Members of the White House press corps struggled to explain the shift, many of them suggesting that Obama was pandering to his political base. But the winds of change blew in from an address just down Pennsylvania Avenue. The Daily Beast has learned that senior Justice Department lawyers were “incensed” at the Emanuel and Gibbs statements, as one put it—not because they disagreed with Obama’s apparent opposition to an investigation and prosecution, but because the statements violated well-established rules separating political figures in the White House from decisions about active criminal cases. The statements were viewed as a frontal assault on the autonomy and independence of the criminal-justice system. “Emanuel got far ahead of the process and described it in a way that clearly suggested that political judgment was driving the entire process,” one senior Justice official told me. “It was depressing and amateurish.”
Now the White House misstep may in fact be propelling the process in the opposite direction. Another Justice Department official observed, “The department is now in the process of making some very tough decisions about what to do with this extremely complex and difficult matter. Emanuel’s statement was unfortunate, because now if the attorney general decides against appointing a special prosecutor, people are going to believe that this was a politically dictated decision. The only clear way out of this bind may now be to do what the critics suggest and appoint a special prosecutor.” Demands for the appointment of a special prosecutor have been proliferating in recent days following the release of the torture memoranda on April 16.
As Horton notes, the DOJ was widely criticized for overt politicization during the Bush years. Apparently members of the DOJ are eager to avoid that label again, and is my sincerest hope that this displeasure demonstrates an independence that long ago disappeared while Bush was in office.