Stephanopoulos's Double Standard: 'Something Smells Fishy' in Bush Firings, But...
But as a White House spokesman back in 1993, Stephanopoulos faced exactly the same question over President Clinton’s decision to fire U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens along with the other 92 U.S. Attorneys. “There is also a tradition of permitting prosecutors to remain on cases until current cases are completed,” a reporter told Stephanopoulos in a March 25, 1993 briefing. Referring to the investigation into House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski for embezzling money from the House Post Office, a reporter asked, “Is there any intention to keep Jay Stephens until the Rostenkowski case is finished?”
From the podium, spokesman Stephanopoulos coolly replied, “I don't think so, no.”
In his political memoir, “All Too Human,” Stephanopoulos relayed the attitude Clinton insiders had toward Stephens, who said in March 1993 he was within 30 days of finishing the Rostenkowski investigation. (With Stephens off the case, the indictment came 14 months later, in May 1994.) Hearing that Stephens had been named by a government agency to look into the Clinton’s Whitewater land deal, Stephanopoulos recalled his rage: “How could a Clinton hater like Stephens possibly conduct an impartial investigation? This is unbelievable! He has a clear conflict. How could it happen?”
Stephanopoulos voiced his outrage to Treasury Department official Josh Steiner, who told him there was no way to remove Stephens from the case. Stephanopoulos’ seeming attempt to affect the Whitewater investigation actually earned him a trip to the grand jury room, although he was never indicted.
MRC analyst Scott Whitlock took down Stephanopoulos’s accusatory questions to Gonzales from the March 14 Good Morning America:
Stephanopoulos: "But Mr. Attorney General, something does seem fishy here. Five of the eight who were dismissed were involved in high profile political corruption cases. Four were going after Republicans accused of corruption or had gone after Republicans. One was being complained about because he wasn't going after Democrats aggressively enough. So it really does appear here, at least, like you singled out prosecutors that weren't with the program."Now back up to March 25, 1993, when the roles were reversed, with Republicans charging that the Clinton White House had fired all 93 U.S. Attorneys in part to stall the Rostenkowski investigation. Here’s the relevant portion of Stephanopoulos’s White House briefing (unfortunately, the Federal News Service transcript retrieved via Nexis doesn’t include the names or news organizations of the reporters asking the questions):
Stephanopoulos: "And if it turns out that evidence of political interference does comes up in these e-mails and other communications, will you resign?"
Q It has been the custom in the past for holdover US attorneys to stay on until their successors were nominated or even in place. Why was that not done in this case?And here’s how Stephanopoulos recalled the U.S. Attorneys firings and his attitude toward Stephens on page 247 of “All Too Human.” Stephanopoulos was explaining his phone call to Josh Steiner, a call that was later investigated by Special Counsel Robert Fiske as a possibly improper attempt to influence the Whitewater investigation (emphasis in the original):
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, in this case, we thought it was most appropriate to make sure that everybody was clear from the start that the President would be making his own choices. There will be interim appointments in the meantime, largely from the career service.
Q There is also a tradition of permitting prosecutors to remain on cases until current cases are completed. In that case --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't know if -- I don't think that's true.
Q People in the field say that that is a tradition. And Jay Stephens --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And there are many others who say it's not.
Q -- Jay Stephens believes that there should be a presumption that he remain on until the Rostenkowski case is finished. Is there any intention to keep Jay Stephens until the Rostenkowski case is finished?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think so, no.
Q Well, don't you have some concern that this might either damage that case or --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Not at all. We expect -- not at all. We expect it will go forward. We expect that the investigation will continue to go forward. We expect that a good career person will be there in the interim until the President's appointment is in place and the investigations certainly will go forward.
Q Are you contradicting what Dee Dee said yesterday, that Janet Reno did not mean that all the US attorneys should clear out their desks immediately, that --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: No. There's a possibility that some won't have to do it immediately, I believe. I know that there is at least some people who are in the middle of trials right now who will not be replaced, but I think the bulk of them will be replaced over the next several weeks.
Q Well, we got the clear impression that we were being told yesterday that we had misinterpreted Reno's remarks, that while they were asking for letters of resignation, that it wasn't a wholesale clearing out all at once.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, we've asked for the letters of resignation. We will be looking at these at a case-by-case basis. I think the presumption should be that the US attorneys in place will go. There might be special circumstances where some will stay.
Q How soon, what kind of timetable are you talking about?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, we're working on it right now.
Q Why isn't Stephens a special circumstance?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, there are investigations going on across the country. This is one of many investigations. We expect that it will continue with the career people in place.
Q (Off mike) -- worried at all about a question of appearances here with so prominent a Democrat, and the focus here? I mean, don't you think --
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: We are confident -- we have confidence in the career attorneys at the US Attorneys Office to continue this investigation.
“I got something else off my chest to Josh. I had heard that Jay Stephens, a former U.S. attorney, might have been appointed by the RTC [the Resolution Trust Corporation, the agency created to deal with S&L failures] to investigate the finances of Whitewater, and I couldn’t believe it was true. When Clinton took office, he had followed the practice of his predecessors and asked each U.S. attorney, including Stephens, to submit a pro-forma resignation. Instead of quietly submitting his resignation letter like his colleagues, Stephens had called a press conference and gone on Nightline to accuse Clinton of ‘obstructing justice,’ saying that the president was trying to derail his investigation of Democratic congressman Dan Rostenkowski. How could a Clinton hater like Stephens possibly conduct an impartial investigation? This is unbelievable! He has a clear conflict. How could it happen? I blew up at Josh and demanded to know how such an unfair choice came to be made and wether the decision was final....”So if Stephens should be regarded as “a Clinton hater” for publicly challenging his removal from a sensitive investigation of an important House Democrat, and therefore had “a clear conflict” that meant he was too prejudiced to be trusted with an investigation, what would Stephanopoulos say about fired U.S. Attorneys like Washington state’s John McKay, who are going on TV to complain about their removal? Are they obvious “Bush haters” who are so prejudiced that their complaining should be dismissed out of hand?
Or are we to trust that Stephanopoulos has purged every partisan instinct from his body, and is unencumbered by any kind of "clear conflict" that should worry conservatives today?