Press Background Briefing on Announcement of Attorney General Nomination by Senior Administration Official
Via Conference Call
11:09 A.M. EDT
MR. FRATTO: Hi, it's Tony Fratto. Just as a reminder, this is a background call, the sourcing is a senior administration official -- just anticipating the question as to why we're doing this call on background, let your editors know that the reason is to not detract from the President's quotes, his on-the-record quotes from the announcement we just had.
Your senior administration official will be -- able to talk a little bit about the process and how the President came to this decision and how we got to today. And then he'll open it up to questions and we'll try to go for about 15 or 20 minutes, so I'm going to put the phone on speaker and welcome [name] now.
One more thing, if you can mute your phone so that everyone can hear clearly. Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good morning. I would like to just first go through a background process -- (feed dropped) -- that you may have. The search for an Attorney General nomination was led by Joshua Bolten, Chief of Staff, and Fred Fielding, Counsel to the President. Bolten and Fielding conducted a thorough search. They solicited and received advice and recommendations from the legal community, from U.S. senators, other members of Congress, government officials -- (feed dropped) -- some unsolicited advice, as well.
Throughout the process, (feed dropped) Bolten and Fielding discussed and reviewed potential nominees with the President -- (feed dropped) -- senators from both parties mentioned Judge Mukasey as a highly regarded judge with particular expertise in national security issues as we progressed. A list was narrowed and then the President interviewed -- (feed dropped) -- potential nominees -- (feed dropped) -- Judge Mukasey visited the White House to meet the President on Saturday, September 1, (feed dropped) for Iraq and APEC. The President was (feed dropped) --. The President considered a number of exceptionally qualified candidates -- (feed dropped) -- very careful deliberate thought, didn't rush this decision.
Each of the final individuals considered brought their own unique talents and experience and expertise, and each would have been a strong nominee. The President considered a number of factors, including legal experience, leadership qualities. In particular, the President wanted an Attorney General who understands the threats America faces in the 21st century and appreciates the need to have the right tools and legal authorities to confront those threats.
Late last week the President decided that Judge Mukasey was going to be his choice and was the best choice to lead the department at this time. He called the Judge on Friday, September 14th, to offer him the job, and he accepted it.
And this weekend, the Judge worked with Counsel to the President and others in the White House and staff going through final vetting and briefings on Saturday and Sunday, and -- (feed dropped) -- the decision was made to go -- (feed dropped) -- announcement for Monday.
He has also met with -- the Judge has met with Republican leaders this morning and will continue interviews on the Hill, commencing tomorrow.
MR. FRATTO: If you hold there for just a minute -- are you on the call able to hear us fairly well?
Q: Cutting in and out.
Q: No, you're cutting in and out.
MR. FRATTO: I think the reason -- the reason for the cutting in and out is, I'm hearing open phone lines, I'm hearing -- we're hearing lots of noise coming through on our end from people who have failed to put their phones on mute. So if you could mute -- (feed dropped) -- until you're ready to engage in a question, that would be greatly appreciated.
We can go to questions now.
Q: Did you say that the first time Judge Mukasey met with the President was September 1st? You cut out on that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, it was a Saturday, it was the Saturday before the President departed for Iraq and APEC. He met with the Judge in the residence.
Q: Okay. Do you know how long that meeting was?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was at least an hour.
Q: Okay. And how many number of exceptional candidates were considered?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not really going to go -- we're not really going to go into the when and to whom the White House -- other than Mukasey, will be happy to answer any specifics.
Q: What are you going to do to reach out to those on the right who have expressed some misgivings about Judge Mukasey?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The White House representatives and the Judge, himself, have met with those people already. They actually met -- (feed dropped) -- expressed an interest in meeting -- (feed dropped). But we will continue that outreach from here on.
Q: Could you repeat that? You cut out for most of it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I will be happy to repeat it. I don't know how to correct this. Is this better?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There has been some outreach already on the part of the Judge with people on the conservative organizations, and that will be continuing as we go forward.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about the President's meeting with Judge Mukasey on the 1st, what they talked about, what the President was interested in; a little bit more about that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Counsel to the President was not present. It was a one-on-one meeting with the President and the Judge. The conversation covered a very wide variety of issues, as they got to know each other both professionally and on a personal level. But as I say, I was not there, and Counsel to the President was not present.
Q: Last week Harry Reid shot down the idea of Ted Olson as a nominee. Can you talk about how important that was for the President to get a nominee who would not provoke a fight with Democrats?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President wanted to get the person that he thought was the most qualified. He wanted to be comfortable that that was what was going to be the final criteria. Obviously, if that same person with the same qualifications would also be easier to confirm or would have a more realistic ability to be confirmed, that would be a factor that was considered. It was not a determinative factor.
Q: Did you talk to any Democratic senators at all about this in advance, or any of their representatives?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Counsel to the President has had conversations with several senators, Democrat senators, that were private conversations, covering a number of potential nominees, including the Judge.
Q: And can you report how they responded?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the conversations were deemed to be private conversations, so I would suggest that a better source for that would be the senators in question.
Q: Can you tell us if the response from those senators -- would you go as far as characterizing it as positive, negative, encouraging?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was not discouraging.
