The Ritual Dance of the Prosecutors

Fred Thompson plays a high-powered lawyer on TV.
Fred Thompson plays a high-powered lawyer on TV. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Al Kamen
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A White House spokeswoman said President Bush called yesterday to tell embattled Attorney General Alberto "Fredo, You Broke My Heart" Gonzales, that he wanted him to stay on the job and encouraging him to fight efforts to force him out.

In the traditional Washington resignation kabuki, the obligatory presidential support call often signals imminent resignation. The call usually follows what's called a distance dance -- White House spokesman Tony Snow's "we hope so" response to reporters Friday when asked if Gonzales was staying.

Such comments usually coincide with the ritual floating of the usual suspects for a replacement. Then the White House insists, as it did yesterday, the rumors that they are looking for replacements are absolutely false.

The suspects include former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson, who's making boatloads as PepsiCo general counsel in Purchase, N.Y.; former solicitor general Theodore Olson, now a high-powered Washington lawyer; and former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who has a great job as Manhattan district attorney (on television) and is sort of running for president.

The candidate pool grows each day. Former deputy attorney general Laurence Silberman, now on senior status as a federal appeals judge here, is praised, as is Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who at a confirmation hearing could face sharp questioning about the lack of response to Hurricane Katrina, or the lack of DHS funds for New York. A replacement for him, under this scenario, would be Frances Townsend, chief of the White House homeland security office.

Before it's over they may be a mentioning of blue-ribbon panel graybeards, folks like former Illinois governor and former federal prosecutor Jim Thompson, who served with White House counsel Fred Fielding on the Sept. 11 commission. Or they may find the Justice Department equivalent of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who came down from Wall Street.

Gonzales, we're hearing, has completely lost the confidence of career prosecutors and officials at Justice -- not to mention that of most of the remaining U.S. attorneys. Backing on the Hill looks shakier each day. Seems everywhere Gonzales turns he finds a sword inviting him to fall on it.

But all this speculation is complete nonsense, Bush insisted at a news conference yesterday backing Gonzales. And if GOP support in the Senate doesn't collapse, Gonzales could indeed hang in there. As Bush said of Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a week before he canned Rummy: "Both those men are doing fantastic jobs, and I strongly support them."

Fired With Cause

Meanwhile, amid the controversy over the administration's firing of the eight federal prosecutors, little attention has been paid to the fact that President Bill Clinton, after first sacking all 93 U.S. attorneys appointed by Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush, also fired or "resigned" three or four of his federal prosecutors.

One was Larry Colleton, who resigned shortly after he was videotaped grabbing Jacksonville, Fla., television reporter Richard Rose by the throat. Unclear why that was such a big deal.

Another Florida federal prosecutor, Kendall Coffey, resigned "amid accusations that he bit a topless dancer on the arm during a visit to an adult club after losing a big drug case." (There was a strict Clinton policy against biting.) A third Clinton firing, noted by a Congressional Research Service report, was of San Francisco prosecutor Michael Yamaguchi, who seemed to have crossed swords with local judges and Justice Department officials. Clinton replaced him with Bush I Justice Department chief of the criminal division, a fellow named Robert Mueller, whom Bush II appointed FBI director.

But, with those few exceptions, the Clinton folks "didn't ask for resignations" after the first term, former deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick recalls. In contrast to other positions, where people might expect to be replaced after four years, she said, "we considered [the prosecutors' jobs] to be a serious law enforcement function" and didn't think of replacing them after one tour.

Pack Your Bags

Finally on the prosecutorial controversy, here's an official announcement from the Justice Department on March 14, 2001: "Continuing the practice of new administrations, President Bush and the Department of Justice have begun the transition process for most of the 93 United States Attorneys" appointed by Clinton.

" Attorney General Ashcroft said, 'We are committed to making this an orderly transition to ensure effective, professional law enforcement that reflects the President's priorities.'

". . . Prior to the beginning of this transition process, nearly one-third of the United States Attorneys had already submitted their resignations. The White House and the Department of Justice have begun to schedule transition dates for most of the remaining United States Attorneys to occur prior to June of this year."

Well, at least they had 10 weeks to pack up.

Career Moves

Moving on . . . Labor Department chief of staff Paul Conway, who had been chief of staff to Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James in the first term, has been recruited to be chief of staff to Donald Powell, who's the federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding.

Moving in? Retired Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the better-looking younger brother of Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt, is the leading candidate to be assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.

Getting stiffed . . . Walid al-Moallem, former Syrian ambassador to Washington and now Syria's foreign minister, wanted to chat with Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, while she was in Syria to discuss the growing problem of Iraqi refugees in Syria. We're told he was rebuffed because officials didn't want Damascus to try to portray a get-together as a resumption of talks on U.S.-Syria relations.

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