my question. Here's his exchange with Ms. Perino:
Q Dana, what's your reaction to the Justice Department report where they -- the report essentially says, yes, that there was inappropriate influence on politics and ideology that was part of our hiring and firing practices?
MS. PERINO: Well as I have read the coverage of it -- I haven't read the report, but as I read the coverage of it, there's obviously information in there that would cause concern to anybody. And we agree with Michael Mukasey that -- the Attorney General -- that there was concern. There should be concern any time anyone is improperly using politics to influence career decisions. We believe that is improper. We could absolutely not defend that. And we are pleased that the Attorney General has taken steps to change it there at the Justice Department.
Q Can I infer from that that President Bush is disappointed in Alberto Gonzales?
MS. PERINO: I think that if you look at the report, and it is in line with what the Attorney General said at the time, which was that he was not aware of that going on. And so I don't think there's anything -- disappointment doesn't necessarily go to the Attorney General.
Q You don't think it would change -- it doesn't change the President's --
MS. PERINO: No, I don't. The whole situation -- the whole situation in terms of the politicization -- or accusations of politicization -- if you look at career hires that should not have had any sort of questions put towards them as to what sort of party they represent, or what affiliation they might belong to, or who they might vote for -- those are inappropriate for career positions. And the President is glad that the -- Attorney General Mukasey made sure that that is no longer ongoing at the Justice Department. And it's nothing that we could defend, and we never have.
Q But you won't go so far as to say that, looking at Alberto Gonzales's Justice Department, President Bush is disappointed this was going on?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that we are -- overall disappointment in the situation, sure.
So she "[hasn't] read the report," but then a moment later, defending Alberto Gonzales's innocence, she tells the reporter to "look at the report." And "overall disappointment in the situation" is a pretty weak condemnation. It almost sounds like she's saying, "I'm sorry we got caught."
But what's interesting here is how this case illustrates the conflict between the Bush administration's "unitary executive" theory and reality. Under the unitary executive theory, ALL executive power resides solely in the president. And the Bush administration has tried hard to achieve this. What it has led to, however, is the loss of independence in institutions that Americans have traditionally demanded have some degree of independence—and so we see U.S. attorneys fired for not prosecuting Democrats, the military creating a propaganda arm to support a politically-motivated war, NASA and EPA scientists censored if they want to talk about global warming, et cetera.
Applied to an extreme, the unitary executive theory would absolve all underlings in the executive branch of any responsibility for their actions, since all they are doing is carrying out the orders of the President. But on this point, the administration has been grossly inconsistent. When soldiers at Abu Ghraib applied the enhanced interrogation techniques dreamed up in the Oval Office, it was they who were punished, not the all-powerful POTUS. Similarly, in the current Department of Justice hiring scandal, it is the henchmen Monica Goodling and Kyle Samson who are being blamed. Jim Axelrod asked if the President was disappointed in Alberto Gonzales. But how could he be? Under the unitary executive theory, Gonzales had no independence—he was merely one more cog carrying out the President's will.
In Amazing Fantasy #15, the great American philosopher Stan Lee wrote, "With great power, comes great responsibility." The new George W. Bush version goes, "With absolute power, comes no responsibility."
The preceding article was a White House report from Eric Brewer, who will periodically attend White House press briefings for Raw Story. Brewer is also a contributor at BTC News. He was the first reporter to ask about the Downing Street memo and the Pentagon analysts scandal at White House briefings.