Media repeat claim that Clinton's dismissal of George H.W. Bush U.S. attorneys was comparable to Bush's dismissal of own U.S. attorneys

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER & RYAN CHIACHIERE

When discussing the Bush administration's dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys in 2006 -- including allegations the White House initiated the firings for political reasons -- various media personalities and news outlets have downplayed the significance of the allegations by asserting that President Clinton dismissed almost all U.S. attorneys upon taking office in 1993. For example, on the March 14 edition of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace linked the two cases: "[H]ere's a fact you probably don't know because it hasn't been reported very -- did you know that Bill Clinton, when he came into office in 1993, fired every U.S. attorney except one?" Wallace claimed that "there were no congressional hearings" and that "it wasn't this kind of storm of protest and that ... had not happened before." But while both Clinton and Bush dismissed nearly all U.S. attorneys upon taking office following an administration of the opposite party, The Washington Post reported in a March 14 article that "legal experts and former prosecutors say the firing of a large number of prosecutors in the middle of a term appears to be unprecedented and threatens the independence of prosecutors."

A March 13 McClatchy Newspapers article titled "Current situation is distinct from Clinton firings of U.S. attorneys" noted that "[m]ass firings of U.S. attorneys are fairly common when a new president takes office, but not in a second-term administration." The article added that "Justice Department officials acknowledged it would be unusual for the president to oust his own appointees." In addition, on the March 13 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, former GOP presidential candidate and MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan said that "it is not unusual for all U.S. attorneys -- or almost all except some outstanding ones, to be replaced when a new party comes into power, say, in 1993 or 2001." Similarly, in a Washington Post online chat on March 14 -- noted by the weblog Talking Points Memo and Media Matters for America -- Stuart M. Gerson, assistant attorney general in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, observed, "It is customary for a President to replace U.S. attorneys at the beginning of a term." Gerson added that "Ronald Reagan replaced every sitting U.S. attorney when he appointed his first Attorney General."

But beginning at around 2:10 p.m. ET on March 13, the top stories highlighted at Drudgereport.com, the website of Internet gossip Matt Drudge, were a March 13 Associated Press article with the headline "White House Mulled Firing All Prosecutors" and a March 24, 1993, New York Times article (subscription required) that Drudge labeled "FLASHBACK: Clinton White House Fired All Prosecutors," suggesting an equivalence between Bush's U.S. attorney purge and Clinton's 1993 housecleaning.

Over the next 24 hours, several media outlets -- seemingly taking their cue from Drudge -- made the unfounded comparison between the Clinton and Bush dismissals:

  • A March 14 editorial on the attorney purge in The Wall Street Journal asserted that Attorney General Janet Reno "simultaneously fired all 93 U.S. Attorneys in March 1993" and "gave them 10 days to move out of their offices." The Journal concluded: "When it comes to 'politicizing' Justice, in short, the Bush White House is full of amateurs compared to the Clintons."
  • An article in the March 14 edition of The Washington Times asserted that "[i]ncoming presidents often dismiss all 93 U.S. attorneys, as did President Clinton in 1993." The article continued, "In that case, Mr. Clinton was accused of playing politics, because one U.S. attorney was investigating a Democratic congressman."
  • In an interview with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) on the March 13 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, NBC White House correspondent David Gregory asserted that "President Clinton got rid of the U.S. attorneys back in 1992 when he came into office in 1993" before asking Schumer, "[W]hat's wrong here with what the White House and the Justice Department has done, in your view?"
  • On the March 13 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Weekly Standard executive editor and Fox News contributor Fred Barnes said, "I don't remember ... Senator Schumer jumping up and screaming and yelling and making all these wild claims when President Clinton fired all 93 U.S. attorneys right at the beginning of his administration in 1993." Later, host Brit Hume asked National Public Radio national correspondent Mara Liasson if it was "political" for Schumer to be "silent in the face of a mass firing of all the U.S. attorneys back in 1993 [and] to be indignant now." Liasson responded: "Yeah. If Clinton gets to have the U.S. attorneys he wants, which is what that was about ... Bush gets the U.S. attorneys he wants."

From the March 14 edition of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning:

IMUS: This [Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales, what's going on there? I haven't paid any attention 'cause I -- whenever I hear something like this, I just assume it's all true and everybody's lying.

WALLACE: Well, I think that's usually the way to go in any administration. And, you know, here's a fact you probably don't know 'cause it hasn't been reported very much: Did you know that Bill Clinton -- when he came into office in 1993 -- fired every U.S. attorney except one?

IMUS: No, I did not know that.

WALLACE: Yeah, it's kind of interesting. I mean, with all -- and there were no congressional hearings. It wasn't this kind of storm of protest and that had not been -- had not happened before. You'd say, "Well, OK, new presidents come in," but he fired all of them except one -- Michael Chertoff -- and he would have fired him as well, except that Bill Bradley -- he was -- Chertoff was in New Jersey, Bill Bradley spoke up for him and saved him. But --

IMUS: Why'd he fire all of them?

WALLACE: It's -- you know, it looks lousy, because the whole point is supposed to be -- yes, they're political appointees -- but once they become U.S. attorneys, they're supposed to be nonpolitical, and there is, certainly in this email traffic, an indication that political loyalty was one of the key requirements the White House wanted for these guys.

IMUS: But why did Bill Clinton fire them?

WALLACE: He just -- I don't know the reason but I think it was, "I'm coming in" --

IMUS: Oh, I see.

WALLACE: -- "and they serve at the pleasure of the president. Let's get rid of all of them. Let's get our guys in there." Of course, there'd been 12 years of Republicans, so they were all Republicans and he wanted Democratic U.S. attorneys.

From the March 13 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

GREGORY: Let us preface this by saying that any administration is within its rights to fire a U.S. attorney. They serve at the pleasure of the president. Former President Clinton got rid of the U.S. attorneys back in 1992 when he came into office in 1993. That said, what's wrong here with what the White House and the Justice Department has done, in your view?

From the March 13 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BARNES: Well, I call this a non-scandal scandal. It's barely a controversy. For the Justice Department to have handled this whole flap clumsily is too bad, but it's not important. I think Senator Schumer was wrong on every count. This is not important. This is not serious. This is not an abuse of power. This is not misuse of the Justice Department. What was that last one? It was not an unprecedented breach of trust.

I don't remember -- and I think he was in the House then -- Senator Schumer jumping up and screaming and yelling and making all these wild claims when President Clinton fired all 93 U.S. attorneys right at the beginning of his administration in 1993.

[...]

HUME: Isn't it equally political -- or is it equally political, Mara, for Chuck Schumer, silent in the face of a mass firing of all the U.S. attorneys back in 1993, to be indignant now?

LIASSON: Yeah. If Clinton gets to have the U.S. attorneys he wants, which is what that was about, Bush gets the U.S. attorneys --

HUME: All at once.

LIASSON: -- Bush gets the U.S. attorneys he wants. Now, the one thing that Democrats said, "Well, he was trying to fire them to take advantage of this rule that would allow him to put the new ones in without congressional approval. In fact, Congress could have pulled the plug on every one of them -- every one of the new ones, if they didn't like them.

HUME: Right.

LIASSON: They did get to go into office without confirmation, but they couldn't stay there.

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