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Press Conference With Senator Arlen Specter Subject: President Bush's Nomination of Retired Judge Michael Mukasey to be the Next U.S. Attorney General

Interview

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


PRESS CONFERENCE WITH SENATOR ARLEN SPECTER
SUBJECT: PRESIDENT BUSH'S NOMINATION OF RETIRED JUDGE MICHAEL MUKASEY TO BE THE NEXT U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL

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SEN. SPECTER: -- (in progress) -- there will have to be, obviously, a very probing inquiry into his background in the confirmation hearings. We will need some time to review his background, do the spadework, and then the hearings will give us an opportunity to go very deeply into his background. He comes with some recommendations from a wide variety of groups. When the vacancy had occurred on the Supreme Court a couple of years ago he was widely mentioned as a prospect. In making this selection I think President Bush has made a very conscious and deliberate effort to choose someone who would not be controversial. Judge Mukasey had, in fact, been recommended by one of the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It is my hope that we will not get bogged down in preconditions on his nomination with respect to certain pending requests which the committee has outstanding to the administration, such as the background documents on the determination for constitutionality of the foreign intelligence -- of the terrorist prosecutor -- the terrorist surveillance program or on the background materials on the issue of the resignations of the United States attorneys or on the witnesses to come forward -- the White House personnel where we have not had an opportunity to question them yet but it is my hope that those issues will be separated. We do not have confirmed people as attorney general or deputy attorney general or associate attorney general, and there -- many of the slots of assistant attorneys general which are yet unfilled. So it is very important that the Department of Justice have senior leadership to carry on its important functions. There is no doubt that the Department of Justice has been in disarray for some time. My own characterization in the hearings which we've held has been that it is dysfunctional. It has a very, very important role to play on the investigation of terrorism, prosecution of violent crime, prosecution of organized crime, drug interdiction, antitrust civil matters. The morale of United States attorneys -- some 93 across the country -- has been reputed and also in disarray so that I think it is very important to act promptly, not with undue haste, giving an opportunity to review Judge Mukasey's background but to act promptly and not become snarled in the requests which are outstanding to make those preconditions for proceeding in an expeditious way with his confirmation proceeding.

Q Mr. Chairman -- Mr. Senator --

SEN. SPECTER: That's all right.

Q You like Mr. Chairman, all right. All right, you talk about this getting bogged down and snarled in possible requests over other information. As you know, this is a contact sport here in town. Have you talked to Chairman Leahy about trying to move through that or talking to other members who might want to put holds on this nomination for that express purpose?

SEN. SPECTER: I have not discussed the matter with anybody on the committee because we've only had the nomination now for about -- little more than a half an hour and I found out about it last night. But I have spoken about this subject before and expressed my view that there ought not to be an entanglement between the outstanding requests by the Judiciary Committee to the administration in this confirmation proceeding.

Q Senator, did you get to speak with Judge Mukasey about how -- whether and how he would try to answer some of those outstanding questions about the firings, for example? Did you get an idea from him about whether and how he might try as AG to answer some of those outstanding questions -- get to the bottom of the firings?

SEN. SPECTER: Well, I have -- I've discussed preliminarily -- I'm scheduled to meet him tomorrow at noon for a longer session. There wasn't a lot of time this morning. But I've asked him about the -- his record on law enforcement contrasted with civil rights, the issue about the attorney general not being the attorney for the president -- that that's the job of White House counsel. He is, if confirmed, a member of the Cabinet but he has a broader duty as the chief law enforcement officer of the country to the people of the country, and I think Judge Mukasey is on target on that.

I've discussed with him some of his cases. He presided over the Padilla case which drew a lot of notoriety and comment, and he ruled that Padilla could be retained as an enemy combatant but insisted that Padilla have counsel, and was pretty firm -- really tough with the Department of Justice in seeing to it that they provided counsel when they hadn't done so in a prompt way. He had a rather direct curt exchange with officials in the Department of Justice. Talked to him about the -- his rulings on cases involving defendants' rights and discussed with him two cases where he had suppressed evidence, which is a sign of balance by a judge. He presided over the trial of the case involving the so-called blind sheik, and has written on the subject of terrorism and national security. But those are issues which we'll be going into in real depth during the confirmation proceedings. I just want to -- hopefully it will get them started.

