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Lowering The Standard

Charles Krauthammer's op-ed in today's Post offers a remarkable glimpse into the evolution of conservatives' moral philosophy on the U.S. attorney firings. He begins by recommending Alberto Gonzales's ouster--not because there has been a scandal, mind you, but because he has allowed the appearance of one where there is "none." ("How could he allow his aides to go to Capitol Hill unprepared and misinformed and therefore give inaccurate and misleading testimony? [my itals]" he asks, employing every euphemism for "lie" he can get his fingers on.)

Why was there no scandal? Because "U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president," full stop. Krauthammer trots out the now-defunct talking point that what Bush did was no different from Clinton, who fired all 93 USAs upon taking office. But he obviously doesn't believe it, immediately conceding, "Okay, say the accusers, but once you've made the appointments, they should be left to pursue justice on their own."

Not so, he argues. Even once they're in their posts, an administration needs to make sure they follow its "priorities about which laws to emphasize and which crimes to pursue." He tosses out a few irrelevant examples-street crime, corporate malfeasance-before getting to the crux of his defense: "For example, both voter intimidation and voter fraud are illegal. The Democrats have a particular interest in the former because they see it diminishing their turnout, while Republicans are particularly interested in the latter because they see it as inflating the Democratic tally."

In other words, Krauthammer thinks it is perfectly acceptable for a White House to fire attorneys because they are not following policy priorities that are explicitly intended to aid its own party at the polls. This is a truly extraordinary assertion: That the party in power is entitled to use law enforcement officers to punish the party out of power. Doubtless Krauthammer will defend this moral principle with equal vigor when a Democrat is in the White House.

What kind of political manipulation of the U.S. attorneys would Krauthammer deem unacceptable? "There is only one impermissible reason for presidential intervention: to sabotage an active investigation." Really? The "only one"? So it would be okay, say, to set quotas for the number of Democratic (or Republican) officials you expected each U.S. attorney to indict, and fire them for failing to meet those quotas, as long as you didn't interfere while any particular case was active?

In any case, as Krauthammer well knows, in the case of fired USA Carol Lam, the question of whether it was an attempt to sabotage her active investigation into GOP Rep. Jerry Lewis is exactly what Democrats want to get to the bottom of. "Until the Democrats come up with real evidence [that the administration obstructed justice]--and they have not--this affair remains a pseudo-scandal," he writes. You have to love that word "real," tucked into the sentence perhaps unconsciously, an implicit confession that there is some evidence, even if not yet conclusive, that the administration did just that.

So, to recap: a) It's okay for the president--not just legally, but morally--to fire any and all U.S. attorneys any time he feels they are not adequately pursuing his priorities; b) it's okay if those priorities include getting more members of his own party elected; and c) the whole thing is a pseudo-scandal until the evidence of explicit obstruction of justice reaches a threshold where it is beyond dispute.

Thank goodness for moral clarity.

--Christopher Orr

UpdateconcursRamesh Ponnurunot so muchUpdate updatealready recanted