Calling the Democratic response to the firing of eight federal prosecutors a "partisan fishing expedition," President Bush rejected lawmakers' call Tuesday to subpoena White House staff for testimony related to the matter.
Bush's public statement came hours after the White House offered to make political strategist Karl Rove and former counsel Harriet Miers available for interviews — but not testimony under oath — before congressional committees investigating the firings.
"We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants," Bush said in a statement from the White House. "I proposed a reasonable way to avoid an impasse."
He added: "There's no indication ... that anybody did anything improper."
Democrats’ response to his proposal was swift and firm. “Testimony should be on the record and under oath. That’s the formula for true accountability,” said Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bush gave his embattled attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, a boost during an early morning call to his longtime friend and ended the day with a public statement repeating it. “He’s got support with me,” the president said.
Blow to appointment powers
Earlier, the Senate by a 94-2 vote passed to strip Gonzales of his authority to fill U.S. attorney vacancies without Senate confirmation. Democrats contend the Justice Department and White House purged eight federal prosecutors, some of whom were leading political corruption investigations, after a change in the Patriot Act gave Gonzales the new authority.
“If you politicize the prosecutors, you politicize everybody in the whole chain of law enforcement,” said Leahy.
The bill, which has yet to be considered in the House, would set a 120-day deadline for the administration to appoint an interim prosecutor. If the interim appointment is not confirmed by the Senate in that time, a permanent replacement would be named by a federal district judge.
Several Democrats, including presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barrack Obama, Joe Biden and John Edwards, have called for Gonzales’ ouster or resignation. So have a handful of Republican lawmakers.
“What happened in this case sends a signal really through intimidation by purge: ’Don’t quarrel with us any longer,”’ said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a former U.S. attorney who spent much of Monday evening paging through 3,000 documents released by the Justice Department.
Private interviews granted
Bush said his White House counsel, Fred Fielding, told lawmakers they could interview presidential counselor Karl Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and their deputies — but only on the president’s terms: in private, “without the need for an oath” and without a transcript.
The president cast the offer as virtually unprecedented and a reasonable way for Congress to get all the information it needs about the matter.
“If the Democrats truly do want to move forward and find the right information, they ought to accept what I proposed,” Bush said. “If scoring political points is the desire, then the rejection of this reasonable proposal will really be evident for the American people to see.”
Bush said he would aggressively fight in court any attempt to subpoena White House aides.
“If the staff of a president operates in constant fear of being hauled before congressional committees ... the president would not receive candid advice and the American people would be ill-served,” he said. “I’m sorry the situation has gotten to where it’s got, but that’s Washington, D.C., for you. You know there’s a lot of politics in this town.”
Fielding: 'Virtually unprecedented'
In his letter, Fielding said the White House was willing to provide lawmakers with wide access.
“These documents, together with the interviews to be provided by department officials, will provide extensive background on the decisions in question, including an account of communications between the department and senior White House officials,” he wrote. “Congress, in short, is receiving a virtually unprecedented window into personnel decision-making within the executive branch.”
Fielding also said that in addition to interviews the White House will provide documents on communications between the White House and the Department of Justice concerning the request for resignations of the U.S. attorneys and between White House staff and members of Congress, their aides and others.
New documents releasedThe documents that Congress will focus on in the coming days show that Gonzales was unhappy with how Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty explained the firings to the Senate Judiciary Committee in early February.
"The Attorney General is extremely upset with the stories on the US Attys this morning," Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, who was traveling with Gonzales in South America at the time, wrote in a Feb. 7 e-mail. "He also thought some of the DAG's statements were inaccurate."
In a statement Monday night, Roehrkasse said he was referring to Gonzales' concerns over the firing of Bud Cummins in Little Rock, who he believed was dismissed because of performance issues. At the hearing, McNulty indicated Cummins was being replaced by a political ally.
Neither of the two most senior Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are stepping forward to endorse Gonzales, but likewise are not calling for his ouster. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said he will reserve judgment until he gets all the facts. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has not given interviews on the subject, his spokesman said.
Speculation has abounded over who might succeed Gonzales if he doesn't survive the current political tumult. Possible candidates include White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein, federal appeals judge Laurence Silberman and PepsiCo attorney Larry Thompson, who was the government's highest ranking black law enforcement official when he was deputy attorney general during Bush's first term.
Among the e-mails released Monday was one McNulty received on Feb. 1 from Margaret Chiara, the U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"Why have I been asked to resign?" she asked.
Early this month, she wrote McNulty again, saying that "I respectfully request that you reconsider the rationale of poor performance as the basis for my dismissal. It is in our mutual interest to retract this erroneous explanation."
She added: "Politics may not be a pleasant reason but the truth is compelling."
Chiara asked McNulty to "endorse or otherwise encourage my selection" as assistant director at the Justice Department's National Advocacy Center, which trains federal, state and local prosecutors.
In one uncomfortable exchange with Chiara, McNulty aide Mike Elston said, "our only choice is to continue to be truthful about this entire matter."
"The word performance obviously has not set well with you and your colleagues," Elston wrote. "By that word we only meant to convey that there were issues about policy, priorities and management/leadership that we felt were important to the Department's effectiveness."