When President Bush tapped Michael B. Mukasey to lead the scandal-plagued Justice Department nine months ago, Senator Charles E. Schumer could not say enough good things about his fellow New Yorker. Mr. Schumer ran out of time in ticking off Mr. Mukasey’s accomplishments at his Senate hearing, and the senator’s vote of support ensured his confirmation as attorney general.
Yet at a hearing this month, face to face with his pick for attorney general, Mr. Schumer, a Democrat, did not hide his disappointment in what he saw as Mr. Mukasey’s reluctance to move more aggressively in investigating accusations that the Justice Department had brought politically inspired prosecutions against Democratic politicians.
Mr. Schumer was still fuming a short time later as he went to the Senate floor for a vote. “That was terrible,” Mr. Schumer told a colleague privately in assessing Mr. Mukasey’s performance, an official privy to the conversation said.
The shift in political support underscores the problems facing Mr. Mukasey, a retired federal judge, as he works to restore the credibility of a department that was tainted under his predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales. So far, the results appear mixed.
After the well-publicized controversies of Mr. Gonzales’s tenure, an air of caution appears to have pervaded the Justice Department, current and former officials say. From fending off calls to investigate accusations of torture to resisting a nationwide strategy against mortgage fraud, Mr. Mukasey has taken a go-slow approach that has surprised even some admirers, who see him as unwilling to break from past policies and leave his own imprint in the closing months of the Bush administration.
“I think he has gotten the Justice Department back on a footing of integrity,” Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. But he added that Mr. Mukasey appeared unwilling to push back against the White House’s broad claims of executive authority on issues like terrorist surveillance.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘disappointed,’ but he hasn’t provided the balance that I had hoped for,” said Mr. Specter, who supported Mr. Mukasey’s nomination.
Halfway through his term, Mr. Mukasey has defended or let stand some of the most controversial policies that he inherited from Mr. Gonzales, including the treatment of detainees, the broad surveillance powers claimed by Mr. Bush and the White House’s use of executive privilege in warding off demands from Congress for information.
Last week, Democrats charged that Mr. Mukasey was using the shield of executive privilege to “cover up” possible wrongdoing by the White House. The result, critics say, is that investigations have languished on some critical issues.
Some of my own observations added for a moment. Foremost, although not discussed in this article is Mukasey asserting executive privilege to prevent Congress from reading Vice President’s Cheney’s interview with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who probed the leaking by Cheney’s top aide and other White House officials the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plames’ identity to the press, which I discussed in this previous post.
Mukasey does get good reviews for putting the scandals of the Department when it was headed by Alberto Gonzales behind him, the Times accounts asserts:
There are no scandals or even appearance of scandals, and that’s a core task in this day and age,” said David Rivkin, a Washington lawyer who served in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. “He took a department that was deeply troubled with antagonism and dysfunction, and he put it back together.”
The trigger for Mr. Gonzales’s downfall was the firing of nine United States attorneys for what critics said were political motives. Mr. Mukasey appears to have learned from that episode; there is little evidence that Washington has interfered in the decisions of the country’s 94 federal prosecutors on sensitive investigations, according to interviews with current and former department officials.
“He and his deputies are leaving the U.S. attorneys alone, with lots of leeway and lots of independence,” said David Iglesias, a fired former United States attorney in New Mexico who maintains close ties to the department.
But avoiding scandal does not go far enough in the eyes of critics like Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
“He’s certainly head and shoulders above his predecessor,” Mr. Leahy said in an interview.
But Mr. Mukasey is “letting the worst excesses of the Gonzales era stand,” he continued, “and that disappoints me. It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to be a place holder,’ and this is a man who certainly has the ability to be something more than a place holder. He doesn’t want to rock the boat.”
One of the “worst excesses of the Gonzales ear” which Mukasey has done little to fix is the politicization of the quarter of a billion dollar grant program by the Justice Department’s juvenile justice grant program, which is detailed here, here, and here.