WASHINGTON -- White House political adviser 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 new e-mails released yesterday that show a deeper White House involvement in the firings 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 new e-mails released yesterday, 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 Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, 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 percent to 20 percent of the 93 U.S. attorneys" whom they considered "the underperforming ones." The others, Sampson said, "are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies."
But, as a "political matter," Sampson 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 might have been the prime mover in jettisoning the prosecutors. The administration denies that.
White House officials have said that initially former White House counsel Harriet Miers 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 yesterday suggest that Rove had also brought up the idea of getting the resignations of all 93.
Yesterday, the White House denied that Rove had hatched the plot to fire all of them, with White House spokeswoman Dana Perino saying that the new 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 Department of Justice, 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 new 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 Schumer, a New York Democrat. 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."
Also yesterday, 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 Smith, an Oregon Republican, yesterday became the latest Republican to express concern about Gonzales but stopped short of saying he should quit.
Richard A. Serrano and Richard B. Schmitt write for the Los Angeles Times.