'Prosecutor-gate': Bush's Power Grab
In 2005, when the White House launched a plan to oust U.S. Attorneys who showed insufficient political loyalty, George W. Bush was hoping to solidify one-party Republican control of American political life, in part, through aggressive prosecution of Democrats for alleged “voter fraud.”
One part of Bush's power grab was to unleash attack-dog GOP prosecutors to rip into Democrats who had been trying to get more Americans to vote. But where Republicans claimed “voter fraud,” such as allowing some released felons to cast ballots, the Democrats saw Republican “voter suppression” aimed at frightening minority citizens away from the polls.
But the swing of a few hundred votes in some districts could mean giving the Democrats control of the House and Senate -- and subjecting the Bush administration to some serious oversight. So, by October 2006, when the White House now admits that Bush personally passed on Republican complaints to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the lack of urgency in addressing Democratic “voter fraud” cases, the GOP dream of near-permanent one-party governance was in grave jeopardy.
Ultimately, the refusal of U.S. Attorneys in New Mexico and elsewhere to fast-track the pre-election indictments of Democrats denied the Republicans a last-minute boost that might have kept one or both congressional chambers in GOP hands.
Instead, the Democrats carried both the House and Senate, opening the Bush administration to oversight that had been virtually non-existent for the previous six years. Exactly one month after the election, Bush’s Justice Department purged seven U.S. Attorneys on top of one who had been ousted earlier.
Under questioning, Gonzales and other administration officials first denied that politics was involved in the unusual mass firing. But the emergence of e-mails between the White House and the Justice Department forced the Bush administration to change its story and toss Gonzales’s chief of staff, D. Kyle Simpson, over the side.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino also acknowledged that Bush did pass along a complaint from Sen. Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico, about the pace of “voter fraud” investigations, but said Bush didn’t seek the removal of any specific U.S. Attorney. New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was one of the seven fired on Dec. 7, 2006.
Traveling with Bush on his Latin American trip, White House counselor Dan Bartlett told reporters that complaints about “voter fraud” cases came in from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as well as New Mexico.
John McKay, the former U.S. Attorney from Washington State, testified to Congress that in September 2006, then-White House counsel Harriet Miers asked him why he had “mishandled” the 2004 gubernatorial race that a Democrat won by less than 150 votes.
McKay said the conversation came in the context of his possible nomination to a federal judgeship, which Bush never made. [Washington Post, March 14, 2007]
There has been no indication that the Bush administration pressed for criminal investigations of possible electoral abuses committed by Republicans. Bush gained the White House in 2000 despite widespread electoral irregularities in Florida and kept it in 2004 amid allegations of voter suppression in Democratic strongholds in Ohio.
The prosecutors’ purge on Dec. 7, 2006, also removed San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol S. Lam, who had brought corruption charges that put Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-California, in prison and heightened public concern about Republican corruption.
According to the administration’s e-mails, Lam’s firing followed complaints that she was not prosecuting more illegal immigration cases, another sensitive political issue in 2006. Gonzales’s chief of staff Sampson asked in one e-mail if the deputy attorney general had ever “woodshedded her [Lam] re immigration enforcement? Has anyone?”
However, in early 2005, when the White House began the back-and-forth that eventually led to the firings, the Republican thinking was focused on how to solidify GOP control of national politics and perpetuate what some conservatives hoped would be effectively a one-party state, with the Democrats consigned to a weak minority status.
Leaders on the Right boasted of Bush’s “transformational” role in bringing about this permanent realignment in American politics, giving conservatives control of all branches of the U.S. government as well as consolidating their strong bond with major corporations and expanding their influence within right-wing and mainstream news organizations.
By pulling these various levers of power, Republican victories in the future supposedly would be a foregone conclusion. The idea had traces of the “managed democracy” that President Vladimir Putin has built in Russia, with his opposition kept around to maintain the appearance of democracy but never within reach of real power.
As right-wing activist Grover Norquist explained after Election 2004, the way for the Democrats to fit in to Republican-run Washington was to accept their permanent lot as a marginalized minority party.
“Once the minority of House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans,” Norquist said in an interview with the Washington Post. “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’ve been fixed, then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful. They don’t go around peeing on the furniture and such.”
Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a close ally of White House political adviser Karl Rove, said he didn’t mean for his comments to be taken literally; the Democrats only needed to be “psychologically” neutered. [Washington Post, Nov. 4, 2004]
The Republican strategy also called for starving Democrats of political resources through operations like the “K Street Project,” which pressed industry associations and lobbying firms to hire only Republicans.
As the Washington Post’s Thomas B. Edsall and John F. Harris reported 10 days into Bush’s second term, one of the President’s unstated goals was “the long-term enfeeblement of the Democratic Party.”
The Post article added that “a recurring theme of many items on Bush’s second-term domestic agenda is that if enacted, they would weaken political and financial pillars that have propped up Democrats for years, political strategists from both parties say.”
The article quoted Norquist as saying that if Bush’s proposals were to win passage, “there will be a continued growth in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves Republicans, both in terms of self-identified party ID and in terms of their [economic] interests.” [Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2005]
To achieve Bush’s vision of near-endless Republican dominance, the White House went to work trying to assert unprecedented control over the 93 U.S. Attorneys with Miers suggesting in February 2005 that all of them be fired and replaced with loyal Republicans.
That plan eventually morphed into the elimination of a smaller number of prosecutors who had “chafed against Administration initiatives,” according to a March 2, 2005, e-mail from Sampson to Miers.
The purge was delayed as lists of targeted prosecutors kept changing and Miers underwent a failed nomination to become a Supreme Court justice, but many of the U.S. Attorneys surely knew they were under the gun.
Former U.S. Attorney Iglesias has testified that he received phone calls from two prominent New Mexico Republicans – Rep. Heather Wilson and Sen. Pete Domenici – about bringing indictments against Democrats before Election 2006. Iglesias said his negative response to Domenici led to the senator slamming down the phone.
Around that same time, in October 2006, Bush complained personally to Gonzales about the pace of the voter-fraud investigations and Iglesias was added to the list of prosecutors to be fired.
Besides the seven prosecutors dismissed on Dec. 7, 2006, Bush tried earlier to replace the U.S. Attorney in Little Rock, Arkansas, with Tim Griffin, who had worked as an “opposition researcher” for the Republican National Committee and had served as an aide to Karl Rove.
The larger problem for the Republicans now, however, is that the Democrats control both chambers of Congress and can no longer be simply ignored. Finally, President Bush may get a taste of what the Founders meant by “checks and balances.”
[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush & the Rise of Managed Democracy.”]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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