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Bush aides are raising a firewall

Times Staff Writer

As more Republicans called last week on Alberto R. Gonzales to resign, President Bush’s aides began to look beyond the attorney general and focus on preventing the controversy over the firing of federal prosecutors from spreading -- and endangering Karl Rove, the president’s top political advisor.

“This is not going to go away,” warned Joseph E. DiGenova, a former U.S. attorney in the Reagan administration. “I’m sure the president is going to let it go as long as he can ... but there’s only so much bleeding he can take.”

The fracas over the fired prosecutors reflects a larger underlying problem for Bush: His political standing as president, already battered by the war in Iraq and domestic missteps like the handling of Hurricane Katrina, has only continued to erode since his party lost control of Congress in November.

Initially, the dispute centered on the Justice Department, Gonzales and his top aides. But documents released last week suggested that Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers were also involved in the decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys after the 2004 election. That brought the issue to the threshold of the Oval Office and prompted reporters to ask whether Bush had been involved.

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“I want you to be clear here: Don’t go dropping it at the president’s door,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday when asked about Bush’s involvement.

Although U.S. attorneys are presidential appointees who can be removed at the president’s discretion, the firings have flared into a potentially damaging issue for the administration because of indications that they may have resulted from political pressure.

Gonzales and his aides initially told Congress that the prosecutors were fired because their performance was unsatisfactory. But documents released last week showed that officials also discussed whether the U.S. attorneys had been “loyal Bushies,” in the words of one Justice Department e-mail.

Democrats, with their new majorities in the House and Senate, quickly jumped on the issue.

Bush’s diminished popularity, combined with his administration’s disdain for Congress’ view of legislative prerogatives, have given the president a slimmer margin for error -- even with members of his own party.

“You’ve got Republicans in Congress who have run out their string with him,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the largely conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The shift to Democratic control has accelerated the controversy.

“Elections matter,” Ornstein said. “If the Republicans were still in charge of Congress, even by one vote, the reaction to this would have been that it was just a personnel matter. The administration might still have had a problem, but it would have taken a lot longer to develop.”

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Several leading Republicans said they expected Gonzales to resign in the next few weeks.

They asked to speak on condition of anonymity because their comments conflicted with Bush’s public position that his attorney general does not need to leave.

Two Republican senators, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, and one Republican congressman, Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, have publicly called on Gonzales to resign.

Others have said privately that the attorney general should leave.

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And no leading Republican in Congress has stepped forward to defend Gonzales -- a sign that any political support he once enjoyed has virtually disappeared.

Democrats in the Senate and House have said they want Miers and Rove, President Bush’s chief political strategist, to testify about their roles in the decision to fire the prosecutors. Rove, Miers and Gonzales have been among the president’s closest aides for more than a decade; all worked for him when he was governor of Texas in the 1990s.

Early reports had indicated that the idea of the firings originated with Miers, but on Friday, Snow said that may not be the case. “At this juncture, people have hazy memories,” he said.

Snow said the White House has not decided whether Rove or Miers should testify or whether to release internal documents to Congress, which has the power to subpoena witnesses -- Justice Department officials and others.

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But the president can assert a counterclaim of executive privilege to shield internal deliberations at the White House.

White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding spent much of last week on Capitol Hill trying to determine what Congress would insist on, officials said, but he gave no indication of what the administration was prepared to give.

“This is one more chapter in the defense of Karl Rove,” said one leading GOP figure who insisted on anonymity because he was speaking ill of the president’s most powerful aide. “This isn’t accountability, it’s damage control, and it’s protection for Karl.”

But other Republicans defended Rove.

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“There’s no suggestion of illegality in anything he has done,” DiGenova said. “He wasn’t the one making inaccurate representations on Capitol Hill. I would think that would trump any demand [from Congress] for testimony.”

Rove, speaking at a university last week, dismissed the controversy as groundless. “We’re at a point where people want to play politics with it,” he said.

Some Republicans in Congress have been gauging the electoral cross-currents along with the Democrats.

The two Republican senators who have called on Gonzales to resign face reelection campaigns next year.

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Another senator who faces reelection, John Cornyn of Texas, normally one of the White House’s most reliable allies, has said he was disappointed in the attorney general.

“The appearances are troubling,” Cornyn told reporters last week. “But in Texas we believe in having a fair trial, and then we have the hanging,” he added.

Gonzales compounded his own vulnerability by being high-handed with Congress, Ornstein noted.

“He has treated Congress with the back of his hand,” he said. “He stonewalled everything, even when he had Republican chairmen. He built no reservoir of support.”

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As a result, he said, “we’re seeing what I call the battered Congress syndrome. After years of being slapped around by the White House, at some point there’s a counter-reaction.”

Finally, the Justice Department and White House made matters worse by repeatedly issuing inconsistent and incomplete accounts of how the U.S. attorneys had been fired.

“The incompetence has been amazing,” DiGenova charged. “Managing crises, beginning with preventing crises, is what life in Washington is about.... But these guys didn’t have a plan ready to answer questions once the problem became public. They still don’t have their stories straight.

“There are too many Stepford husbands in this administration: young men who are perfectly coiffed and have great clothes, but very few of them have ever been in a courtroom,” he added.

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Charles O. Jones, a presidential scholar at the University of Wisconsin, said the controversy had weakened a presidency that was already fragile.

“By the normal measures of electoral support and popular support, Bush had the lowest political standing of any president on record when he was reelected in 2004,” Jones said.

“He argued that his reelection alone gave him political capital, but it was damned slim,” Jones said. “And since then, there has been a decline in his position -- a steady decline. There’s not a whole lot of political capital left for him to draw on.”

The fragility of Bush’s mandate, Jones said, stems partly from his governing style: an “executive approach” that rests on unilateral action instead of a “legislative approach” that relies on patient negotiation with Congress.

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“That approach can produce positive results ... and you can argue that it did after Sept. 11,” Jones said.

But “it means you’d better get it right, because if you screw up, you’re going to lose your supporters too.

“It’s Bush’s governing style, and no one can expect that someone like Bush can simply switch styles,” he added.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

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