The firestorm over the fired U.S. attorneys was sparked last month when a top Justice Department official ignored guidance from the White House and rejected advice from senior administration lawyers over his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The official, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, ignored White House Counsel Harriet Miers and senior lawyers in the Justice Department when he told the committee last month of specific reasons why the administration fired seven U.S. attorneys -- and appeared to acknowledge for the first time that politics was behind one dismissal.
McNulty's testimony directly conflicted with the approach Miers advised, according to an unreleased internal White House e-mail described to ABC News. According to that e-mail, sources said, Miers said the administration should take the firm position that it would not comment on personnel issues.
Until McNulty's testimony, administration officials had consistently refused to publicly say why specific attorneys were dismissed and insisted that the White House had complete authority to replace them. That was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' approach when he testified before the committee in January.
But McNulty, who worked on Capitol Hill 12 years, believed he had little choice but to more fully discuss the circumstances of the attorneys' firings, according to a a senior Justice Department official familiar the circumstances. McNulty believed the senators would demand additional information, and he was confident he could draw on a long relationship with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, in explaining in more detail, sources told ABC News.
In doing so, however, McNulty went well beyond the scope of what the White House cleared him to say when it approved his written testimony the week before the hearing, according to administration sources closely involved in the matter.
The controversy over the firings has prompted calls for Gonzales' resignation and led to the resignation of one senior Justice Department official. Another Department official, Monica Goodling, announced Monday she would refuse to testify in front of Congress. Sources said Goodling was informed that McNulty had tried to blame her for deficiencies in his testimony. Reached for comment Monday night, McNulty said he is not considering resigning.
"I have no plans to step down," McNulty said. "I intend to cooperate with the Committee in anyway they choose."
Senators now are focusing on the part of McNulty's testimony that appeared to directly contradict the earlier testimony by Gonzales. A source close to McNulty said he had believed he was not contradicting Gonzales's testimony and was, in fact, conveying the same message as his boss. But Senators immediately pounced on how McNulty characterized the firings and homed in on what they saw as inconsistencies.
"That's what lit the fuse," said Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, a senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "They should've expected pushback -- not only from the U.S. attorneys but from their supporters once they characterized the reason as negative performance, inadequate performance."
McNulty's testimony also prompted the U.S. attorneys to aggressively defend themselves and their work and angered senators demanding to know what role politics played in the process.