A White House Hand in the Firings?

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Matthew Cavanaugh / EPA

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales holds a press conference at the Justice Department Headquarters in Washington, D.C., March 13, 2007.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has characterized the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys as an "overblown personnel matter." If so, it is a personnel matter that appears to have involved the White House. A spokeswoman for the President revealed the White House's deep involvement in the decision to dismiss the prosecutors, a step that involved former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, Presidential adviser Karl Rove and, apparently, even Bush himself. Meanwhile, Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Gonzales and the official in charge of drawing up the list of fired prosecutors, has resigned amid continuing allegations that the eight — all Republicans — were ousted for political reasons, including their refusal to bring corruption charges against Democrats in the period leading up to last year's mid-term elections.

As the scandal escalated, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino cast doubt on whether President Bush was personally told about, or shown, a list of the targeted prosecutors. But Perino confirmed that Rove had discussed dismissing all U.S. attorneys after the 2004 election — as proposed by then-counsel Harriet Miers — and argued against the idea. But Bush did speak directly with Gonzales to pass along complaints from Republican lawmakers about prosecutors, according to the New York Times. Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, was among those who complained to the President. Domenici was particularly focused on David Iglesias of New Mexico in the period leading into the 2006 congressional election.

After Iglesias was dismissed, Domenici's chief of staff was "happy as a clam," according to an e-mail sent by Miers's deputy, William Kelley, released by the White House today. Gonzales' deputy Sampson wrote in an e-mail about a week later: "Domenici is going to send over names [of possible replacements] tomorrow (not even waiting for... the body to cool)." Since his alleged role in the controversy broke last week, Domenici has retained a lawyer to assist him in potential Senate ethics proceedings concerning his conduct in seeking the ouster of his state's federal prosecutor.

The latest revelations from the White House appear to be a belated attempt to get ahead of the increasingly damaging controversy, which has already resulted in calls by Democrats in Congress for Gonzales to resign, as well as promises of a fuller investigation, which Republicans appear reluctant or unable to oppose. "Mistakes at the Department of Justice have been compounded by trashing the reputations of loyal U.S. attorneys," said Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department spokesman and close aide to former attorney general John Ashcroft. "Republicans on the Hill have been put in a terrible position and, at this point, it's unclear what they will be prepared to do."

The Democrats have reacted with pointed commentary. Sen. Charles Schumer, a key Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, has suggested that Rove testify about his role in the affair, voluntarily if possible, or under subpoena if necessary. Said Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee: "The White House and the Attorney General have dodged Congress's questions and ducked accountability as if they still were dealing with a rubberstamp Congress. I am outraged that the Attorney General was less than forthcoming with the Senate while under oath... It is deeply disturbing that this plan appears to have originated from high-ranking officials at the White House and executed in secret with a complicit Department of Justice."

Over the weekend, Allen Weh, a senior Republican official in New Mexico told McClatchy newspapers that he had called Rove to obtain the dismissal of the state's U.S. attorney, David Iglesias. "Is anything ever going to happen to that guy?" Weh said he asked Rove at a White House holiday event. "He's gone," Rove said, according to Weh. But White House spokeswoman Perino is quoted in reports as saying, "White House officials including the President did not direct DOJ to take any specific action with regards to any specific U.S. attorney." In other words, decisions about which federal prosecutors should be fired were apparently made at the Justice Department by Gonzales or his subordinates.