I predict that in the future, armchair historians (aka, bloggers) will pass the time playing "which was worst?"--a parlor game wherein participants sift through the presidency of George W. Bush for nuggets of corruption. Pre-Iraq flimflam? Black sites? Abu Ghraib? No-bid contracts? Secret renditions? NSA warrantless wiretapping? You see, already the list is a half-mile long, and surely there is more to uncover. That said, I'm willing to bet nothing tops the unfolding scandal about the administration-orchestrated firings of eight federal prosecutors who were not sufficiently crooked enough. With his other misdeeds, Bush merely nibbled on the fabric of a free democracy; by firing prosecutors, he started gobbling it whole.
Very briefly--and forgive me if I missed a few details--here's what happened. The White House, starting in February of 2005, was dissatisfied with the performance of federal prosecutors, whom they felt had either been too soft on Democratic crimes or insufficiently loyal to GOP dictates (they literally rated each prosecutor for loyalty). Initially, Bush called for all 93 of their heads, but later accepted eight. The White House's strategy was to take advantage of a "little-noticed" provision in the Patriot Act that allowed Bush to replace fired prosecutors with "interim appointees" who didn't require Senate approval. That way, Bush could fire the uncorruptable and slip true believers into their posts--guys who really knew how to toe Bush's line. (Karl Rove put in dibs to have a former 37-year-old aid named. "[I]f we don't ever exercise it then what's the point of having it?" ) Before being fired, some of the prosecutors were shaken down by House and Senate Republicans. Six of eight were Republicans.
When revelations of the firings came to light, the White House offered a series of bogus excuses about their motivation--first claiming it was routine and that the prosecutors were substandard (they weren't), and later that the prosecutors weren't aggressive enough in going after cases of voter fraud. As Josh Marshall has documented, however, these "voter fraud" cases were the GOP's effort to "stymie get out the vote efforts or shut down voter registration drives -- mainly, though not exclusively, in minority voting precincts." When today's Washington Post story broke with reams of White House emails, it showed exactly what the White House was up to: using the federal courts to punish the Democratic Party.
The story is remarkable for its directness and venality.
Stable democracies depend on independent courts--in fact, an independent judiciary is one of the benchmarks for determining whether a country has become a democracy. George Bush has done his best to pack the courts, which is his right as President. He has occasionally colluded with Senate leaders to strong-arm the Democratic minority into accepting extreme appointees, but okay--this is still his right under the Constitution. But, when he begins to demand his federal prosecutors act as his long arm in the federal courts to punish the opposition party, he steps way over the Constitutional line. When the federal courts become a mechanism of the Executive Branch to subvert the Legislative, we totter toward rigged rule. This is a very, very big deal. The skeletons in Bush's closet are going to have to be impressive indeed to outdo this one.