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So Is This U.S. Attorney Purge Unprecedented Or Not?

Last night, Fox News' Brit Hume kicked off his show by criticizing the media for "news stories reporting that the Bush administration had considered firing all 93 U.S. attorneys across the country [that] failed to mention that that is exactly what Bill Clinton did soon after taking office back in 1993."

This argument has been making its way around the conservative echo chamber. Wrote Brent Baker: "The broadcast network evening newscasts, which didn't care in 1993 about the Clinton administration's decision to ask for the resignations of all 93 U.S. attorneys, went apoplectic Tuesday night in leading with the 'controversy,' fed by the media, over the Bush administration for replacing eight U.S. attorneys in late 2006."

In light of all this, I thought it was important to compare the two cases.

The Washington Post laid it out like this: "Although Bush and President Bill Clinton each dismissed nearly all U.S. attorneys upon taking office, 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."

Former acting attorney general Stuart Gerson, meanwhile, wrote that it "is customary for a President to replace U.S. Attorneys at the beginning of a term. Ronald Reagan replaced every sitting U.S. Attorney when he appointed his first Attorney General. President Clinton, acting through me as Acting AG, did the same thing, even with few permanent candidates in mind." (Hat tip on this and the Post piece to TPM.)

David Burnham told NPR that what happened this time around "is close to unprecedented." He added this: "Now, that being said, when a president comes into office, historically, all the U.S. attorneys leave. And he appoints a new set of these individuals — there are about 90 of them…And they can be very powerful and influential in deciding which cases are prosecuted and which kinds of cases are not."

McClatchy explained it like this: "Mass firings of U.S. attorneys are fairly common when a new president takes office, but not in a second-term administration. Prosecutors are usually appointed for four-year terms, but they are usually allowed to stay on the job if the president who appointed them is re-elected."

They added: "Even as they planned mass firings by the Bush White House, Justice Department officials acknowledged it would be unusual for the president to oust his own appointees. Although Bill Clinton ordered the wholesale removal of U.S. attorneys when he took office to remove Republican holdovers, his replacement appointees stayed for his second term."

And here's CBS legal expert Andrew Cohen:

"It is true that Janet Reno, as her predecessors before her had done, asked for the resignations of U.S. Attorneys. This is standard operating procedure designed to allow the President to have in place his own federal prosecutors. What is different about this current episode is that a Republican White House sought to replace Republican-appointed federal prosecutors mid-stream who were by all accounts doing precisely what they had been asked to do. We now know, from last week's testimony, why in some cases this was so and the answers we got make it clear that the reasons were not high-minded or lofty."

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