Bush vs. Congress over Attorneygate

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

President George W. Bush speaks on the scandal over the firing of federal prosecutors March, 20 2007, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

The President had choppered back into Washington at 5 p.m. and within the hour he had delivered his ultimatum. There would be no more bending to the will of Democrats in Congress. He said he was willing to allow Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and other key aides to be privately interviewed about the controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Such private interviews do not need to be done under oath. "We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants," Bush said. "I proposed a reasonable way to avoid an impasse." He insisted that "there's no indication... that anybody did anything improper." The response from Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy was swift and uncompromising: "Testimony should be on the record and under oath."

The momentum had picked up the evening before in what could well become a constitutional showdown between White House and Congress. That was when the release of some 3,000 documents by the Justice Department increased speculation that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may be out of a job soon. On Tuesday morning, a White House spokesperson told TIME that President Bush had spoken by telephone with Gonzales this morning for several minutes, and that Bush expressed "complete support" for his embattled appointee. "They had a very good conversation and discussed the U.S. attorney situation," said the White House spokesperson, who went on to categorically deny reports circulating in Washington that the Administration was already seeking replacements for Gonzales. According to the website Politico.com, which first broke the story, replacements under consideration reportedly include Michael Chertoff, the current secretary of Homeland Security; Frances Frago Townsend, a top advisor to Bush at the National Security Council; Larry Thompson, a former deputy attorney general; and former Solicitor General Ted Olson. Other speculation has included federal appeals judge Laurence Silberman, and George Terwilliger, a former senior Department of Justice official now in private law practice. The spokesperson dismissed the speculation as a "typical Washington parlor game... It's false." At the White House on Tuesday evening, Bush repeated his support of Gonzales: "He's got support with me."

Nevertheless, the flood of paper seems likely to raise new questions concerning Gonzales' performance and that of his subordinates in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year. The material portrays disputes and disorder at Justice, as senior staff — and Gonzales himself — struggled to deal with fallout from the firings, amid increasingly tough questions from Congress as to whether they were politically motivated.

A partial analysis of the 3,000 pages of e-mails and other documents shows that senior DoJ officials were deeply worried about their handling of the crisis. At one point, for example, staffers confronted the possibility that former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins might testify before Congress. "I don't think he should," Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff, declared in a Feb. 1, 2007 e-mail to a fellow staffer. "How would he answer: Did you resign voluntarily? Who told you? What did they say?" Cummins was dumped as the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., and replaced by Tim Griffin, a former assistant to top White House aide Karl Rove. Sampson's e-mail also noted additional queries that Cummins risked having to respond to in Congressional testimony: "Did you ever talk to Tim Griffin about his becoming U.S. attorney? What did Griffin say? Did Griffin ever talk about being AG appointed and avoiding Senate confirmation? Were you asked to resign because you were underperforming? If not, then why?"

Sampson's exchange regarding Cummins could be important because of another e-mail, this one from DoJ spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. In a Feb. 7 message, Roehrkasse who was on a trip with Gonzales in South America at the time, wrote, "The Attorney General is extremely upset with the stories on the US Attys this morning" — stories that dealt with the Congressional testimony by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who was trying to explain why Cummins and others were dismissed. According to Roehrkasse's e-mail, "[Gonzales] also thought some of the DAG's statements were inaccurate." Roehrkasse has since said that Gonzales believed at the time that Cummins was being fired because of poor performance.

In another embarrassment revealed in the e-mails, Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney from Chicago then investigating Cheney aide Scooter Libby in the CIA leak case, had his name turn up on a Justice Department chart including him among prosecutors who had "not distinguished themselves." DoJ's rating of Fitzgerald, who later obtained a jury conviction of Libby on four felony counts, was sent to the White House in March 2005 ranking him behind "strong U.S. attorneys... who exhibited loyalty" to the administration, but ahead of "weak U.S. attorneys who... chafed against administration initiatives, etc. "