Video: White House linked to attorney firings

updated 3/13/2007 4:26:05 PM ET 2007-03-13T20:26:05

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged that mistakes were made and accepted responsibility Tuesday for the way eight federal prosecutors were fired.

At a news conference Tuesday, Gonzales said he would find out what went wrong but said he would not resign. "I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility," Gonzales said amid growing calls for his own termination.

Democrats in Congress have charged that the eight dismissals announced last December were politically motivated and some of those fired have said they felt pressured by powerful Republicans in their home states to rush investigations of potential voter fraud involving Democrats.

Justice Department officials, led by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, told lawmakers under oath that the decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys in December was made solely by the Justice Department and said the decision was based on performance, not politics.

E-mails released Tuesday, however, revealed that the firings were considered and discussed for two years by Justice Department and White House officials.

I stand by that decision’
"Obviously I am concerned about the fact that information — incomplete information was communicated or may have been communicated to the Congress," Gonzales said. "I believe very strongly in our obligation to ensure that when we provide information to the Congress, it is accurate and it is complete. And I very dismayed that that may not have occurred here."

“I stand by that decision and I think it was the right decision. Thank you very much,” he said at the end of the news conference, turned and briskly walked away.

The top White House lawyer floated the idea of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys at the start of President Bush’s second term, but the Justice Department objected and eventually recommended the eight dismissals that have now generated a political firestorm.

The long-simmering feud erupted with the new revelations, causing Gonzales to cancel a planned trip Tuesday to Syracuse, N.Y., amid calls from Congress for his ouster.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday that then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers raised with an aide to Gonzales the prospect of asking all chief federal district prosecutors to resign in 2004 as a logical way to start a new term with a new slate of U.S. attorneys.

Perino also acknowledged Monday that complaints about the job performance of prosecutors occasionally came to the White House and were passed on to the Justice Department, perhaps including some informally from President Bush to Gonzales.

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At the pleasure of the president
The U.S. attorneys, the chief federal law enforcement officials in their various districts, typically are appointed to four-year terms by the president on the recommendation of state political leaders, but serve at the pleasure of the president and can be dismissed at any time — like the attorney general and other Cabinet officers.

Democrats in Congress have charged that the eight dismissals announced last December were politically motivated and some of those fired have said they felt pressured by powerful Republicans in their home states to rush investigations of potential voter fraud involving Democrats.

Perino said Kyle Sampson, the aide Miers contacted, objected that a wholesale change of prosecutors would be disruptive. She also said deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, the president’s top political adviser, vaguely recalls telling Miers that he also thought firing all 93 was ill-advised.

Sampson resigned Monday after acknowledging that he did not tell other Justice officials who testified to Congress about the extent of his communications with the White House, leading them to provide incomplete information in their testimony, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because Sampson has not announced his departure.

Perrino said the Justice Department was working internally on a short list of firings, and submitted that list to the White House in late 2006.

“At no time were names added or subtracted by the White House,” Perino said. “We continue to believe that the decision to remove and replace U.S. attorneys who serve at the pleasure of the president was perfectly appropriate and within administration’s discretion. We stand by the Department of Justice’s assertion that they were removed for performance and managerial reasons.”

Complaints on prosecutorial vigor
Dating back to mid-2004, the White House’s legislative affairs, political affairs and chief of staff’s office had received complaints from a variety of sources about the lack of vigorous prosecution of election fraud cases in various locations, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee and New Mexico, she said

Those complaints were passed on to the Justice Department or Miers' office.

“The president recalls hearing complaints about election fraud not being vigorously prosecuted and believes he may have informally mentioned it to the attorney general during a brief discussion on other Department of Justice matters,” Perino said, adding that the conversation would have taken place in October 2006.

“At no time did any White House officials, including the president, direct the Department of Justice to take specific action against any individual U.S. attorney,” Perino said.

The Washington Post reported initially on the idea of dismissing all the prosecutors, saying it reviewed a number of internal White House e-mails preceding the final dismissals.

Rove in Democrats' cross hairs
The new revelations Monday evening came after congressional Democrats earlier in the day singled out Rove for questioning about the firings of the eight prosecutors and whether the dismissals were politically motivated.

Those demands to question Rove signaled anew Democrats’ shifting focus beyond the Justice Department and toward the White House in the inquiry.

Last week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said he would seek to interview Miers and deputy counsel William Kelly for insight on their roles, if any, in the firings.

Rove emerged as the Democrats’ newest target after weekend news reports said the New Mexico Republican Party’s chairman urged Rove to fire David Iglesias, then the state’s U.S. attorney.

In a statement Monday, Conyers said stories about Rove’s alleged link to Iglesias’ dismissal “raise even more alarm bells for us.”

“As a result, we would want to ensure that Karl Rove was one of the White House staff that we interview in connection with our investigation,” said Conyers.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is leading his chamber’s probe into the firings, said he also wants to question Rove.

Intraparty chafing
In an interview this weekend with The Associated Press, New Mexico GOP chairman Allen Weh said Iglesias’ “termination had already occurred” by the time he spoke with Rove at a holiday party last December. But Weh made no secret of his dissatisfaction with Iglesias, in part from the prosecutor’s failure to indict Democrats in a voter fraud investigation.

The White House has said previously that Rove wasn’t involved in the firings, but did alert Miers to complaints about Iglesias. It was not immediately clear whether Rove also told Gonzales about the complaints.

Last week, Rove called the two-month controversy “a very big attempt by some in the Congress to make a political stink about it.”

Schumer called it “almost unheard of” for a federal prosecutor with favorable reviews to be fired after a top presidential adviser like Rove received complaints about his performance.

“The more we learn, the more it seems that people at high levels in the White House have been involved in the U.S. attorney purge,” Schumer said Monday.

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