During an online chat at washingtonpost.com about the recent firings of U.S. attorneys, Stuart Gerson was identified simply as "acting attorney general at the start of the Clinton administration," a position he held for less than two months. Washingtonpost.com completely obscured the fact that Gerson was a Republican appointee and part of the George W. Bush transition team.
Attorney Stuart M. Gerson hosted a March 14 online chat at washingtonpost.com "to explain the relationship between U.S. Attorneys and the Justice Department and discuss the firings and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales." Gerson, who heads Epstein, Becker & Green's National Litigation practice, "served in the presidential transition of President George W. Bush," according to his firm's biography, and was assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Division during the George H.W. Bush administration. Gerson also served as acting attorney general during the first weeks of the Clinton administration until he was replaced by Janet Reno on March 12, 1993. Nonetheless, as first noted on Talking Points Memo, washingtonpost.com identified Gerson simply as "acting attorney general at the start of the Clinton administration," a position he held for less than two months, completely obscuring the fact that Gerson was a Republican appointee and part of the George W. Bush transition team.
Gerson's link to the George H.W. Bush administration was made clear only when a reader asked him about it:
San Francisco: Just to clarify, you were a holdover from the George H.W. Bush Administration during the difficulties Bill Clinton had in finding an Attorney General in early 1993, is that correct?
Stuart M. Gerson: That is correct. I had been the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division during Bush I, and was Acting Attorney General at the beginning of the Clinton administration.
When another reader noted that Gerson's answers "seem[ed] very generous towards the Administration and Gonzales," asking: "Do you have any conflict of interest that we should know about?" Gerson replied: "I consider the President a friend, but I hope that you view my discussion as objective, because it is intended to be." No mention was made of Gerson's role in the George W. Bush transition.
During the chat, Gerson consistently downplayed and dismissed the burgeoning scandal regarding the administration's dismissal of several U.S. attorneys. He repeatedly echoed the Bush administration's defenses of its actions, while leaving it to readers to draw out from him that, contrary to washingtonpost.com's suggestion, he was not a Clinton administration appointee -- but, rather, a Republican appointee, and one who "consider[s]" the current President Bush "a friend."
While Gerson's answers may or may not be demonstrably false, in many instances, they simply reflected what the Bush administration and its defenders have been saying about the scandal, omitting relevant information:
- From the washingtonpost.com chat:
Germantown, Md.: I'll ask this of The Post reporters too, but are you aware of any objective reports of performance with respect to the fired U.S. Attorneys and how they performed in relationship to their peers (e.g. prosecutions, convictions, overturns on appeals)? I know they won't tell the whole story, but the numbers have the virtue of being harder to spin politically.
Stuart M. Gerson: There is some objective information available with respect to several of the deposed U.S. Attorneys underperforming with respect to illegal immigration cases, gun cases, and voter fraud cases. Also, with respect to not meeting the Administration's expectations as to seeking the death penalty in those rare cases where it is applicable. In other cases, the decision seems to be a question of political preference. While there is nothing improper about it, it can't be documented numerically.
Gerson's claim that there is "objective information" of "the deposed U.S. Attorneys underperforming" mimics claims made recently by administration officials. For example, Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, said, during a March 13 press briefing: "[O]ver the course of several years we have received complaints about U.S. attorneys, particularly when it comes to election fraud cases -- not just New Mexico, but also Wisconsin and Pennsylvania."
When a reader later challenged Gerson's claim about the "objective information," noting that "several of the fired U.S. Attorneys in fact got excellent performance reviews," Gerson dismissed the reader's objection:
Stuart M. Gerson: I believe my statement to be accurate. For example, 18 legislators, including Senator [Dianne] Feinstein [D-CA], complained in writing about the lack of "coyote" prosecutions in San Diego. There were similar complaints in New Mexico. You also are correct in stating that several of the U.S. Attorneys got "excellent" reviews. Those reviews were conducted by career and administrative staff and mainly concerned how the various offices were run. They were not concerned with high level policy matters, though. It is not surprising, therefore, that a U.S. Attorney might get a good review in one area but a bad one where the criteria are different.
