Thanks to a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general, we got a better sense this week about the extraordinary — and illegal — effo
July 31, 2008

Thanks to a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general, we got a better sense this week about the extraordinary — and illegal — efforts to politicize Bush’s Justice Department.

But let’s not forget, the problem of basing employment decisions on politics went well beyond the Justice Department. Charlie Savage picks up on an email that went largely overlooked.

On May 17, 2005, the White House’s political affairs office sent an e-mail message to agencies throughout the executive branch directing them to find jobs for 108 people on a list of “priority candidates” who had “loyally served the president.”

“We simply want to place as many of our Bush loyalists as possible,” the White House emphasized in a follow-up message, according to a little-noticed passage of a Justice Department report released Monday about politicization in the department’s hiring of civil-service prosecutors and immigration officials.

The report, the subject of a Senate oversight hearing Wednesday, provided a window into how the administration sought to install politically like-minded officials in positions of government responsibility, and how the efforts at times crossed customary or legal limits.

To be sure, Bush didn’t invent political patronage, and practically all modern presidents have made at least some efforts to, as Savage put it, “impose greater political control over the federal bureaucracy.”

But none have gone as far as this gang. “The Bush administration is unprecedented in how systematic the politicization is and how it extends both across the wider organization chart and deep down within the bureaucracy,” Professor Rudalevige said. “They’ve been very consistent from Day 1 in learning the lessons of previous administrations and pushing those tactics to the limit.”

The NYT report added:

The report released on Monday by Justice Department investigators said that the context of the May 17, 2005, message from the White House “made plain” that it was seeking politically appointed government jobs, for which it is legal to take politics into account. The report did not say who sent the message.

But the message also urged administration officials to “get creative” in finding the patronage positions — and some political appointees carried out their mission with particular zeal.

“We pledge 7 slots within 40 days and 40 nights. Let the games begin!” Jan Williams, then the White House’s liaison to the Justice Department, said in an e-mail message two days later.

Within a week, messages between Ms. Williams and the White House showed, she began trying to match the White House-vetted names of people who had been “helpful to the president” — like campaign volunteers — with openings for immigration judges, positions that are supposed to be filled using politically neutral, merit-based criteria.

Focusing on the implications for the Justice Department, Paul Krugman helped explain the big picture:

As we all know, the Bush administration essentially brushed aside all notion of due process. It locked up and tortured people it said were “enemy combatants”; it engaged in warrantless wiretapping; and so on.

We weren’t supposed to worry our pretty little heads about this, because we were supposed to take it as a given that these were people we could trust not to abuse their power.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department was interviewing job candidates, and asking, “What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?”

In other words, there was a combination of power without oversight and a deeply creepy cult of personality (which was obvious long before we got the latest specifics.)

I think we were lucky to get out of this with democracy more or less intact.

That’s especially true when we recognize the fact that these politicized hiring decisions went well beyond the Justice Department.

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