Q: I understand that the Judge met Sunday with several conservative activists. Can you say how many people were at that meeting and who they were?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Judge met with, I believe, six people on Sunday -- six different people, individually.
Q: Oh, it wasn't a group meeting, it was individual?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's correct. In one --
Q: Do you have any idea who they were?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Excuse me. In one instance, there were two in one group, but other than that, they were individuals. We had promised them that we would not release their names. But obviously if one would seek them out, I'm sure that they would acknowledge one way or the other, if they cared to.
Q: How would you describe those folks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They were various conservative constituents who had expressed an interest in meeting the candidate, whoever the nominee -- whoever it may be. And also we wanted to ensure, if there were questions, specifically about the Judge, since he was not as well known in conservative circles in Washington, that there be an opportunity for them to answer any -- to ask any questions they wanted to.
Q: I wonder if you can tell me, given the Supreme Court's schedule, why Paul Clement was named acting AG, when it seems quite obvious you'd have to name another acting AG before the President's choice was confirmed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Paul Clement was the AG by normal rotation at the Department of Justice. But it -- and at that point, as you all know, there are a number of vacancies there. Somebody to handle the Acting AG position must be confirmed. When Peter Keisler announced that he was leaving, he was a confirmed slot and could handle that job. But he was leaving for family reasons. He has been prevailed upon and consented kindly to stay on during the period of time and fill that role, thereby freeing up Paul Clement to be the --
Q: Can you just tell us whether Ted Olson was considered, and secondly, whether the preemptive comments from Senate Democrats that they would not accept Ted Olson, whether that was a factor in the President's decision-making?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I am not going to mention specifically people who were considered and not selected. It's really not fair to those people and obviously would be a hindrance to conduct of future searches, as well. Therefore, I can't answer your second question.
Q: But can you answer the first question, was Ted Olson considered?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I just said that I cannot.
Q: Can you describe what factor, if at all, the personal relationship a candidate would have with the President, since we understand he does not know and had not meet Mr. Mukasey until the day of the interview? How important was it or was it not for the President to have some personal connection?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was important to the President to have a comfort level with the nominee. And he did not know the Judge prior to that, and therefore I -- you know, he wanted to meet him, he wanted to get a sense, as he does with all his nominees for his appointments.
The other thing I guess I did not -- I did not cover for anyone prior to this is, prior to meeting with the President, Judge Mukasey was first called by Counsel to the President on the evening of the 27th. He came down and was interviewed in the White House on the 29th, leading up to the meeting with the President on Saturday the 1st. I'm sorry, I neglected to mention that.
Q: Was it the Counsel, or the Counselor and the Chief of Staff?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Excuse me?
Q: The August 29th interview, was that just with the Counsel to the President or were others from the White House involved?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, there were several people outside the office of Counsel of the President who met with him, as well. Yes.
Q: Was the Chief of Staff there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q: The folks at the conservative constituency you said he met with on Sunday, what kinds of questions did they ask or concerns did they express? Can you characterize those somehow?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would characterize them generally as just, again, questions one would ask when one was trying to determine beyond a printed record of certain court cases or written editorials, comments and things like that, trying to determine a person's feelings on issues that were of concern to those groups, those individuals.
Q: What type of court cases, terrorism cases or other --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I mean, these terrorism cases are very well known.
Q: Can you comment a little bit on how important it is to the President's national security agenda in Congress to avoid a big confirmation battle?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, avoiding any big confirmation battle certainly helps with the legislative agenda.
Q: Can you characterize to the conservative groups and individuals that it seemed to you they left yesterday satisfied with what they heard, or with more questions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Candidly, I think you should seek those people out that are willing to talk about it. It was my impression that the Judge handled himself very well and that there was satisfaction level in each instance. But I wouldn't want to characterize somebody else's views.
Q: Can you say if Judge Mukasey is totally of one mind with the President on the Patriot Act?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would ask that the Judge be asked that question, too. I think they are certainly are in sync.
Q: Senator Leahy says that there's not going to be any confirmation hearings until the administration answers questions about the White House role in the firings of federal prosecutors. Are you going to work with Leahy on answering some of these questions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Counsel to the President will be working with Senator Leahy and -- well, with all the leadership in the House on all these issues, and will continue to. And there's been dialogue prior to this.
Q: Do you see this as an obstacle to getting the hearings started?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President certainly would hope that the issues of -- political issues, if you will, or extraneous issues, if you will, don't come in the way of swift confirmation of somebody that's so qualified as this candidate and nominee is. As anyone knows, there are many, many openings at the Department of Justice in leadership roles that must be filled, and that's a very urgent basis.
Senator Specter has just announced that his -- who, of course, is seeking some of the same documents, but nonetheless, has spoken out that he thought that this should not be treated the same.
Q: Can you say whether the President met with any other candidates, without naming names?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President did meet with other candidates; yes, he did.
Q: How many?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would rather not mention that, but he did meet with other candidates, as well.
MR. FRATTO: Okay, thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you all.
END 11:26 A.M. EDT
George W. Bush, Press Background Briefing on Announcement of Attorney General Nomination by Senior Administration Official Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/276464