Politics

Media ‘Double Standard at Play’ in Coverage of U.S. Attorney Firings

Democrats, press work overtime to imply something nefarious in political appointee turnover

Much of the media coverage of President Donald Trump’s dismissal of his predecessor’s holdover U.S. attorneys has implied something untoward, particularly when it comes to the man who oversaw federal prosecutions in Manhattan.

Preet Bharara, appointed by President Barack Obama, helped drive the tone of the coverage by tweeting that he was fired and comparing his dismissal to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s dismantling of a commission created to probe corruption in state government.

“This is absolutely a double standard at play.”

Most of the initial stories on the firings on Friday contained context that U.S. attorneys are political appointees who routinely leave after administrations change. But some followup stories, especially those focused on Bharara, failed to note that President Bill Clinton’s attorney general rapidly dismissed all 93 U.S. attorneys. Other news organizations provided that context but buried it deep in their stories.

“This is absolutely a double standard at play,” said Joseph diGenova, who served as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia under Ronald Reagan.

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Consider a pair of headlines in Politico. In 2009, the publication put it this way: “Obama to Replace Bush U.S. Attorneys.” Politico used a more loaded term on Friday: “Trump team ousts Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys.”

GQ’s Jay Willis wondered whether Trump was following the marching orders of Fox News pundit and radio talk show host Sean Hannity.

“It sure seems like it,” Willis wrote.

His evidence?

Hannity on Thursday called for a “purge” of Obama political appointees in the government.

A graphic on MSNBC on the firing of Preet Bharara.

When then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced in 2009 that the administration would replace a “batch” of U.S. attorneys appointed by George W. Bush, he specifically attributed it to politics.

“Elections matter — it is our intention to have the U.S. attorneys that are selected by President Obama in place as quickly as they can,” he said at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.

Democrats grumbled — that Obama was not moving swiftly enough.

“Many jurisdictions are waiting desperately to see what is going to be done,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said during the hearing. “As we understand it, the protocol has been that U.S. attorneys would hand in their resignations and would give the new administration an opportunity to make new appointments. We don’t see that happening quite fast enough.”

Politico noted at the time that Waters tried to create a sense of “urgency” in the matter.

“There is a danger with some of them being left there,” she said. “So whatever you can do to move them we appreciate it.”

So far, Waters has not complained about the “danger” of the new administration leaving its predecessor’s appointees in place.

Bharara is the highest-profile U.S. attorney to publicly complain that he is being treated like a political appointee who serves at the pleasure of the president, but he is not the only one. Paul Fishman, who had been the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, complained to the Bergen County Record after a speech over the weekend to a Muslim group.

“A transition period would have been a lot better,” he said. “I knew this job wasn’t mine forever. It shouldn’t be in any event, and the president has the power, authority, and opportunity to appoint U.S. attorneys who would serve him, and I fully expected that process would take place over a couple of months. I just didn’t think we would be given seven to nine hours.”

DiGenova told LifeZette that no political appointee has any expectation of a transition period.

“Apparently, many of these Democrat U.S. attorneys are having trouble finding employment in the private sector,” he quipped.

DiGenova also disparaged Bharara for not returning a phone call from Trump on Thursday. The fired U.S. attorney cited protocol restricting communication between prosecutors and the president.

“The president of the United States is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States under the Constitution … The president can talk to anyone about any case at any time,” he said.

MSNBC and other new outlets indirectly suggested a more nefarious motive for getting rid of Bharara. He has jurisdiction over Trump Tower, and a group of ethics watchdogs had asked the U.S. attorney for an investigation into whether the president had sufficiently separated himself from his business interests.

Other news organizations insinuated that the abrupt departure of U.S. attorneys will imperil ongoing cases.

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History suggests such concerns are overblown. Supporters of David Marston, an appointee of Gerald Ford whom then-President Jimmy Carter fired in January 1978, complained that his dismissal as U.S. attorney in Philadelphia was tied to an investigation into Rep. Joshua Eilberg (D-Pa.). But that did not stop the Justice Department from prosecuting Eilberg and ultimately winning a guilty plea on ethics charges.

The 1993 firing of U.S. attorneys under Clinton raised questions that it might impact the prosecution of then-Rep. Don Rostenkowski (D-Ill.). Jay Stephens, who had been U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia under George H.W. Bush, told reporters at the time that he was 30 days away from making a “critical decision” in the case.

But the change in leadership did not save Rostenkowski, who pleaded guilty in 1994 to charges of mail fraud and left office in disgrace.

“The career attorneys [in U.S. attorney’s offices] handle all those cases anyway,” said diGenova.

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