- Gerson then defended Gonzales against allegations that Gonzales lied to Congress in January when he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, under oath, that "the administration's fully committed, to ensure that, with respect to every United States attorney position in this country, we will have a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed United States attorney."
From Gerson's online chat:
New Hampshire: Hello Mr. Gerson, and thanks for taking my question. Alberto Gonzales was under oath when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 18. It seems now that he was not being honest in that sworn testimony. What are the ramifications for this?
Stuart M. Gerson: It would appear that he lacked certain information (which he acknowledges was not acceptable) but didn't knowingly mislead. I believe him. Inasmuch as he, acting by delegation from the President, has the authority to seek the replacement of any or all of the U.S. Attorneys, he has nothing to be untruthful about in the final analysis -- except if there was misconduct with respect to any given case. But there is no evidence of that.
In order for Gonzales to have been telling the truth, as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has pointed out, he could not have known about the activities of his now-former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, who, according to The Washington Post, in December 2006, "strongly urged bypassing Congress in naming replacements [for the fired attorneys], using a little-known power slipped into the renewal of the USA Patriot Act in March 2006 that allows the attorney general to name interim replacements without Senate confirmation." Schumer has argued that Gonzales either knew about Sampson's activities and is not telling the truth now, or did not know, and is therefore not qualified to run the Justice Department.
- Gerson later echoed the Justice Department's defense for replacing Cummins with Griffin:
Detroit: "As to the interim occupants of these offices, they are almost always very experienced, non-political career people."
According to The Washington Post articles, this was not true in the case of the interim appointments in Arkansas and Utah. In one case, the interim appointment was the head of opposition research for Karl Rove, and for Utah -- Kyle Sampson wanted that job, even though he had spent no time as a prosecutor.
Stuart M. Gerson: While the Arkansas person you mention, had indeed worked for Karl Rove, he also was an experienced prosecutor whose background as a prosecutor was considerably deeper than what the deposed incumbent had at the beginning of his term.
During a March 6 House Judiciary Committee hearing on the U.S. attorneys' firing, principal associate deputy attorney general William Moschella said of Griffin:
REP. STEVE COHEN (D-TN): And isn't it true that at a Senate hearing that Mr. McNulty admitted that Mr. Griffin was not the best possible person for the job?
MOSCHELLA: I don't recall that to be his testimony.
COHEN: What do you recall as his testimony? Did he suggest anything about Mr. Cummins not being a good attorney general?
MOSCHELLA: No. He didn't suggest that Mr. Cummins would not --
COHEN: What did he say about Mr. Griffin?
MOSCHELLA: That Mr. Griffin was well qualified. Mr. Griffin had as much -- I think Mr. Cummins would tell you he had as much prosecutorial experience, if not more, than when Mr. Cummins started in his position as U.S. attorney.
- Gerson went on to dismiss the notion that the firing of San Diego attorney Carol S. Lam was in any way connected to her investigations of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA). Rather than claiming that there exists no evidence of "interference" on the administration's part, Gerson claimed that "objectively," it "didn't happen":
Ann Arbor, Mich.: This was reported this morning ...
"In an e-mail dated May 11, 2006, Sampson urged the White House counsel's office to call him regarding "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam," who then [was] the U.S. attorney for southern California. Earlier that morning, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lam's corruption investigation of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., had expanded to include another California Republican, Rep Jerry Lewis."
This doesn't disturb you?
Stuart M. Gerson: What would disturb me would be the interference with the cases that you described. I think we can state objectively that that didn't happen. Duke was prosecuted with the specific approval of the Attorney General and whatever other related cases there might be are going forward irrespective of whatever the now-departed Mr. Sampson might have been concerned with. The only "problem" that I know of that the Administration had with Ms. Lam was with respect to immigration cases about which 18 legislators had complained.