Current situation is distinct from Clinton firings of U.S. attorneys

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration and its defenders like to point out that President Bush isn't the first president to fire U.S. attorneys and replace them with loyalists.

While that's true, the current case is different. Mass firings of U.S. attorneys are fairly common when a new president takes office, but not in a second-term administration. Prosecutors are usually appointed for four-year terms, but they are usually allowed to stay on the job if the president who appointed them is re-elected.

Even as they planned mass firings by the Bush White House, Justice Department officials acknowledged it would be unusual for the president to oust his own appointees. Although Bill Clinton ordered the wholesale removal of U.S. attorneys when he took office to remove Republican holdovers, his replacement appointees stayed for his second term.

Ronald Reagan also kept his appointees for his second term.

"In some instances, Presidents Reagan and Clinton may have been pleased with the work of the U.S. attorneys, who, after all, they had appointed," Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, speculated in a 2006 memo outlining Bush's alternative approach. "In other instances, Presidents Reagan and Clinton may simply have been unwilling to commit the resources necessary to remove the U.S. attorneys."

Nonetheless, Bush aide Dan Bartlett noted Clinton's first term firings in defending Bush's second term dismissals.

"Those discretionary decisions made by a president, by an administration, are often done," he told reporters Tuesday.