Rove's Role in Prosecutor Firings Testimony

Deputy chief of staff Karl Rove participated in a hastily called meeting at the White House two months ago. The subject: The firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year. The purpose: to coach a top Justice Department official heading to Capitol Hill to testify on the prosecutorial purge on what he should say.

Now some investigators are saying that Rove’s attendance at the meeting shows that the president’s chief political adviser may have been involved in an attempt to mislead Congress—one more reason they are demanding to see his e-mails and force him to testify under oath.

At the March 5, 2007, meeting, White House aides, including counsel Fred Fielding and deputy counsel William Kelley, sought to shape testimony that Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William Moschella was to give the next day before the House Judiciary Committee.

Although the existence of the White House meeting had been previously disclosed by the Justice Department, Rove’s attendance at the strategy session was not—until both Moschella and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty talked about it in confidential testimony with congressional investigators last week. Portions of their testimony were read to NEWSWEEK by a Democratic aide who asked not to be identified talking about private matters.

According to McNulty’s account, Rove came late to the meeting and left early. But while he was there he spoke up and echoed a point that was made by the other White House aides: The Justice Department needed to provide specific reasons why it terminated the eight prosecutors in order to rebut Democratic charges that the firings were politically motivated. The point Rove and other White House officials made is “you all need to explain what you did and why you did it,” McNulty told the investigators.

The problem, according to the Democratic aide, is that Rove and Kelley never told Moschella  about the White House’s own role in pushing to have some U.S. attorneys fired in the first place. Moschella followed the coaching by Rove and others—and made no mention of White House involvement in the firings during his March 6, 2007, testimony to the House Judiciary Committee. “They let Moschella come up here without telling him the full story,” said the Democratic staffer.

Moschella at one point even appeared to specifically deny that Rove pushed to have one of his former aides, Timothy Griffin, installed at a top job at Justice. “I don’t know that he played any role,” Moschella said when asked by one committee member what Rove played in recommending Griffin to Justice. Since then, the Justice Department turned over to Congress a department e-mail that showed Griffin was installed as U.S. attorney in Arkansas because it was viewed as “important” to Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.

A White House spokesman dismissed the significance of the March meeting, saying it was not surprising that a deputy White House chief of staff like Rove would participate in internal discussions about the firings of presidential appointees. “It’s perfectly natural that he would be there,” said Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto. Asked specifically whether Rove had withheld pertinent information from Moschella, and therefore participated in an attempt to mislead Congress, Fratto replied: “The White House’s role was very limited. I'm not commenting about any meetings.  If the committee wants to learn about it, they can accept our offer” to permit Rove and other White House aides to be privately questioned by Capitol Hill investigators. (Democratic leaders on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees have both rejected that offer, saying they want Rove and other White House officials to testify in public and under oath.)

At his March 6 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Moschella followed the advice of Rove and others and for the first time talked about specific “performance-related” problems that purportedly led to the prosecutors being dismissed. Moschella’s comments about the “deficiencies” of particular U.S. attorneys—such as their failure to provide “effective leadership” or follow the policy priorities of the Justice Department—infuriated the U.S. attorneys, prompting them to publicly defend themselves against what they saw as an arbitrary and highly politicized process.

At least three participants in the March 5 meeting—Rove, Kelley and Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—were aware of the White House role in pushing to have U.S. attorneys fired, according to another Justice Department official who attended the meeting but asked not to be identified talking about a private meeting. But the subject of the White House role in the firings never came up, the official said, because at that point, it had not become a prime focus of congressional interest.  "Quite frankly, those weren’t the questions that Congress was asking at that point," said the official.

Since then, the subject has moved front and center, as has interest in Rove’s role. Justice Department e-mails show that it was Rove in January 2005 who first inquired about whether the department planned to fire all 93 U.S. attorneys or just some of them. Later testimony has revealed that last fall he passed along complaints about some prosecutors—including fired U.S. attorney David Iglesias—to Attorney General Gonzales. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee subpoeanaed the Justice Department to turn over all e-mails in its possession from Rove—including his computer hard drive, which was turned over to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case. The new disclosure about his participation in the March 5 strategy session is likely to fuel the committee’s determination to keep the heat on.