Q Senator, do you think it's improper for the Democrats to press those demands as a contingent -- make the nomination and confirmation contingent on the White House's willingness to produce more material or what -- how far can they go to get commitments?

SEN. SPECTER: Well, when you ask whether it is proper, senators have very wide latitude in their approaches to all of Senate responsibilities including confirmation so that I would not want to pick a fight with anybody by saying who is improper. But I would say that it's very much in the national interest now to move ahead with the confirmation because of the unusual circumstances. This is not a run of the mill circumstance for two reasons. Number one, in the long history of the country I don't think the Justice Department has been in such disarray; and secondly, you have the top spots unconfirmed -- unconfirmed attorney general, unconfirmed deputy, unconfirmed associate. And if you take a look at the organizational chart there are many others who are unconfirmed among the assistant attorneys general ranks.

Q Senator Specter, given how much rancor there was surrounding the Olson -- the potential for an Olson nomination do you think Mukasey is a better choice at this time? And also, do you think that the White House capitulated -- gave in given that there was a preemptive strike by Democrats to say Olson was a no-go?

SEN. SPECTER: Well, I think that Ted Olson would have made an outstanding attorney general. I don't know whether the president ever had any plans with respect to Ted Olson for attorney general. All of that was speculation. But when you have the majority leader saying the man, if nominated, is not going to be confirmed that's more than a danger signal. That's a stop, look, and listen -- red light -- blinking red lights on a train crossing.

So I think that whomever the president was thinking about, and it's only speculative, that selecting Judge Mukasey is a very obvious effort to take someone who is noncontroversial and who has a very strong background and who has the kind of attributes that we'd be looking for in an attorney general, subject to a rugged confirmation proceeding which is in order for somebody of this high rank.

Q Senator, it sounds like you're saying that the urgency to fill these spots at the top of Justice outweighs the need to answer some of these remaining questions about the firings, for example. Are you saying -- are you saying that, or are you saying that it should just be done first, that that's the order of things?

SEN. SPECTER: Well, I think the vacancies and the disarray of the department make it an unusual situation. I think the committee is correct in asking for the background data of the resignations of the U.S. attorneys. I think the Judiciary committee is correct in wanting to have the testimony of White House officials in some palatable form. I think the committee's correct, in light of what happened in the Ashcroft hotel incident, and to get the background material on the deliberations within the department on the Terrorist Surveillance Program. And those are all very, very important matters, but I don't think they are as important as what's happening in Justice, day in and day out, today.

Q And if the Democrats do try to use the nomination as leverage on the document fight, what do you think that'll do to the wonderful spirit of comity that we have here in the Senate of late?

SEN. SPECTER: Oh, I think it would be another strong item of promotion of comity like we see so often in the Senate chamber and the House. Things are pretty -- pretty biting and pretty bitter. We all know that. And I think the president has gone the extra mile to find somebody who would be acceptable, somebody who would be good -- listen, the newspapers over the weekend were speculating about Judge Mukasey, with the support of one of the members of the Judiciary Committee on the Democrat side -- and thought that might kill the prospects for his nomination. So the president reads the clips.

Q Senator, in an op-ed piece about a month ago, after the Padilla case was decided, that Judge Mukasey wrote that he didn't think it was a victory for the rule of law and that the country should -- particularly in light of the problems that the government faces when they're dealing with suspected terrorists -- and he said that the Congress should consider proposals that would allow, in effect, detention of suspected detainees, like people that are held for mental disabilities, insanity, that sort of thing, to bypass -- maybe even a national security court outside of the current system. Do you have a --

SEN. SPECTER: Well, I know --

Q -- on that, or do you want to know more about it?

SEN. SPECTER: -- I know about the op-ed, but I haven't had a chance to read it because events are unfolding at a very fast pace. And we will be studying that, and we will be asking him questions about it. There have been a number of proposals for a specific court to handle national security cases. There have been suggestions that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ought to handle them because of the confidentially and because of the potential state secrets involved.

