WASHINGTON — A House subcommittee authorized subpoenas for top White House aides Wednesday amid new questions about President Bush's involvement in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Internal administration e-mails show that the Justice Department postponed the firings for nearly three weeks late last year while awaiting White House approval. The final approval came on Dec. 4, four days after President Bush returned from an overseas trip, once several senior White House aides signed off on the plan. It's not known if Bush himself did.
Harriet Miers, then White House counsel, had warned in a Nov. 15 e-mail to the Justice Department that approval of the firings would be delayed if Bush had to OK the plan.
"Not sure whether this will be determined to require the boss's attention," Miers wrote. "If it does, he just left last night, so would not be able to accomplish for some time." The e-mails were released last week.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush does not recall seeing the list of prosecutors and the internal e-mails do not help resolve the question. Bush was out of the country or celebrating Thanksgiving at Camp David, Md., for most of the time that the firing plan was on hold.
"This is a decision that was made at the U.S. Department of Justice," Snow told reporters Wednesday. "The president has no recollection of this ever being raised with him."
The power to fire U.S. attorneys rests with the president, but administration officials have downplayed Bush's role in the controversial firings. The Justice Department, after initially saying that the White House was not involved, backed away from that claim when internal e-mails showed otherwise.
Congressional investigators looking for partisan motives behind the firings are demanding public testimony from presidential adviser Karl Rove, Bush's chief political operative. A House Judiciary subcommittee authorized subpoenas for him and other senior White House aides Wednesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to do the same on Thursday.
The released documents show that Rove took an early interest in the plan for dismissals and that other top White House aides were intimately involved in the final planning. Justice Department officials were clearly eager to execute the plan, but not without White House approval.
"Who will determine whether this requires the president's attention?" Kyle Sampson, then-chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, asked in his Nov. 15, 2006 e-mail response to Miers' warning of a possible delay. No response to Sampson's question is included in the e-mail documents released so far.
The e-mail exchange came the day after Bush left Washington for a weeklong trip to Russia and Asia. He returned for a long Thanksgiving weekend at Camp David, Md., then took off to Latvia and Jordan before returning to Washington on Nov. 30, a Thursday. Four days later, on Monday Dec. 4, the White House signed off on the firing plan.
"We're a go for the US Atty plan," White House lawyer William Kelley, Miers' deputy, told the Justice Department. "WH leg, political and communications have signed off and acknowledged that we have to be committed to following through once the pressure comes."
"WH leg" apparently refers to the White House legislative affairs office, the president's liaison to Congress. Rove heads the political office. "Communications" is under the purview of presidential counselor Dan Bartlett.
Sampson, the Justice Department official who oversaw the dismissal plan, began pressing for White House approval as early as Nov. 7, Election Day.
Shortly before the polls closed in an election that put Democrats in charge of Congress, he e-mailed a Justice Department colleague that he wanted to send the plan to the White House that night and implement it as soon as the next day.
Although the link is not clear, one of the ousted U.S. attorneys later cited the election results as a reason for her ouster, which suggests politics rather than job performance may have been the reason.
In a Dec. 7 e-mail to the Justice Department after she was told to resign, U.S. Attorney Margaret Chiara of Michigan said her ouster was "not unexpected" because she'd already been told by Justice Department official Michael Elston "that it was a likely consequence of the recent election." Elston was chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.
In any case, Sampson was still waiting for White House approval on Nov. 15.
"We'll stand by for a green light from you," he told Miers after expressing a desire to start the firings that week. "Let us know."
At the time, six U.S. attorneys were targeted for dismissal. A seventh had already been told to resign. By Dec. 2, a new name had joined the target list—U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan of San Francisco.
"Still waiting for green light from White House," Sampson told another Justice Department official on Dec. 2, a Saturday.
Even after White House approval finally came on the following Monday, White House involvement continued. Sampson and White House deputy counsel Kelley exchanged e-mails that led Sampson to change the sequence of calls to the targeted prosecutors and the ranking Republican officials in each of their states.