Mukasey Vows Not to Bow to Political Power

Michael Mukasey takes a question yesterday from the Senate Judiciary Committee as he begins the process of confirmation as attorney general.
Michael Mukasey takes a question yesterday from the Senate Judiciary Committee as he begins the process of confirmation as attorney general. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer and Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

Attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey said yesterday that he would chart an independent path for the Justice Department after the tumultuous tenure of Alberto R. Gonzales, testifying that he would not be afraid to disagree with the president and would resign rather than implement policies that he believed violated the Constitution.

Mukasey, appearing for the first day of hearings before a generally friendly Senate Judiciary Committee, also said the president cannot use his powers as commander in chief to "override" prohibitions against using torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading conduct in the interrogation of prisoners.

"Are you prepared to resign if the president were to violate your advice and in your view violate the Constitution?" asked Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Mukasey responded: "That would present me with a difficult but not a complex problem. I could either try to talk him out of it or leave."

These and other strongly worded remarks reflected the former federal judge and prosecutor's desire to position himself as an independent legal thinker who, unlike Gonzales, has no long-standing ties to the current White House. "I'm not a bashful person, and I'm not going to become a bashful person if I'm confirmed," Mukasey said late in the day.

But Mukasey also declined to directly answer some questions related to controversial surveillance, detention and interrogation issues, and he suggested that in some policy areas his views might differ little from those of his predecessor.

During a sparring session with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), for example, Mukasey declined to say whether the president could order a violation of federal surveillance law, as Democratic lawmakers have alleged the Bush administration did when it authorized a warrantless wiretapping program after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Mukasey said he could not provide an informed analysis without being briefed on the classified program but noted that some lawyers think the law does not entirely limit the president. "I find your equivocation here somewhat troubling," Feingold responded.

Mukasey also expressed conservative views on social issues as divergent as obscenity and immigration, saying he would consider more robust prosecution of those caught being in the country illegally.

Most of the committee's Democrats, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), nonetheless repeated earlier predictions that Mukasey will be confirmed easily and with strong bipartisan support. "I'm encouraged by the answers," Leahy told reporters.

Another round of questioning is scheduled for this morning to explore Mukasey's views on torture and the use of executive-privilege claims, Leahy said. Yesterday's session was interrupted for several hours by a congressional ceremony for the Dalai Lama.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had recommended that the White House nominate Mukasey, said Mukasey needs to rescue the Justice Department from its "greatest crisis since Watergate."

Much of the praise for Mukasey was accompanied by barely disguised swipes at Gonzales. "I think it's time for a steady hand, for a professional," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). Schumer was more critical, saying Gonzales "was not much more than a potted plant" as attorney general.

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