Monday, August 27, 2007; 3:30 PM
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales
One of those U.S. attorneys was H.E. "Bud" Cummins, appointed by President Bush in 2001 and who served for six years in the eastern district of Arkansas, before resigning in 2006 when he learned that Tim Griffin, a former aide to White House advisor Karl Rove, was to replace him.
Cummins was online Monday, Aug. 27, at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss the Gonzales resignation and the significance of the U.S. attorney firings.
The transcript follows.
Austin, Texas: Mr. Cummins, how would you suggest the Justice Department move forward? Who would you recommend for attorney general, and what do you think the first three agenda items should be to get the department functioning again?
Bud Cummins: The Department of Justice is staffed by thousands of career professionals who stand ready to continue their fine work. The resignation of Attorney General Gonzales will eliminate a cloud that has been hanging over the department. I suppose he immediately will be replaced by the Deputy Attorney General, Craig Morford, who completely understands the mission of DOJ. The president will appoint a successor in due course, and that person must demonstrate that he or she has a total understanding of the need for independence at DOJ. Being AG is an incredibly difficult job because you must serve a president loyally, but never in conflict with the law or constitution. When there is a conflict, the need for independence arises. Whoever leads DOJ next almost certainly will understand that, and the White House will need to buckle in for a rough ride because there will be conflicts.
Germantown, Md.: According to Dan Balz in the morning politics chat, President Bush has indicated that Justice's Solicitor General, Paul Clement, will serve as interim attorney general. Given that Clement has been in charge of the internal investigations of the U.S. attorney firings and related items, what will his appointment do to that investigation? Why wouldn't Morford (acting deputy attorney general) be appointed instead?
Bud Cummins: I was not aware that there had been an indication that Clement would be interim AG instead of Morford, but that doesn't surprise me. I do not see a conflict of interest for either to serve as interim AG -- neither of them were involved in any of the circumstances being investigated. I would anticipate that the investigations will continue. Whoever serves as AG will have an opportunity to demonstrate independence by maintaining the integrity of those investigations free from any politics; either of those gentlemen should be able to do just that.
Richmond, Va.: Maybe this is a dumb question, but what exactly does the attorney general do?
Bud Cummins: Hard to answer briefly, but if you picture a huge national law firm (DOJ) with just one client, the U.S. government, and the head of the law firm is the Attorney General, that is pretty close. Sticking to the analogy, United States Attorneys are more or less the branch managers around the country in 93 branches of that national law firm.
The attorney general advises the administration on all legal matters and executes the laws of the land by filing civil actions on behalf of the U.S. government against people who have wronged the government in violation of the laws, and also by prosecuting criminals who break those laws. I am sure the DOJ Web site has a better explanation of the job description of the Attorney General.
West Bend, N.C.: Mr. Cummins, I have noticed several people on the Internet speculating that the timing of the Gonzales resignation suggest that there is more news coming out of Justice. The first thing that comes to mind is the recent report from Michael Isikoff concerning former DOJ attorney Thomas M. Tamm and the NSA Terrorist Surveillance Program leak. Do you think there is a connection? Thanks.
washingtonpost.com: Looking for a Leaker (Newsweek, Aug. 13 issue)
Bud Cummins: I really don't know. The idea that new, even more embarrassing or damning information may be around the corner is a common-sense possibility, but my assessment of the president is that he doesn't work that way. But who knows? As for any connection to the more detailed stuff about Tamm or NSA issues, sounds like a little bit of speculation to me, but Isikoff's sources are better than mine.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Christopher Cox, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has been named as a possible successor to Gonzales. Is that likely given that on Cox's watch, Countrywide Financial Corporation -- real estate mortgage broker, packager and business bamboozler -- was ignored and essentially allowed to help drag the world markets into financial chaos? If one can't perform one's current job, why should one get another? Should Cox get a promotion? I don't think so. Thanks much from a taxpayer.
Bud Cummins: I am going to respond to you (politely) to explain that I probably will decline to get into discussions today about prospective nominees and particularly about why one should or shouldn't be confirmed. I don't know a single thing about Cox's role in the mortgage crisis, but I am not keen on hanging problems around a leader's neck only because they happened on his or her watch. Bad things happen sometimes without anybody committing negligence. I don't know enough about Cox, the SEC or mortgages to say whether he should be excluded or included for consideration for AG.
Rockville, Md.: Is there any reasonable explanation why now and not two months earlier (sorry, I just can't get over it)? Attorney General Gonzales seemed to be happy to take the abuse, and unlike Karl Rove I don't see him hitting the lucrative lecture circuit. Will we ever find out? I'm just afraid that the Bush administration has something really foul up their sleeve, and all this is part of their grand master plan.
Bud Cummins: I don't know why the timing is now. I am not big into the "master plan" theories. I think every issue has to stand on it's own. I don't think the department's failures in the firing of U.S. attorneys, for instance, proves necessarily that there are one or more problems with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance program.
As for the timing, I only can observe that Gonzales is human, has a family and has taken incredible amount of heat for many months. He simply may have had enough, which is understandable.
