Rove’s Role in the U.S. Attorneys’ Firings

Karl Rove participated in a discussion about the firing of U.S. attorneys in 2005, asking White House lawyers “how we planned to proceed” on the issue and whether the prosecutors would be selectively dismissed or fired en masse, according to newly disclosed White House e-mails.

The e-mails, obtained by NEWSWEEK, appear to show that Rove had a greater level of involvement in the dismissal of the prosecutors than the White House has previously acknowledged. The messages may also raise new questions for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. While the attorney general insisted to reporters this week that he had rejected “a request from the White House” to fire all U.S. attorneys two years ago, the new e-mails show the plan was conceived while Gonzales himself was the White House counsel.

The controversy over the firing of the U.S. attorneys erupted in recent weeks, after some of the fired prosecutors testified that they believed they were improperly dismissed because of political pressures. Seven U.S. attorneys were fired last December and given no explanation for their dismissals. Another U.S. attorney, Bud Cummins of Little Rock, was fired last summer, in order to make room for a former Rove aide.

On Jan. 6, 2005, a White House lawyer, Colin Newman, sent a brief e-mail to David Leitch, then the deputy White House counsel under Gonzales. The subject line read: “Question from Karl Rove.” Newman wrote that “Karl Rove stopped by to ask you (roughly quoting) ‘how we planned to proceed regarding U.S. attorneys, whether we are going to allow all to stay, request resignations from all and accept only some of them, or selectively replace them, etc.’”

Later that day, Leitch forwards the message to Kyle Sampson, an aide at the Justice Department, saying "let's discuss." On Jan. 9, Sampson replied that “Judge” (a reference to Gonzales, formerly a justice on the Texas Supreme Court) “and I discussed briefly a couple of weeks ago. Sampson went on to offer his “thoughts,” which included this plan: “As an operational matter, we would like to replace 15-20 percent of the current U.S. attorneys--the underperforming ones. This is a rough guess; we might want to consider doing performance evaluations after Judge comes on board”--an apparent reference to Gonzales being confirmed as attorney general in February 2005 and taking over the Justice Department--“The vast majority of U.S. attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc., etc.”

Sampson also warned that the firing of U.S. attorneys could create political problems because it would generate resistance from “home state senators” who had recommended the prosecutors. “That said, if Karl thinks there will be political will to do it, then so do I.”

The e-mail exchange at a minimum seems to contradict the impression Gonzales left with reporters at a press conference he held Tuesday at the Justice Department. At that session, department officials released e-mails that appeared to show the idea of firing U.S. attorneys originated with Gonzales’s successor, Harriet Miers, in March 2005. "The Attorney General has no recollection of any plan or discussion to replace U.S. attorneys while he was still White House Counsel," Gonzales' spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos, said in a statement released Thursday night. "The period of time referred to in the email was during the weeks he was preparing for his confirmation hearing, January 6th, 2005, and his focus was on that." 

The first question Gonzales fielded at the press event was: “Can you explain what the White House role is?” Gonzales replied: “As you can imagine, in an organization of 110,000 people, I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls of the Department of Justice, nor am I aware of all decisions. As a general matter, some two years ago I was made aware that there was a request from the White House as to the possibility of replacing all the United States attorneys. That was immediately rejected by me. I felt that that was a bad idea and it was disruptive.”

Gonzales made no mention of the fact that--as the newly disclosed e-mails show--the idea of firing U.S. attorneys actually began while he was the chief White House lawyer and that he had discussed the matter while he was preparing for Senate confirmation hearings on his nomination as attorney general.

The e-mails, which were first reported by ABC News, also are likely to fuel a congressional inquiry into the matter, raising new questions for Rove. At the time Rove was inquiring about the status of the plan to fire U.S. attorneys, he was himself the subject of a criminal investigation by one of those prosecutors: Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, who had been named special counsel in the CIA leak investigation. (If Fitzgerald were to have been fired from his Chicago post, he would no longer be a Justice Department employee--and therefore would have been ineligible to continue as special counsel in that probe.)

Rove had already been subpoenaed by Fitzgerald to testify twice before the federal grand jury in the CIA leak case--once in February 2004 and again in October of that year. There is no indication from the e-mail, however, that Rove inquired specifically about Fitzgerald’s status.

A White House official, who asked not to be identified talking about a sensitive matter, said tonight that Rove did not initiate the idea of firing the U.S. attorneys and was just following up on where things stood when he made the inquiry in January 2005 to the White House lawyer. Rove’s account is that he opposed the idea of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys.