Rove may have had role in firings

Times Staff Writers

White House political advisor Karl Rove more than two years ago began seeking input from the Department of Justice into how many U.S. attorneys should be fired in the second Bush administration, according to e-mails released Thursday that show a deeper White House involvement in the dismissal of federal prosecutors last year.

The e-mails also show that the Justice Department was willing to defer to Rove on the matter.

According to the e-mails, Rove in January 2005 asked the White House counsel’s office about its plans for the nation’s federal prosecutors, and whether it would fire some or all of them.

Three days later, D. Kyle Sampson, a Justice official and soon-to-be deputy chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales -- who was then the White House counsel -- responded with a point-by-point strategy on how the administration might proceed.


As an operational matter, Sampson wrote, “we would like to replace 15% to 20%" of the 93 U.S. attorneys, those they considered to be underperforming. The others, Sampson said, “are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies.”

But as a political matter, he cautioned that “when push comes to shove,” home-state senators who supported their prosecutors likely would resist the firings. Nevertheless, Sampson said, “if Karl thinks there would be political will to do it, so do I.”

The administration eventually fired eight U.S. attorneys, at first saying they were let go for job performance reasons. But new details surfacing in a Democratic-led Capitol Hill investigation are suggesting that politics may have been the prime motive for jettisoning the prosecutors. The administration denies that.

White House officials have said that former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers initially floated the idea of firing all the prosecutors. But they said her idea was scrapped by Gonzales and others who thought it impractical. The e-mails released Thursday suggest that Rove had also brought up the idea of getting the resignations of all 93.

On Thursday, the White House denied that Rove had hatched the plot to fire all of them, with White House spokeswoman Dana Perino saying the latest e-mail exchange “does not contradict nor is it inconsistent with what we have said.”

Miers was named to succeed Gonzales as counsel to the president in November 2004. “During that time, and until she takes over on Feb. 3, 2005, when the attorney general was confirmed, she would have been thinking about transition issues,” Perino said.

“Karl Rove has a recollection of hearing it from Harriet, and thinking it was a bad idea,” Perino said. “There is nothing in this e-mail that changes that.

“It is not clear when the idea first originates, but the bottom line is, the idea is never pursued,” Perino said.

At the Justice Department, spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said Gonzales “has no recollection of any plan or discussion to replace U.S. attorneys while he was still White House counsel.”

She added, “The period of time referred to in the e-mail was during the weeks he was preparing for his confirmation hearing [as attorney general], and his focus was on that.

“Of course, discussions of changes in presidential appointees would have been appropriate and normal White House exchanges in the days and months after the election.”

Congressional Democrats seized on the newly released e-mails as evidence of a wider White House political role in the firings.

The e-mails “show conclusively that Karl Rove was in the middle of this mess from the beginning,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). He predicted “a crescendo for the attorney general to resign,” and asserted there was “an active and avid discussion in the White House on whether he should resign.”

In California, where the U.S. attorneys in San Diego and San Francisco were fired, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said of the e-mails, “This latest revelation provides one more indication that this was not a cursory move and instead it was a well-strategized, well-executed plan that was done with the knowledge of the Department of Justice and the White House.”

Also on Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee authorized subpoenas for five top Justice Department officials involved in the firings. Democrats on the panel also sought subpoenas for Rove and Miers, but Republicans on the committee opposed it.

Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon on Thursday became the latest Republican to express concern about Gonzales, but he stopped short of saying the attorney general should quit. “The senator believes it would be helpful for this Congress to have an attorney general they could invest confidence in,” said Smith spokesman R.C. Hammond.

Bush has said he was “not happy” about the way the eight attorneys were fired. Gonzales has not indicated he is willing to go.

The first e-mail released late Thursday by the Justice Department as it was being sent over to congressional Democrats is from Colin Newman to David G. Leitch, both then officials in the White House counsel’s office. The e-mail is dated Jan. 6, 2005, and headed, “Question from Karl Rove”:

“David -- Karl Rove stopped by to ask you (roughly quoting) ‘how we planned to proceed regarding US 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.’...He said the matter was not urgent.”

The message was forwarded to Sampson, who was Gonzales’ chief of staff before resigning this week. He sent a response to Leitch saying that he and Gonzales had “discussed briefly a couple of weeks ago” the same ideas.

He said that from a legal standpoint, all prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president. But, he added, “it would be weird to ask them to leave before completing at least a 4-year term.”

He said President Clinton fired the prosecutors appointed by the elder President Bush who were still on the job when Clinton took office in 1993, “nearly all of whom were in the midst of their 4-year terms.” He went on to point out that the current President Bush “fired the Clinton-appointed U.S. Attorneys, some of whom were in the midst of a 4-year term, but many of whom had completed their 4-year terms and were serving in holdover status.”

Then he got down to what the administration wanted to do, suggesting that 15% to 20% of the lawyers be fired. He also discussed the consequences. “It would certainly send ripples through the U.S. Attorney community if we told folks they got one term only ... Indeed, even performance evaluations likely would create ripples, though this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.”

Finally Sampson discussed the issue as a “political matter,” noting that each of the prosecutors was appointed on the basis of recommendations from home-state senators. “I suspect that when push comes to shove, home state senators would resist wholesale (or even piecemeal) replacement of U.S. Attorneys they recommended.”