New York: I read a fair share of commentary on the resignation, and on potential replacements. I think the most compelling candidate for a replacement is Patrick Fitzgerald, as per The Wall Street Journal's law blog post. What are your thoughts?
washingtonpost.com: Who Will Be Our Next Attorney General? (Wall Street Journal online, Aug. 27)
Bud Cummins: President Bush is unlikely to call me for advice about a successor to the AG, and he may be unlikely to seriously consider Pat Fitzgerald for AG, but he could do a lot worse. Pat Fitzgerald is an incredible prosecutor and a great leader. He was prosecuting and hunting terrorists back when the rest of us were still worrying about Y2K. He is a fine fellow and -- like a great number of people who have been mentioned -- would be a great AG.
Baltimore: Attorney General Chertoff -- a joke, right? They're floating that name (and Ken Starr) just so that whomever they eventually do name sounds like the model of moderation and competence. Right? Right?
Bud Cummins: Chertoff is imminently qualified to serve as an AG, but his time at Homeland Security may create too much controversy for him to get through a confirmation. But in my view his resume is better-suited for AG than even Homeland Security. He was well-respected when he was at DOJ.
Los Angeles: Do you agree that one of the soon-to-be-former attorney general's greatest problems was his inability to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between being Counsel to the President, as he was in the first term, and being Attorney General of the United States? As far as I can tell, Gonzales never understood that difference, and many of the difficulties that led to his resignation today stemmed from that lack of understanding.
Bud Cummins: Yes, you said it well. It appears that he failed to recognize the difference.
Kea'au, Hawaii: Was Gonzales ever any more than a figurehead? I get the feeling that all he did was to travel around the country making speeches and do the occasional seemingly unsavory task for Bush -- what Shakespeare called a "serviceable villain."
Bud Cummins: I can't quite say you are right, but I won't say you are wrong. It also appeared to me that he spent most of his energy on the political message and left the day-to-day operation of the department to others, at his own peril. For instance, he was not nearly as engaged with the U.S. attorney community as was his predecessor, Attorney General Ashcroft.
Hampton Roads, Va.: Doesn't most of the criticism of Gonzales from the liberal media stem from the fact that they can't stand the fact that a Hispanic is also a conservative? It's a similar story as with Clarence Thomas.
Bud Cummins: I think that the major parts of the media, and certainly the Democrats, would be criticizing him even at some level if he hadn't committed some serious mistakes. But the truth is that he did make some major mistakes, including participation in a dishonorable cover-up that attempted to throw my colleagues under the bus in order to avoid fessing up to certain political activities. So, you can say the Democrats are enjoying this, but you can't say it is their fault. We (Republicans) handed them a great issue in our handling of this mess -- they simply took the ball and ran with it. I hate to get chewed out by my wife, but I really hate it when she is right. Same thing.
San Jose, Calif.: Can you speculate on possible replacements who could get through the nominating process? Sen. Orrin Hatch was mentioned a few months ago.
Bud Cummins: I really don't want to do that. I know a great number of people personally that would be great and wouldn't want to suggest one to the exclusion of another. It will be interesting, however.
Historical analogies: As the seventh in line for the U.S. presidency, the attorney general should not be considering a laughingstock and ignoramus. That being said, the U.S. has had numerous incompetents in high public office who have managed to survive. On a historical scale, how incompetent was Gonzales? Was he merely incompetent, manifestly incompetent or supremely incompetent? Which attorney general has been worse in your opinion?
Bud Cummins: I am sidestepping you on this, but I will say that his failure to act independently and to preserve the integrity of the department, and his affirmative statements and actions that he either knew to be false -- or should have known to be false -- combine to make him a poor AG. The attorney general must have maximum credibility to do his job and perform the mission. This AG squandered his credibility.
Boston: Mr. Cummins, in your supplemental written testimony to one of the Congressional Committees on the Judiciary, you had some choice words of advice about how hard it is for a prospective U.S. attorney to become confirmed, and that you saw it would be harder if U.S. attorneys were dismissed summarily without cause. Care to comment on the rather large number of positions currently held by acting or interim U.S. attorneys, and the likelihood that more than a few will be filled before Bush leaves office?
Bud Cummins: It is a great honor to be appointed by the president, and in my case it may be the best job I will ever have. But that being said, it currently takes a new president almost the whole first year to get a substantial number of his appointments made and confirmed. This is in part because of the fact that the White House has to vet every nominee ad nauseam out of fear that the opposing party will discover that they paid their maid in cash, or had a DWI in college, or something. Then, the Senate acts on appointments on their own schedule, and allow their colleagues to block a lot of nominations just because they have a personal bone to pick.
This system doesn't serve the country well. The Senate should have a quick opportunity to comment on appointments and raise serious issues, but the current process is ridiculous and undoubtedly repels a lot of potential nominees. They should take a nonpartisan look at it. It gets even worse if, after going through it, you find out that some party hack can get you fired at any time.
