WASHINGTON—Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced more pressure to resign Thursday as new evidence suggested that he and presidential adviser Karl Rove played bigger roles in developing plans to fire U.S. attorneys than they've acknowledged.
Rove has been President Bush's chief political adviser since Bush's first campaign for Texas governor, and the latest developments angered members of Congress, created new credibility problems for the administration and increased calls for Gonzales' resignation.
Democrats cited Rove's involvement as more evidence that the firings were intended to purge prosecutors who refused to let partisan politics influence criminal investigations.
Administration e-mails from early January 2005 show that Rove and Gonzales were directly involved in the initial planning to oust prosecutors who'd fallen out of favor. Recounting in an e-mail a conversation he'd had with Gonzales, aide Kyle Sampson said that they'd decided to replace 15 percent to 20 percent of the 93 U.S. attorneys while retaining those who "are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc."
At the time, Gonzales was serving as White House counsel while awaiting confirmation to become attorney general. Sampson became his chief of staff at the Justice Department and continued to oversee planning for a mass firing. Sampson resigned earlier this week amid the growing controversy over the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
An e-mail from another White House aide said that Rove wanted to know "how we planned to proceed regarding US Attorneys, whether we were going to allow all to stay, request resignations from all and accept only some of them, or selectively replace them, etc."
The e-mails, which the Justice Department released after the contents were leaked to ABC News, call into question Gonzales' assertion that he was essentially in the dark about the plans to dismiss federal prosecutors.
Despite expressions of support from Bush, prominent Republicans openly discussed the possibility of Gonzales' resignation. On Capitol Hill, House of Representatives and Senate committees pressed ahead with their investigations into the firings.
"If the president is damaged politically by some of the things that are going on, keeping his friend in as attorney general isn't the right decision," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., the Republican Party's national chairman, said Bush might have to ask Gonzales to step down "at some point."
"Let's let the attorney general explain himself. Let's let all of the facts come out and then we can make judgments," Martinez told CNN.
While Gonzales prepared to defend himself, the Senate Judiciary Committee laid the groundwork to subpoena top officials from the Justice Department and the White House if necessary. White House counsel Fred Fielding worked behind the scenes to try to avoid a showdown over Bush's ability to block testimony by invoking executive privilege.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted "a crescendo" in calls for Gonzales' ouster.
"The odds are very high that he will no longer be the attorney general," he added.
The White House downplayed the significance of the e-mails but backed away from earlier statements that the plan to fire all 93 U.S. attorneys originated with former White House counsel Harriet Miers and was swiftly rejected by Gonzales and Rove.
"I do not have the specific answer for you as to whose idea it was," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
The Justice Department issued a statement saying that Gonzales "has no recollection of any plan or discussion to replace U.S. attorneys while he was still White House counsel."
In a speech earlier in the day at Troy University in Troy, Ala., Rove dismissed the controversy as "a lot of politics" and said the U.S. attorney firings were proper.
"We're at a point where people are playing politics with it, and that's fine," Rove said.
The e-mails don't indicate that Rove took any position on how many U.S. attorneys should be replaced, but they do show that he took an early interest in the dismissal plan.
"The notion that the president's top political adviser was so deeply embroiled in this decision is the final nail in the coffin of the administration's contention that this was done for performance-related issues and not politics of the lowest kind," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House subcommittee that's leading the inquiry, said documents showing Rove's involvement and Gonzales' prior knowledge signal "a deliberate attempt to place partisan ideology at the center of the justice system in a way not seen since the Watergate scandal."
The e-mails, the latest installment of a batch of documents that will be turned over to congressional investigators, also show that administration officials knew that they risked a political backlash by breaking with tradition.
Although new presidents routinely fire holdover U.S. attorneys from the previous administration, prosecutors are usually allowed to stay on their jobs in presidents' second terms. Tradition holds that once U.S. attorneys are appointed and confirmed, they should be left alone to do their jobs without fear of political influence or repercussions from politically sensitive investigations.
"Due to the history, it would certainly send ripples through the U.S. attorney community if we told folks they got one term only. ...That said, if Karl thinks there would be political will to do it, then so do I," Sampson wrote in his Jan. 9, 2005, e-mail.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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