It’s how they do business

With all the minutiae about subpoenas and bluster about executive privilege now flooding the zone in the U.S. attorney purge story, it’s important to return to the basics of what we know and why it’s important. The president fired U.S. attorneys to stymie investigations of Republicans and punish U.S. attorneys who didn’t harass Democrats with bogus voter-fraud prosecutions. In the former instance, the evidence remains circumstantial. But in the latter the evidence is clear, overwhelming and undeniable.

Indeed, it is so undeniable that the president himself … well, he doesn’t even deny it.  Watch closely and you see that the president is actually using the charge as his defense — just by leaving out a few key details.

The president says that in some cases U.S. attorneys were dismissed because they were too lax in prosecuting election fraud. What he does not say — but what we know directly from the accounts of the players involved — is that these were cases in which Republican operatives and activists complained to the White House and Republican members of Congress that certain U.S. attorneys weren’t convening grand juries or issuing indictments against Democrats, even though these were cases where all the available evidence suggests there was no wrongdoing to prosecute.

It’s all reminiscent of the bogus voter-fraud allegations Republicans got caught peddling in the South Dakota Senate race in 2002. Only in this case getting these charges into the press wasn’t enough; they wanted to use U.S. attorneys to actually harass people or put them in jail.

We know that Republican members of Congress sought to pressure the prosecutors in question to push these indictments. And we know at least in the case of David Iglesias in New Mexico that Sen. Pete Domenici’s (R-N.M.) complaints after not being able to get Iglesias to knuckle down before last November’s midterm elections were directly tied to his dismissal.
Back up a bit from the sparks flying over executive privilege and congressional testimony and you realize that these are textbook cases of the party in power interfering with or obstructing the administration of justice for narrowly partisan purposes. It’s a direct attack on the rule of law.

This much is already clear in the record. But we’re now having a big public debate about the politics for each side if the president tries to obstruct the investigation and keep the truth from coming out. The contour and scope of executive privilege is one issue. And it’s certainly an important one, though presidential advisers have routinely in the past testified before Congress on any number of issues. But in this case executive privilege is being used as no more than a shield to keep the full extent of the president’s perversion of the rule of law from becoming known.

It’s yet another example of how far this White House has gone in normalizing behavior that we’ve been raised to associate with third-world countries where democracy has never successfully taken root and the rule of law is unknown. At most points in our history the idea that an attorney general could stay in office after having at a minimum OK’d the firing of U.S. attorneys who would not pursue political prosecutions would be unthinkable. And yet that is precisely what is happening.

The most telling thing about this unfolding story is that the culprits in this case are not even really denying the wrongdoing. They’re ignoring the point.  At best, they’re doing the political equivalent of pleading “no contest.” So what? they’re telling us. That’s how we do business. 

That leaves Congress with the question: Is that how we do business now?

Marshall is editor of talkingpointsmemo.com.
His column appears in The Hill each week.
E-mail: jmarshall@thehill.com