GOP Contenders Overhype Plans to Overhaul the DOJ

Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray hold a press conference at the Department of Justice on on October 24, 2022. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Most Republican presidential contenders are promising big changes at the Department of Justice if they win the White House. “Clean house,” some say. “Complete overhaul,” say others. Their plans may sound radical and unprecedented. They’re not.

Every new president effectively fires senior personnel at the Department of Justice, and their deputies—numbering in the hundreds—upon taking office. The fleet of U.S. attorneys overseeing federal judicial districts? With a few exceptions, they also get pink slips. It’s all part of a standard changing of the guard as the outgoing chief executive’s political appointees voluntarily depart, and his successor’s political appointees take their place.

Some Republican candidates this cycle are suggesting that their plans to exercise this commonly used authority are cutting edge, daring, different. There is scant evidence to back that up. Other Republicans are proposing action that would qualify as uniquely aggressive—like gutting the agency’s bureaucracy. But any attempt to do that would run into roadblocks in Congress.

“You’re not going to fire civil servants. That’s posturing,” says a Republican attorney who worked at the Department of Justice during the Trump administration.

Designated career positions in the federal government—bureaucrats—are protected by civil service law. As such, they are extremely difficult to fire, even for reasons that suffice as just cause in the private sector. Congress could change the law, but opposition from Democrats make doing so untenable. 

However, a new Republican president could shuffle key bureaucratic personnel in the Department of Justice another way: A bureaucrat who holds a meaningful leadership post and might frustrate a new administration’s agenda can be moved to an inconsequential job or even given a new, inconsequential assignment. In an interview, a veteran Department of Justice official described the maneuver as “rubber-rooming.” 

“The notion is to eventually terminate the position you created for them, or simply demoralize them to the point where they leave,” the former government employee explained. This move might sound unnecessarily political to some. But it is sometimes used to root out former political appointees who transitioned to key career positions before a new administration took over—a practice known as “burrowing.”

The fixation on the Department of Justice by Republican White House hopefuls is rooted in the cloud of legal troubles hovering over Donald Trump. A New York grand jury indicted the former president for allegedly falsifying business records before a federal grand jury indicted him for allegedly retaining national security documents. That case is run by the Department of Justice and Special Counsel Jack Smith. More indictments tied to January 6, in Georgia and at the federal level, are possible. 

Grassroots conservatives, and many congressional Republicans, blame Trump’s situation on a supposedly rigged justice system. 

The Department of Justice, they say, has unfairly targeted the former president while shielding President Joe Biden and his son. Hunter Biden has agreed to plead guilty to federal tax evasion charges, but last week congressional Republicans announced that two IRS whistleblowers are claiming the probe, led by Trump-appointed U.S. attorney David Weiss, is being stymied by Attorney General Merrick Garland.

But Republican complaints, and pledges to implement reforms, don’t stop at the Department of Justice. 

Most GOP contenders are promising to fire Trump-appointed FBI Director Christopher Wray “on Day 1,” and some calling for top-to-bottom rehabilitation of the law enforcement agency. FBI directors are granted 10 year terms. But it’s within a president’s discretion to make a change before that term expires; and the broad strokes of the promises being made by most GOP contenders fall within typical parameters for personnel management taken by freshly inaugurated presidents.

“Nikki Haley would fire Director Wray as part of a larger overhaul that would go after both senior and middle management at the FBI and DOJ. The double standard of justice in our country will end in a Haley administration,” Haley campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso tells The Dispatch. Haley is a former South Carolina governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“We’re going to clean house across all the senior levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI,” former Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News. “We’re going to assemble a group of men and women of integrity that are respected on both sides of the aisle that are respected for their dedication to equal treatment under the law.”

Other Republicans are offering similar platitudes. Democrats aren’t concerned—because almost none of it sounds outside the norm. 

“It’s all typical political rhetoric designed to appeal to a section of the primary electorate buying into the notion that the Department of Justice has been weaponized,” mocked a Democratic operative who previously worked for the agency and experienced the turnover firsthand.

To be sure, some GOP presidential contenders are committing to bigger changes at the Justice Department that could alarm some Democrats, although most of these proposals require congressional approval.

Trump, via his campaign website, is pitching proposals that range from mundane and legal to the controversial and questionable. “President Trump will also appoint 100 U.S. Attorneys who will be the ‘polar opposite of the Soros District Attorneys’ who are destroying the rule of law in America, overhaul the Department of Justice and … order sweeping civil rights investigations into Marxist local district attorneys.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in addition to guaranteeing the standard recasting of political appointees, is recommending among the most detailed and overtly aggressive revamps of the agency, which could trigger a clash with Capitol Hill and the courts. 

“We will make sure that we’re using our full powers under Article 2 of the Constitution,” DeSantis said during a recent phone call with policy experts, per excerpts provided by his campaign. “I don’t buy this idea that the president can’t fire people. If you’re performing poorly, you should be fired; it doesn’t matter if you’re a bureaucrat or if you’re a political appointee. We will be wielding that authority, particularly in those agencies like the DOJ and FBI, which have the ability to put people in jail.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, meanwhile, says the Department of Justice “needs to be radically gutted.” The 37-year-old wealthy biotechnology entrepreneur, who has emerged as a staunch Trump defender despite running against him in the primary, even wants to shutter the FBI. The move would be highly provocative, and difficult to accomplish, but is theoretically within the president’s  purview.

It’s ironic: Some Republicans are arguing that prosecutorial fairness and political independence will only be restored at the Department of Justice by implementing far-reaching, top-down proposals. 

Among the Republican contenders, only two former governors who previously worked as U.S. attorneys, Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson and New Jersey’s Chris Christie, are treading more carefully. Christie concedes Republicans are “rightfully” suspicious of the DOJ’s actions, harkening back to 2016, when federal authorities decided not to prosecute Democrat Hillary Clinton despite the fact that she jeopardized sensitive government information through her use of a private email server kept in her home in Chappaqua, New York. 

Pressed on changes he might make to alleviate the concerns of Republican voters, Christie has said appointing a competent attorney general is crucial.“If I’m president of the United States, one thing you can count on for sure, there’s going to be an attorney general, who I say to him or her Day 1: ‘Go do your job. And unless you need me for something, leave me alone. Just go do your job, without fear or favor or partisanship,’” Christie said during a CNN town hall this month.

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