White House Murky On Prosecutor Firings
Friday, March 16th 2007, 7:40 am
News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The White House dropped its contention Friday that former Counsel Harriet Miers first raised the idea of firing U.S. attorneys, blaming ``hazy memories'' as e-mails shed new light on Karl Rove's role. Support eroded further for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Presidential press secretary Tony Snow previously had asserted Miers was the person who came up with the idea, but he said Friday, ``I don't want to try to vouch for origination.'' He said, ``At this juncture, people have hazy memories.''
The White House also said it needed more time before deciding whether Miers, political strategist Rove and other presidential advisers would testify before Congress and whether the White House would release documents to lawmakers.
``Given the importance of the issues under consideration and the presidential principles involved, we need more time to resolve them,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. She said White House Counsel Fred Fielding suggested to the House Judiciary Committee that he get back to members on Tuesday.
Fielding called a staff member of the House Judiciary Committee Thursday afternoon, saying he needed to clear the White House's position with Bush, according to an official who works for the panel. That official spoke only on condition of anonymity because the conversation had been private.
After receiving word of the delay, committee chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said his panel would vote next week on subpoenas for Rove, Miers and other officials.
Snow's comments came hours after the Justice Department released e-mails Thursday night pulling the White House deeper into an intensifying investigation into whether eight firings were a purge of prosecutors deemed unenthusiastic about presidential goals.
Snow said it was not immediately clear who first floated the more dramatic idea of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys shortly after President Bush was re-elected to a second term.
``This is as far as we can go: We know that Karl recollects Harriet having raised it and his recollection is that he dismissed it as not a good idea,'' Snow told reporters. ``That's what we know. We don't know motivations. ... I don't think it's safe to go any further than that.''
Asked if Bush himself might have suggested the firings, Snow said, ``Anything's possible ... but I don't think so.'' He said Bush ``certainly has no recollection of any such thing. I can't speak for the attorney general.''
``I want you to be clear here: Don't be dropping it at the president's door,'' Snow said.
Subpoenas demanding testimony from White House officials could come next week.
The Justice Department said it will release on Monday documents requested by the congressional committee.
Conyers said the House Judiciary Committee ``must take steps to ensure that we are not being stonewalled or slow-walked on this matter.'' He said, ``I will schedule a vote to issue subpoenas for the documents and officials we need to talk to.''
``We hope that this delay is not a signal they will not cooperate,'' said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is leading the Senate's probe into the matter. ``The story keeps changing, which neither does them or the public any good.''
Meanwhile, a Republican House member suggested it might be time for Gonzales to go.
``It is ultimately the president's decision, but perhaps it would benefit this administration if the attorney general was replaced with someone with a more professional focus rather than personal loyalty,'' said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. He complained of ``a pattern of arrogance in this administration.''
On the Senate side, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Judiciary Committee member, said Gonzales should go if it is proved he misled Congress.
``I've not joined in a call for his resignation, but when a top official in a department is inaccurate in their testimony, we're going to have a look at it,'' Sessions told National Public Radio's ``All Things Considered'' program. ``That's just the way it is. And I hope that he will be able to answer that convincingly, that there is no ethical or other malintent in misleading Congress. If he did, I think he will be out of there.''
Republican Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire has already called for Bush to replace Gonzales, and a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee, speaking on condition of anonymity, has said he plans to do the same next week.
House Democratic Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina said the controversies reflected poorly on administration officials generally.
``They don't know anything about running government. They're just political hacks,'' Clyburn said at a news conference in Columbia, S.C. ``Gonzales is just a political hack.''
Other GOP lawmakers have joined Democrats in harsh indictments of Gonzales' effectiveness but have stopped short of saying he should be fired.
``I do not think the attorney general has served the president well, but it is up to the president to decide on General Gonzales' continued tenure,'' said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The latest e-mails between White House and Justice Department officials show that Rove inquired in early January 2005 about firing U.S. attorneys. They also indicate Gonzales was considering dismissing up to 20 percent of U.S. attorneys in the weeks before he took over the Justice Department.
In one e-mail, Gonzales' top aide, Kyle Sampson, said an across-the-board housecleaning ``would certainly send ripples through the U.S. attorney community if we told folks they got one term only.'' The e-mail concluded that ``if Karl thinks there would be political will to do it, then so do I.''
Sampson resigned this week amid the uproar.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote for next Thursday on authorizing subpoenas for Rove, Miers and her deputy, William K. Kelley. The panel already has approved the use of subpoenas, if necessary, for Justice Department officials and J. Scott Jennings, a White House aide who works in Rove's office.
E-mails between the White House and the Justice Department suggest that Jennings was involved in setting up a meeting on a possible replacement for soon-to-be-fired New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias and in responding to ``a senator problem'' with the proposed replacement of Bud Cummins, then U.S. attorney for Arkansas.
Among the Justice Department officials named in the subpoenas is Associate Deputy Attorney General William E. Moschella. Lawmakers want him to testify about whether the White House consented to changing the Patriot Act last year to let the attorney general appoint new U.S. attorneys without confirmation.
In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Moschella said the change was not aimed at bypassing the Senate but ending meddling by judges in filling vacant prosecutors' jobs. Under the former law, federal judges could appoint interim U.S. attorneys in jobs that were vacant for more than 120 days.
``There's a conspiracy theory about this and it's nothing other than that,'' Moschella said.