And as in the Nixon White House, executive control was very much the order of the day. The White House enforcer riding herd over the D.O.J. was Mr. Gonzales’ successor, the failed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers.
“During 2005 and 2006, Justice Department officials—particularly political appointees—lived in obvious fear of crossing the White House, that it would go directly from Miers to Gonzales,” said the former Justice official. “Gonzales didn’t have to be directly hands-on for this to be so. He’s certainly not a hands-on manager. But just having him there, as an inert but potent little White House annex, achieved an evident in terrorem effect on any political appointee who was eyeing his or her next promotion.”
But under the theory of the unitary executive, this executive-branch browbeating is understood as business as usual, because it holds that the Constitution constructs the executive as the main font of federal power. The traditional precept of constitutional law—that Congress is a check on the expansion of executive power—is thus stood on its head: It is now the executive that administers correction to potentially runaway legislative or judicial authority, particularly in national-security realms such as war-making, surveillance and interrogation.
Which is why the trademark shows of unitary-executive strength are scarcely confined to top-level cabinet showdowns. “The reason you get the torture memo,” the former prosecutor says, “is that everyone thinks that there’s no checking function. It goes back to every aspect of the war on terror. The touchstone for all this is the expansion of the executive.”
And how does a figure such as Mr. Gonzales fit into this scheme of things?
“That’s where the Comey thing gets interesting: Here’s someone who had so little regard for the appropriate authority in the Justice Department, who is now in charge of the Justice Department.”
He would seem, indeed, to be the most obliging Attorney General a unitary executive could hope for.