Congressional Democrats are planning a new, two-track strategy for maximizing the political windfall — and the disclosure of potentially embarrassing information — from the Bush administration's firings of eight federal prosecutors, according to top party officials.
House and Senate Democrats plan to delve deep into the details of the corruption cases that might have been disrupted by the high-level purge, the officials said. At the same time, top Democrats will escalate the fight for testimony from top White House officials, including Karl Rove.
"I want testimony under oath," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "I am sick and tired getting half truths on this." Some Republicans close to the White House expect the strategy to result in the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Several Democratic officials were unabashed in discussing the potential political benefits for their party if they can convince voters that President Bush ousted U.S. attorneys for political reasons. Democratic strategists said the controversy is already helping them recruit House and Senate challengers for '08 races. "We know from last cycle that Democrats can win in Republican districts where corruption is an issue," one of the officials said.
Democratic officials told The Politico that one of the major questions Congress would like to pose to Rove, a deputy chief of staff to Bush, and other administration officials is the extent of Bush's knowledge of the impending changes. One of the officials said the questions would concern whether the president "was aware of the changes, gave his okay, or was briefed on them and didn't raise objections."
Democratic pollsters have been asked to research in greater detail the theory of some party strategists that while many swing voters think the mess in Iraq is at least partly beyond the president's control, they can be convinced that the clumsy handling of the prosecutors can be blamed on him directly.
The controversy is expected to intensify this week. On Monday, the Justice Department is scheduled to send Capitol Hill a massive batch of e-mail covering such sensitive matters as communications between Justice and the prosecutors after they were fired and communications between Justice and members of Congress before the decisions were made.
"Every time you get more memos, or more communications between the White House and the Justice Department, you get more facts that don't look good," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "The White House either hired a bunch of incompetent U.S. attorneys to start with, or hired a bunch of competent U.S attorneys that were incompetently fired."
On Tuesday, White House counsel Fred Fielding is scheduled to meet with congressional staff members about their demand for testimony from Rove and other presidential advisers. One possible compromise would be to find a way for the officials to give statements on the record without appearing for sworn testimony. A senior administration official said: "Fred's trying to figure out a way to accommodate the Congress and provide them the information they need while also preserving the president's right to get candid advice from his advisers."
Key figures in both parties believe Gonzales, who first went to work for George W. Bush as his general counsel in the Texas governor's office in 1995, will wind up resigning over the imbroglio. "I think he's gone," said a Republican official close to Bush. Gonzales would not be fired, key officials said, and the White House continued to say over the weekend that he has Bush's "full confidence." Republicans point out that Bush may not want to undergo the bloodletting that would be involved in trying to win confirmation of a Gonzales successor. And Democrats admit that even if Gonzales departed, that would not sate their insistence on hearing from Rove and other White House officials who were involved.
Emanuel said his party would continue to focus on the corruption cases that several of the prosecutors had under way when they were fired. "One operative theory, and that doesn't mean that it's right," Emanuel said, "is that if you believe corruption was at the root of the election results, one way to handle that is to get rid of the U.S. attorneys who were pursuing corruption cases."
Another act in the drama opened this weekend with the release of a statement by D. Kyle Sampson, who was chief of staff to Gonzales and resigned effective March 12. Sampson briefly continued to go into his office as part of a transition but left for good on March 14, according to officials familiar with his status.
The statement was issued by his lawyer, Bradford A. Berenson, who had worked for Gonzales in the White House counsel's office for the first two years of Bush's presidency. The statement makes it clear that Sampson does not want to be blamed for the fiasco, and particularly for any incomplete briefing of Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William E. Moschella before they testified to Congress about a lack of political influence on the decision to dismiss the prosecutors. Here is the statement in full:
"Kyle did not resign because he had misled anyone at the Justice Department or withheld information concerning the replacement of the U.S. attorneys. He resigned because, as chief of staff, he felt he had let the attorney general down in failing to appreciate the need for and organize a more effective response to the unfounded accusations that the replacements were improper. The fact that the White House and Justice Department had been discussing this subject since the election was well-known to a number of other senior officials at the department, including others who were involved in preparing the department's testimony to Congress. If this background was not called to Mr. McNulty or Mr. Moschella's attention, it was not because any of these individuals deliberately withheld it from them but rather because no one focused on it at the time. The focus of preparation efforts was on why the U.S. attorneys had been replaced, not how."
By Mike Allen
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