The Seattle Times David Postman thinks that ousted U.S. Attorney for Western Washington John McKay added few new details in his interview yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press, and accuses the Washington Post of “making too much” of McKay’s choice of words. But I think both Postman and the Post underplay the most significant word choice of all: “illegally.”
I think that what happened here, because the stories have changed so frequently, what happened here has to be investigated. Those who either acted unprofessionally or even illegally have to be held accountable for what they did.
One of the unquestioned assumptions that has run through the media coverage of this growing scandal is that although the firings may have been improper, they were not illegal. Since the U.S. attorneys serve “at the pleasure of the President” we are told, he has the legal authority to fire them at will, whatever his motives. I myself have been guilty of repeating this snippet of common wisdom.
But it is simply not true.
As Adam Cohen pointed out recently in the NY Times, if the motive behind a firing was to punish an attorney for not misusing his office, or to interfere with a valid prosecution, that may well be illegal.
In law schools, it is common to give an exam called the “issue spotter,” in which students are given a set of facts and asked to identify all the legal issues and possible crimes. The facts about the purge are still emerging. But based on what is known — and with some help from Congressional staff members and Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University — it was not hard to spot that White House and Justice Department officials, and members of Congress, may have violated 18 U.S.C. §§ 1501-1520, the federal obstruction of justice statute.
Cohen goes on to suggest that some of the crimes a special prosecutor might look into involve misrepresentations to Congress, undue influence by representatives under Sarbanes-Oxley, witness tampering, and outright obstruction of justice. This sort of legal analysis runs counter to the oft repeated “at the pleasure” meme that has permeated our news coverage, but is beginning enter the public debate. And I think the fact that McKay specifically referenced it in his nationally televised interview Sunday morning, represents quite a significant and deliberate choice of words.