Who's Afraid of the White House-DOJ Connection?

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

U.S. President George W. Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at a Cinco de Mayo observance in the Rose Garden at the White House, May 4, 2007.

If the White House did nothing improper in the controversial firing of eight U.S. Attorneys last year, why would top officials in the Justice Department, perhaps including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, have tried to conceal its role in the dismissals?

That question has come into focus as Congressional investigators follow the trail of an e-mail sent February 7, 2007, by Gonzales' spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. In the message he told two top Gonzales aides that the Attorney General was "extremely upset" that his deputy, Paul McNulty, had told the Senate Judiciary committee the day before that one of the attorneys, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, had been fired to make room for an aide to Karl Rove.

When the Roehrkasse e-mail came to light, he told the press that Gonzales had been upset because he believed that "Bud Cummins' removal involved performance considerations." But on April 15, Congressional sources tell TIME, Gonzales' former chief of staff Kyle Sampson told a different story. During a private interview with Judiciary Committee staffers Sampson said three times in as many minutes that Gonzales was angry with McNulty because he had exposed the White House's involvement in the firings — had put its role "in the public sphere," as Sampson phrased it, according to Congressional sources familiar with the interview.

If Gonzales was indeed actively trying to protect the White House from charges they were involved in the firings, that will fuel suspicions that something improper was at work in the firings themselves. Most Democrats and Republicans agree that the President has broad authority to replace U.S. attorneys as he sees fit, so why would the Attorney General try to obscure the White House's role in doing so?

Sampson's private testimony comes to light at an inconvenient moment for the Justice Department and the Attorney General. Gonzales testifies before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday. And a new line of inquiry has opened up this week as investigators peruse allegations that two top aides screened career hires for political allegiances.

Gonzales would not be the first Justice official to diminish the White House role in the attorney firings. Sampson himself did so, inadvertently or otherwise, when he prepped top DOJ officials for Congressional testimony earlier this year. He and Monica Goodling, the former counselor to Gonzales whom Congress has granted immunity to testify, had multiple e-mail conversations with White House officials throughout the fall of 2006 about the plan to remove the U.S. attorneys, including with Scott Jennings in Karl Rove's office and Harriet Miers and her assistants in the White House counsel's office, documents released by the Justice Department show.

McNulty has told Congressional investigators that he was troubled to learn of the extent of White House involvement when Sampson told him March 8. That afternoon Sampson went to McNulty's deputy, a forty-year Justice Department veteran named David Margolis, and read him e-mails showing the White House role. In an interview with Judiciary committee staffers, Margolis said he was stunned by the revelations, Congressional sources tell TIME. Sampson then went to McNulty's office to read him the e-mails directly. Monica Goodling then came into Margolis' office and proceeded to break down and cry for 30-40 minutes, sobbing that she had only wanted to serve the President, the Administration and the Department. Days later, Sampson and Goodling resigned.