By Charlie Savage
When GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson dropped out of the race this week, the former Tennessee senator gave no sign that he intends to endorse one of his rivals any time soon. But a sizable segment of Thompson's team of legal advisers quickly signed on with Mitt Romney.
The Romney campaign announced yesterday that ten members of the "Lawyers for Fred Thompson" group had joined the former Massachusetts governor's campaign, including the Thompson group's former national co-chair, Victoria Toensing, a former Reagan Justice Department official and prominent legal commentator.
Other Fred campaign refugees finding a new home with Romney were former Bush-Cheney lawyers Lizette D. Benedi, Rachel L. Brand, Reginald Brown, Viet D. Dinh, Noel J. Francisco, and Eileen J. O'Connor; former Reagan lawyers Charles J. Cooper and Joseph E. diGenova; and conservative law professor Michael R. Dimino.
Campaign legal advisers often end up in prominent jobs in the Justice Department or White House Counsel's office, so such endorsements can provide clues about the kind of federal judges the candidate would appoint and the legal philosophy that the candidate would embrace as president.
As such, the flocking of Thompson lawyers to Romney may shed light on the ex-candidate's legal views on executive power. Late last year, Thompson refused to participate in a Globe survey of the twelve leading candidates for their views on the constitutional limits of presidential power, nailing down their views on such matters as whether a president can bypass laws and treaties, executive secrecy, signing statements, etc. But Romney did answer the questions, expressing by far the most positive view of the Bush-Cheney administration's many legal and political precedents that have expanded executive power of any candidate. (John McCain, by contrast, repudiated several of the most aggressive Bush-Cheney positions.) The movement of Thompson's lawyers to the Romney camp, then, suggests that a Thompson administration, too, might have continued down the Bush-Cheney legal team's path.
The Romney lawyers group is chaired by Douglas Kmiec, the Pepperdine University law professor who was head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel for the last years of the Reagan administration. Kmiec had already assembled a extraordinary roster of conservative legal talent (listed on the same campaign press release), and the Thompson reinforcements now put Romney atop something of an army of prominent Republican attorneys.
The only other Republican presidential contender to have attracted a comparable group of former upper-tier Justice Department and White House Counsel attorneys is Rudy Giuliani, whose advisory group is chaired by former Bush-Cheney administration solicitor general Ted Olson, and which also includes former Reagan administration solicitor general Charles Fried, former Bush-Cheney deputy attorney general Larry Thompson, Federalist Society co-founder Steven Calabresi, and -- until he resigned to become the current attorney general, Judge Michael Mukasey, among others.
Giuliani, like Thompson, refused to answer the Globe's executive power questions, although Olson instead sent over a vague statement. The former New York mayor assembled his team when he still led in national polls and was widely seen as a front-runner for the nomination. But Giuliani's prospects have since dimmed considerably, and if he is forced to drop out after Florida or Super Tuesday, conservative legal circles and executive-power watchers alike will be watching closely to see where Olson and the rest of his team goes.
UPDATE: Bucking the trend, former Thompson supporter Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor, says he's now a McCain man.
UPDATE 2: Kmiec says that former Indiana congressman David McIntosh, another co-founder of the Federalist Society and the former co-chair of the Thompson campaign, has also joined the Romney campaign as Kmiec's new co-chair.