Rove Joins Gonzales as a Target

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and White House senior adviser Karl Rove.

The new e-mails showing Karl Rove's early involvement in the decision-making over the firing of U.S. attorneys are inconclusive on the central question underlying the dismissals: did President Bush or his top advisers put their own political interests ahead of the public interest? But on Capitol Hill, where ill-will toward the White House is growing by the day, lawmakers are more interested in learning who, if anyone, lied to Congress — and these e-mails will only further raise suspicions and keep investigators digging.

The e-mails show Rove was involved early on in figuring out which and how many U.S. attorneys would be fired. A Jan. 6, 2005, e-mail from one White House lawyer to another states that Rove wanted to know "how [they] planned to proceed regarding U.S. Attorneys, whether we were going to allow all to stay, request resignations from all and accept only some of them, or selectively replace them, etc."

It's impossible to tell from this e-mail what position Rove took on the issue, only that he was interested in finding out what the plan was. But it does appear to fly in the face of White House attempts to distance top Administration officials from the firings. On Tuesday press secretary Tony Snow played down Rove's involvement in the early handling of the U.S. attorney firings and told reporters traveling with Bush that Rove had "expressed disagreement" with a proposal by then White House counsel Harriet Miers around the same time to fire all 93 of them. Deputy spokesman Tony Fratto insisted the White House has not been trying to distance Rove from the matter. "Karl recalls that Harriet raised it with him and he thought it was a bad idea and said so," Fratto said. "Nothing in this e-mail that was released contradicts that in any way."

The e-mails have come as Senators are grilling the White House for other details of its involvement in the firings. In a letter sent to President Bush Wednesday, Senator Charles Schumer cited a Feb. 23, 2007, letter from the Justice Department saying that "it was not aware of anyone lobbying" for the appointment of Tim Griffin as U.S. Attorney in Arkansas. Schumer then referred to a Dec. 19, 2006 e-mail by former Justice Department chief of staff Kyle Sampson saying that getting Griffin "appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc." Schumer asked Bush to "explain any involvement of Karl Rove or members of his staff in the decision to request the resignation" of the U.S. attorney Griffin was to replace.

Sampson, who resigned as chief of staff Monday, is the focus of much attention on the Hill. But the person most squarely in Congress's cross hairs is Sampson's former boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. On Tuesday, Bush said Gonzales "has got work to do up there," pacifying lawmakers, and though some read that as a possible prelude to Gonzales' forced resignation, most Administration watchers doubt the President would ever pull the plug himself on a Texas loyalist such as the Attorney General, who has been with Bush for years.

Whether or not he would accept Gonzales' resignation is another matter, and Gonzales is in enough trouble on the Hill that he may have to proffer it. Two Republican Senators are already on record calling for him to step down. And his disfavor is far more widespread. One senior G.O.P. aide calls Gonzales, "by objective measures a crony," and says, "We want it over." Minority Whip Trent Lott thinks Gonzales should stay, but says, "It's not good and the Democrats will poke at it for all it's worth."

There are plenty of reasons for Gonzales' problems on Capitol Hill. He's considered a Texas outsider who never made an effort to build relationships there. That's fine when you're in a position of strength, says one top Senate Republican aide. But "when times get tough now, we're not there for him because he doesn't have the Capitol Hill connections."

Gonzales may also be suffering from what the aide calls "Rummy rub-off." Senators who stood up loud and clear to defend Rumsfeld before the '06 election, only to have Bush fire him immediately afterwards, have learned their lesson. Few want to take the political hit defending someone they don't like, only to see him step down in a few days or weeks.

Rove will find himself receiving further scrutiny from the Hill in coming weeks. On Tuesday, Senators Patrick Leahy and Arlen Specter, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate judiciary committee, sent him a letter asking him to make himself available for interviews and testimony before the committee. Yesterday the committee notched up the pressure on him, making clear it intended to authorize subpoena power against him next week.