There is no doubt in my mind that the current system is deeply flawed, that Guantanamo, when the review board does not hear not only not-competent evidence, but they do not have any reasons -- in most cases they don't have the habeas corpus judicial review, so that if there were some court structured, which would be -- maintain confidentiality but give the detainees a right to confront their accusers, confrontation and some reason for detention -- in a different judicial kind of proceeding it would be a vast improvement over the Combat Status Review Board. So when making the proposal to move away from the Combat Status Review Board, that's a blow for civil rights, Constitutional rights.

Q Senator Specter, you talk about the bogging down of this process. Ideally, how quickly do you think that Mr. Mukasey could be confirmed? Do you think that the three weeks that they talked about in previous confirmations is possible? Likely?

SEN. SPECTER: Well, I don't -- I don't want to set up a timetable. I think that's something that Senator -- Chairman Leahy and I ought to discuss. The White House had grandiose ideas on confirmations of Roberts -- they wanted to start the Roberts hearings on August 28th, they wanted Alito confirmed before the end of the year. And had we -- had we followed their wishes, we'd -- might still have two vacancies on the Supreme Court. So I want to work it out with Senator Leahy on a timetable which is comfortable from all points of view. We need some time to study the man's record before you go to hearings, but we also need to move we deliberate speed.

Q Senator, you said you have to go in there and "spade" into his record -- your term. What are you looking for? What are you looking at?

SEN. SPECTER: I want to get an idea on his balance as to civil rights, Constitutional rights. A good sign when he said Padilla was entitled to counsel, that's very positive. A good sign that there are some cases where he's not followed the prosecution and has suppressed evidence, but I want to know -- I want to know more about him. I want to see how he sounds on the witness chair. He's going to -- he's a soft-spoken man, I want to see how he -- or how he responds.

STAFF: Senator, we have to get going.

SEN. SPECTER: How many more questions are there? One, two, three. Okay, I'll take the last three.

Yeah.

Q The Webb amendment to the DOD bill should be up for vote this week. It deals with increasing the time out-of-theater for service members. Is that something that you'd -- you think you're inclined to support?

SEN. SPECTER: I'm thinking about it. I have talked to Senator Webb, the proponent of the amendment, and I'm taking a look at the background data to see what impact it would have on our -- on our troop force, whether it is practical. But I am thinking about it.

Number two, on the way to three.

Q After clamoring for a replacement for Attorney General Gonzalez, do you think that puts the Democrats in a bit of a political bind in terms of asserting these demands that the White House would produce information as a condition for confirmation?

SEN. SPECTER: Does it put the Democrats in a political bind? No, I wouldn't go so far as to say that. They have shown great adroitness in avoiding binds.

Last question.

Q I wonder if you had any update on your immigration proposal, Senator Specter -- and you said you had hoped to get it moving this year, and your discussions and so forth?

SEN. SPECTER: Well, that's my proposal to -- much as I dislike to not-to-proceed with citizenship, but just to review fugitive status and also to change the elaborate point system and leave family unification where it is. I have talked to the majority leader about it, and Senator Leahy, and Senator Kennedy with a view to holding hearings this year. There is no opportunity to put the bill on the floor, given the crowded calendar between now and New Years Eve on appropriation matters and other matters. But we do have time for hearings and there will be time next January and February, and I would like to see us move ahead.

You have those letters outstanding on Social Security numbers -- now that has been stayed temporarily. But when those letters hit, there's going to be a massive disruption in the labor force. Senator Feinstein had predicted some very dire consequences -- and so have others in agricultural states especially, and it'll impact hotels and restaurants. When that happens, I think it'll be pushed back, front and center.

The immigration issue is a political loser for anybody who touches it. It's like the third rail. I heard a lot of criticism during my town meetings last month on immigration, but we have a duty to deal with it. And I think that if you just remove a fugitive status and don't deal with citizenship, that you take the teeth out of the amnesty argument, and it ought to provide the basis for a constructive resolution of a comprehensive plan.

Unusual to see you all on a Monday morning. Thank you.


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