Washington — The firing of Terry Eastland, public affairs director at the Department of Justice, has shocked the supporters of embattled United States Attorney General Edwin Meese III and given ammunition to those who want Mr. Meese to resign. Department officials were stunned when Mr. Eastland told colleagues at the morning staff meeting yesterday that the attorney general had fired him on Friday for not waging a strong enough defense on Mr. Meese's behalf in regard to the probe of possible ethical or criminal violations by the attorney general.
Independent counsel James McKay, who began his investigation May 11, 1987, has indicated that he does not have enough evidence to seek an indictment against Meese for criminal wrongdoing. (Past attorneys general have had their problems, Page 3.)
Terry Eastland was considered to be not only strongly loyal to Meese, but also an ideological soul mate of the attorney general. Unlike Deputy Attorney General Arnold Burns and Assistant Attorney General William Weld, two top aides who resigned in March, Eastland was in Meese's inner circle of five or so top aides, and had extraordinary access to and influence upon the attorney general. Opinion is divided as to what damage the firing will bring. ``I can't understand why it would have a big impact,'' says an aide to a conservative Republican senator.
Others disagree. ``I think the attorney general has made the biggest mistake since he took office,'' says Gary McDowell, a former Meese speech writer.
There have been rumblings on Capitol Hill that erstwhile supporters, including Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, see Meese as a liability not only for the administration, but also for legislators seeking re-election.
The timing of the dismissal puzzles many people. After several much-publicized attempts and failures to fill vacancies at the top of the department, things were calming down. Two respected attorneys - Harold Christensen, a private attorney in Utah, and Edward Dennis Jr., the US attorney in Philadelphia - are expected to take the spots left open by Mr. Burns and Mr. Weld. The firing only draws attention to the turmoil at Justice.
Reportedly, Meese's action was a preemptive strike against what he considered even worse publicity. One source close to Eastland says that he ``had been considering resigning for months.'' Another resignation would have only turned up the volume of demands for Meese's resignation, the source says.
When Burns and Weld resigned, there were rumors in the department that Eastland was thinking of leaving too. But a close friend of Eastland disputes that. ``I know that Terry was not preparing to leave in the immediate future,'' he says.
This source says that Meese is bracing himself for some rough water ahead, when independent counsel McKay issues what is expected to be a critical report about Meese's ethics, possibly later this month. Eastland's replacement, deputy director of public affairs Patrick Korten, has proved to be an aggressive supporter of Meese in the past.
``Mr. Meese sees dark clouds still on the horizon, and what he wants is someone in here who will uncritically and wholeheartedly defend him no matter what,'' says this source, a former Justice Department official. ``And Terry, being a man of judgment and conscience, was not able to promise that.''
The attorney general's action was reportedly a unilateral action. According to one department source, even Meese's top advisers, including Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, did not know of the dismissal until the weekend.
Other Justice Department watchers were not shocked, however, since they sensed that Eastland had been subtly distancing himself from Meese for a couple of months.
The dismissal ends the tenure of one of the most powerful press aides in memory. ``Terry wielded influence on all matters of policy - on the drug campaign, on education issues, on domestic [law enforcement] policy in general,'' says one former Justice aide who worked with Eastland.
An attorney who formerly worked in the US solicitor general's office recalls that when controversial cases were being brought, Eastland was often consulted, ``not about how the press release should read, but about his views of what the administration's policy should be.''
After Eastland's dismissal was announced, the head of Meese's speech-writing unit abruptly quit. William Schambra, the No. 3 official in the public affairs office, handed in his resignation after Eastland told a reporter, ``Today's my last day; I don't have a job.''