White House adviser Karl Rove lashed out today at Democrats' vocal criticism of the administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
Democrats are calling on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign over the Justice Department's handling of the firings, but Rove accused them of trying to create a scandal where there isn't one.
"Now we are at a point where people want to play politics with it," said Rove, "and that's fine."
Newly released e-mails show Karl Rove was involved in the plan from the very beginning. But the White House says the messages were only a general request for information about plans regarding the U.S. attorneys' futures. One e-mail said "the matter was not urgent" to Rove.
The Department of Justice released a statement on the e-mail, which was sent while Gonzales was still serving as White House counsel, saying he has "no recollection" of a plan or talks about replacing any U.S. attorneys. During the time frame in which the message was sent, he was preparing for his confirmation hearing.
"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 as the White House was considering different personnel changes administration wide," the statement said.
'Superheated Political Rhetoric'
Rove said U.S. attorneys, who serve at the pleasure of the president, can be fired at any time. Period.
"I would simply ask that everybody who is playing politics with this be asked to comment about what they think about the removal of about 123 U.S. attorneys during the previous [Clinton] administration," he said, "and see if they have the same superheated political rhetoric then that they are having now."
Former President Bill Clinton removed all 93 U.S. attorneys at the start of his presidency.
Rove signaled what might be a new administration strategy, offering specifics about why some of the eight U.S. attorneys were fired. One was booted, Rove said, because the prosecutor was against implementing the death penalty. He claimed another was fired because she would not beef up enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Subpoenas to Come?
But even as Rove began the administration push back, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced plans to subpoena senior Justice Department officials. And the Democratic chairman promised to try to force White House officials to testify if necessary.
"We now have strong reason to believe that despite the earlier protestations to the contrary, Karl Rove and political operatives at the White House and for the Republican Party played a role along with those in the White House counsel's office," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-N.H.
"If I do not get the cooperation, I will subpoena," said Leahy. "We will have testimony under oath before this committee. We'll have the chance for both Republicans and Democrats to ask questions, and we'll find out what happened."
Confidence Level in Gonzales 'at Its Lowest Point Ever'
Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., the lone Republican on Capitol Hill to call for the attorney general to resign, today said Gonzales' support in Congress among the GOP is not broad or deep.
"I may be the first Republican to suggest the attorney general be fired," said Sununu, "but I am certainly not alone when it comes to the confidence level in the attorney general. That's at its lowest point ever."
Sununu cited Gonzales' handling of the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, his department's terrorist surveillance program, and now the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys as issues that have built the case against Gonzales.
"We can't get away from the fact that credibility matters. Public confidence matters." Sununu continued. "If he doesn't have it, he can't be an effective advocate for the president of the United States. He can't do the job that the American people want an attorney general to do. And he can't work effectively with Congress when we are negotiating legislation or exercising oversight of Justice Department activities."
Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl -- from a state that lost a U.S. attorney -- said the Justice Department bungled the affair, saying "part of the ham-handed way that this was handled redounds to the detriment of some very fine U.S. attorneys."
Kyl acknowledged the right to demand "loyalty to the attorney general's priorities and policies with respect to prosecution." But he continued, "It is lamentable, to say the least, that those kinds of policy differences then suggest that there is something wrong with the attorneys who were asked to be relieved."
White House Support
But even amid bipartisan criticism, the White House remained supportive of Gonzales.
"The president has confidence in the attorney general. He's made that clear, both privately to the attorney general, and he made it clear yesterday," Press Secretary Tony Snow said today.
President Bush has affirmed his support, but said he wants to see some action.
"Mistakes were made," Bush said Wednesday. "And I'm frankly not happy about them because there is a lot of confusion over what really has been a customary practice by the presidents."
Today, the attorney general hunkered down with his closest advisers. More e-mails are expected to be released in the coming days, and top officials could be implicated. The attorney general, who has called the firings an "overblown personnel matter," has said politics did not play into his decision to remove the U.S. attorneys. Those coming e-mails could either help Gonzales save face — or cost him his job.