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How Independent Is An Attorney General From The President?


President Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr, faced some sharp questioning this week from senators who wanted to know just how independent of President Trump he would be. The relationship between the chief executive and the nation's most influential lawyer is sometimes cozy - although also sometimes tense, as was the case between President Lyndon Johnson and his attorney general, Robert Kennedy. Nicholas Katzenbach succeeded Kennedy as attorney general, and here is how he viewed the relationship between President Johnson and Robert Kennedy.


NICHOLAS KATZENBACH: They didn't like each other. They had to work together politically, and they did. But it was not easy for either of them.

GREENE: We want to bring in commentator Cokie Roberts for our Ask Cokie segment, where she takes your questions about how politics and the government work. And go figure; many of you had questions about this relationship. And we'll get right to them.

Hi there, Cokie.


GREENE: All right. So actually, one of the questions we got gets right at that Kennedy-Johnson relationship. It's a question from California.

LEA WILLIAMS: This is Lea Williams (ph) in Santa Barbara. Cokie, wasn't there a megamess between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson? How did it get resolved?

GREENE: A megamess - was there a megamess?

ROBERTS: (Laughter). It was a mega mess. It got resolved by Kennedy resigning in September of 1964 to run for the Senate. And he was elected in November. But the two men really did dislike each other, and they distrusted each other. Johnson was always sure Kennedy was out to get him and keeping the flame of his brother Jack alive to overshadow the new president.

You listen to the Johnson tapes, David, and the conversations between the two are just painful to listen to. But their problems were personal, not on policy matters, until Kennedy became an opponent of the war in Vietnam.

GREENE: Well, several listeners actually pointed out that Kennedy's appointment as AG was controversial in part because of nepotism. Right? I mean, he was John F. Kennedy's brother.

ROBERTS: Right - and campaign manager. And that appointment was highly controversial at the time. And when Eisenhower appointed his campaign operative and former Republican National Committee Chairman Herbert Brownell to the job, there were outcries. But Brownell turned out to be a very tough attorney general - supporting civil rights, recommending progressive Southern judges and then Chief Justice Earl Warren.

But it goes back to the beginning, David. George Washington appointed his Revolutionary War aide-de-camp Edmund Randolph as the very first attorney general. But Randolph also, I must say, had a distinguished career in government after the war.

GREENE: Well, here's a question that came to us about the relationship between the president and AG, not on a personal level but in terms of what the law says. It comes from Ruth Compton (ph). And she wrote - doesn't the AG take an oath to defend the Constitution? She went on to say that maybe conflict exists because the president isn't always protecting and defending the Constitution. She wrote, I don't see this. I must have misunderstood the Constitution piece.

ROBERTS: Well, obviously, the most famous case of an attorney general defending the Constitution over the president's wishes was the so-called "Saturday Night Massacre," when Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire the special counsel investigating Watergate. Richardson refused and resigned. The deputy attorney general refused and was fired. But more recently, there's the case of John Ashcroft refusing to certify the legality of George W. Bush's domestic surveillance program. And that's a dramatic story featuring names that are in today's headlines.

The president's lawyer and chief of staff went to the hospital where Ashcroft was in the ICU to get his signature. Mrs. Ashcroft alerted the Justice Department, and the acting attorney general, James Comey, got to the hospital first with FBI chief Robert Mueller telling agents not to evict him. Ashcroft refused to sign, and Bush changed the program.

GREENE: Yeah, that's right, one of the most dramatic moments at least in my memory involving an attorney general.


GREENE: That was incredible. Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, David.

GREENE: Always great to talk to commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. Just tweet us using the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.