If the Justice Department--and its leader--are to be held accountable, it should be for one thing: incompetence. The bungling of a simple proposition--U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president--could not get much worse. U.S. attorneys can be fired at any time, and while the start of the second term may be a strange time (it's more likely to be done when a president takes office in the first place), it's not totally out of the question.
So why lie about it? Why say these firings were related to performance when they were not? Why make something look evil when it is not evil? Again, incompetence.
There are lots of Republicans clamoring for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign over this, and with good reason: It's his department that messed everything up. And every day that Democrats spend talking about the U.S. attorney firings is bad for Republicans. What's more, the Democrats can do more than just talk now that they control Congress: They can subpoena, and they will. They have already gotten 3,000 pages of documents, some of which show that the well-respected prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald--who got Scooter Libby convicted in the CIA leak investigation--was ranked among those prosecutors who had "not distinguished themselves."
If that isn't politics, what is?
The American public wants a Justice Department that is above politics, and that's not what it has. The president today gave Gonzales a vote of confidence, but watch to see what White House counsel Fred Fielding does: Will he find a way to let Harriet Miers et al. testify (privately?) without violating executive privilege? One source reminds me that Fielding negotiated the deal for Condi Rice to testify at the 9/11 commission, something many in the administration cautioned against.
This story is still unfolding. And my guess is that what we'll see exposed is less venal and more just plain political incompetence.
By Gloria Borger