The Bush administration picks Michael Mukasey to replace Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in hopes of minimizing controversy. The new nominee must be acceptable to both liberals and conservatives.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And let's bring another voice into the conversation, NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts who joins us every Monday.
Good morning, Cokie.
COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: We just heard Ari passing on the analysis that this particular nomination suggests the White House was not eager for a knockdown confirmation fight. Did they have any choice?
ROBERTS: No. In fact, I think, they really didn't have any real choice on the attorney general. They, first of all, have to clear somebody inside the Republican Party and find someone that conservatives would agree to as well as not have someone that the Democrats would not just see as a red flag. That wasn't particularly easy, but they seem to have crossed that barrier mainly because Mukasey is apparently someone that conservatives' trust to testify to Congress as they come with the new rules for surveillance.
But the Democrats haven't, you know, all signed on here. You have Senator Schumer who knows Mukasey from New York. But you could see - we have to see whether Democrats want to have a fight on this one or not. But this was not one where the president could have gotten through any of the people whose names he floated earlier and he just didn't try to do that. That was just - that's just going to be too hard.
INSKEEP: So if this proves to be a nominee who can just get straight through easily, could that add to - could that encourage cooperation on other issues?
ROBERTS: Well, everybody keeps talking about cooperation. But then, when it actually comes down to it, you don't see much of it. I mean the latest is that the Congress is working its way through trying to get a compromise on children's health plan. And the White House is talking about vetoing that. So that doesn't sound like a spirit of cooperation there.
And on Iraq, of course, the major issue still before the Congress. I think the administration is of the view at the moment that they've stared down to Democrats on that one, that the Democrats really can't come up with something that they can get enough Republican votes to pass. And so that there's no particular need for cooperation there.
INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned staring down the Democrats on the effort to set some kind of a timeline for withdrawal. But the Senate is going to debate a different proposal sponsored by Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia, a Democrat, whose son has been serving in Iraq. And this would require that U.S. troops spend at least as much time at home as they do in Iraq.
ROBERTS: And that's something that, on the phase of it, is just incredibly popular. Everybody knows how stretched the troops are, how many deployments they've had. There are many stories about the effects on families. It is also significant that this comes from Jim Webb, a military - a decorated military man. And when it was up before in the Senate, it got 56 votes.
And so the Democrats are kind of focusing their efforts on this one because they think it's a backdoor way to change the policy in Iraq. If you tell the military that the troops have to stay home, there are not enough troops to really be there.
The secretary of defense yesterday said that he would advice the president to veto any such proposal, that though it was well intentioned, he said, that it would be something that he couldn't manage, that it would make it very difficult for the defense department to even be able to manage the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it'll be interesting to see how the Senate goes on that one. Various Republican senators, asked about it yesterday, did not commit to how they would vote.
INSKEEP: I suppose all this is a reminder that the president may be unpopular, the war may be unpopular, but if you're a Democrat, especially a Democrat running for president, you have to move carefully, don't you?
ROBERTS: You do, indeed. They were out yesterday in Iowa, at the traditional steak fry sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin. And you heard from Iowa Democrats how eager they are to end this war, and they don't want to hear nuance, they want to hear get out now. And that's tough for those Democratic candidates to find a place that they could agree with Republicans because they're going to have their Democrats to worry about. Senator Obama is right there with them, saying, you know, get a time certain for withdrawal. Others are trying to still find common ground with the Republicans on something they can pass. We'll see whether that's possible, Steve. It doesn't look like it at the moment.
INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. Analysis on this Monday morning from NPR's Cokie Roberts.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.
Bush Nominates Mukasey as Attorney General
Quick Bio: Michael Mukasey
Born: 1941 in New York City
Education: Yale Law School, 1967; Columbia College, Columbia University, 1963
2006-Present: Partner, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler law firm
1988-2006: Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (including six years as chief judge)
President Bush on Monday nominated retired federal judge Michael Mukasey to replace Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, a choice aimed at avoiding bipartisan bickering gaining quick Senate approval.
Mukasey, 66, currently serves as a judicial adviser to GOP presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani, who he once worked under as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York.
During a Rose Garden announcement, Mr. Bush referred to Mukasey's involvement in several New York terrorism trials and said the nominee has "an especially vital role to play in time of war."
The president said Mukasey was "clear eyed about the threat our nation faces," adding that he would "make sure that law enforcement has the tools to do their jobs."
"He knows what it takes to fight this war effectively and he knows how to do it in a manner consistent with our laws and our Constitution," Bush said, standing next Mukasey in the Rose Garden.
The president urged the Senate to quickly confirm Mukasey, who would be Bush's third attorney general.
If approved by the Senate, Mukasey would take charge of a Justice Department where morale is low following months of investigations into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and Gonzales' sworn testimony on the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance program.
Mukasey said he was honored to be Bush's nominee to take the helm of the department and that it was his "fondest hope and prayer" that if he is confirmed, he can give department employees the "support they deserve."
Senate Democrats declared no outright opposition to Mukasey. But they made clear that there would be no confirmation hearings until the administration answers outstanding questions about the White House's role in the firings of federal prosecutors over the winter.
"Our focus now will be on securing the relevant information we need so we can proceed to schedule fair and thorough hearings," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Cooperation from the White House will be essential in determining that schedule."
Mukasey is not exactly a Washington insider, but has strong national security credentials. He was appointed to the federal bench in New York by President Reagan and heard many high-profile terrorism cases in the roughly 20 years that followed. One such case was that of Jose Padilla — the so-called American enemy combatant.
The White House settled on Mukasey after Senate Democrats rejected other possible nominees during the last two weeks. Democrats mentioned Mukasey early on as a Republican they believe would make a good attorney general.
In 2005, the liberal Alliance for Justice put Mukasey on a list of four judges who, if chosen for the Supreme Court, would show the president's commitment to nominating people who could be supported by Democrats and Republicans.
But he has drawn lukewarm reviews from some members of the GOP's right flank. Some legal conservatives and Republican activists have expressed reservations about Mukasey's legal record and past endorsements from liberals — and were drafting a strategy to oppose his confirmation.
Bush critics contended the Mukasey nomination was evidence of the president's weakened political clout as he heads into the final 15 months of his presidency. The president's supporters say Mukasey has impeccable credentials, is a strong, law-and-order jurist, especially on national security issues, and will restore confidence in the Justice Department.
During his 18 years as a judge, Mukasey presided over thousands of cases, including the trial of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was accused of plotting to destroy New York City landmarks. In the 1996 sentencing of co-conspirators in the case, Mukasey accused the sheik of trying to spread death "in a scale unseen in this country since the Civil War." He then sentenced the blind sheik to life in prison.