Louisville, Ky.: Is it ever possible for the AG to be completely independent of the President? Consider the case of the Bobby Kennedy -- would it such a nomination by the president be appropriate today?
Bud Cummins: Probably not, but you have to do better than this. ... I suspect that the Kennedy brothers were a little too cozy also.
Portsmouth, N.H.: Given your experiences/observations at Justice, would you support any of the current proposals to make the attorney general's job a less partisan position? It's my observation that many of the state attorneys general really do a superb job serving the public regardless of their party affiliation, yet the federal attorney general seems to be a constant sore spot. A staggered appointment schedule or something pretty much would avoid the Gonzales issue, wouldn't it?
Bud Cummins: I think the process is fine -- you are seeing it at work. If an AG fails in his responsibilities to the department and to the public, he will suffer the consequences. That has happened here. AG Gonzales is paying a huge price for failing his responsibility to the department. I think the system is working. The AG still has responsibilities to the White House also, and the president is entitled to put someone in there who he thinks is up to the job -- but they must do the whole job, including telling the president "no" sometimes.
Anonymous: Mr. Cummins, earlier, you included in a response: "But the truth is that he did make some major mistakes, including participation in a dishonorable cover-up that attempted to throw my colleagues under the bus in order to avoid fessing up to certain political activities." Do you have time or do you care to elaborate on some of the other "major mistakes" that Gonzales made while attorney general?
Bud Cummins: Here are a few.
1. Not understanding the U.S. attorney positions well enough to understand the potential perils in breaking precedent and firing U.S. attorneys in the manner they tried to do it.
2. Signing off on the firing plan without really understanding why these presidential appointees were being removed (overall too much delegation of authority).
3. Accepting political orders to remove U.S. attorneys who had fallen out of political favor without even attempting to use DOJ internal mechanisms to find out what the heck really was going on in the investigations, causing the political fuss. (Failing to insulate USAs from political pressure so they could do their jobs).
4. Trying to tell Congress and the public that the people were fired for "performance reasons." He willfully slandered their professional reputations. Outrageous.
Seattle: What sort of contact do you currently have with Lam, McKay, etc.? Are you coordinating responses and appearances?
Bud Cummins: I communicate occasionally with each of the fired USAs. We actually may try to get together somewhere for dinner by the end of the year. We are not in communication today, and have not tried regularly to coordinate our media responses.
They are a great bunch, and it makes the whole thing even sillier when you understand the obvious talent of the people they were trying to say they fired for "performance." They all are doing well and will do well. This was never about the injury to us caused by being asked to resign -- this always has been about the damage to the integrity of the department.
Long Island, N.Y.: Thank you for taking these questions. As a former U.S. attorney, how many personal interactions did you have with the AG Gonzales versus former AG Ashcroft? Also, was there ever vocal concern among your fellow attorneys and staffs that someone so close to the President (so close he had the nickname Fredo) was the leader of the Justice Department?
Bud Cummins: As a US Attorney, you mostly are around the AG when he visits your district, at conferences where there are usually a lot of folks competing for "face time," or in the rare case or big case that falls in your district but merits the AG's attention. I spent a little more time around AG Ashcroft than AG Gonzales. Ashcroft can be quite fun to be around, funny, entertaining -- but he also can be like a mean football coach when he wants to be. Most of us were on our toes around him. AG Gonzales was more low-key and easy to be around, but a lot less demanding and also less engaged in the business of the U.S. Attorney's Offices than was Ashcroft. I heard some concerns expressed when Gonzales was appointed as AG, but I don't think anyone foresaw this problem. He is hard not to admire and there are probably 1,000 reasons to respect him. Unfortunately, he has given us quite a few reasons to be disappointed as well. It is all very sad.
New York: Mr. Cummins, how do you think the resignation is being regarded in the assistant U.S. attorney community? Thanks for the chat.
Bud Cummins: Relief.
Montpelier, Vt.: Mr. Cummins, how big a staff did you supervise in Arkansas? Did you know the probable party affiliation of any, some, or many of your staff? What are the one or two most important things a newly confirmed U.S. attorney should do or be aware of upon arriving at a district office?
Bud Cummins: Sixty people, including 25 attorneys, which is a medium-small sized U.S. Attorney office. I only knew the political affiliations of the people who wanted me to know. On my first day, one of the Assistant U.S. Attorneys marched into my office and told me straight out that he hadn't voted for me in 1996, when I ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He just wanted it out there so there wouldn't be any question. He also told me he was happy to follow my leadership as U.S. Attorney. We are still great friends.
Like most people, we sometimes talk politics in the U.S. Attorney offices, but mostly keep it out of our discussions. I can tell you that I hired a woman named Jane Duke in 2002 -- promoting her to be First Assistant U.S. Attorney in 2006 -- and that she is now the acting U.S. Attorney, and I don't have the foggiest notion of how she votes or who she has voted for. She is doing a great job as acting U.S. Attorney though -- and that is all that matters up there.
Bud Cummins: Folks, this is great, but I have to go. Thank you for your interest. DOJ is a great institution -- this will all work out. Good luck to each of you.
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