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Inside Politics

Rove, Gonzales discussed firings, e-mails show

Story Highlights

• In e-mails, Gonzales and Karl Rove talk of U.S. attorney shakeup
• Discussion took place while Gonzales was still White House counsel
• White House has said idea came from Harriet Miers, who followed Gonzales
• Rove, Bush's political adviser, says Democrats "want to play politics" with issue
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Newly revealed White House e-mails show President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, and then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales were involved in discussions of a shakeup of U.S. attorneys before Gonzales became attorney general.

A January 9, 2005, e-mail discussing the prospect of replacing all 93 U.S. attorneys in Bush's second term noted that Gonzales aide Kyle Sampson discussed the matter with his boss "a couple of weeks ago." Gonzales was facing Senate confirmation as attorney general at the time.

Sampson's e-mail came in response to a forwarded message originally from another White House aide, Colin Newman. Newman wrote that Rove had asked "how we were going to proceed regarding U.S. 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." (Watch Rove say firings are routine Video)

The White House said the idea for sacking federal prosecutors in Bush's second term came from former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, who wanted "new blood" in those offices. Miers became White House counsel after Gonzales moved to the attorney general's office.

'Rove was in the middle of this mess'

But the e-mails "show conclusively that Karl Rove was in the middle of this mess from the beginning," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, told reporters -- an assertion the White House disputed.

Eventually, the Justice Department pushed out U.S. attorneys in eight judicial districts, sparking controversy on Capitol Hill over the rare midterm shakeup and spurring calls for Gonzales' resignation from several Democratic senators and one Republican.

Gonzales said Tuesday that Sampson had managed the process and kept others in the dark, with the result that Justice Department provided "incomplete" information about the dismissals to Congress.

"As a general matter, some two years ago, I was made aware of a request from the White House as to the possibility of replacing all United States attorneys," he told reporters. "That was immediately rejected by me. I felt that that was a bad idea and it was disruptive."

Thursday night, the Justice Department said Gonzales "has no recollection of any plan or discussion to replace U.S. attorneys while he was still White House counsel." (Watch the administration work on damage control Video)

"The period of time referred to in the e-mail was during the weeks he was preparing for his confirmation hearing, January 6, 2005, and his focus was on that," Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said in a written statement. "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."

Though U.S. attorneys are political appointees who can be replaced at the president's discretion, it is rare for them to be replaced in the middle of a president's term. Suggestions they were fired for bad performance sparked outcry from the fired lawyers, some of whom have alleged political reasons for the dismissals.

The Justice Department later admitted that one of the eight -- H.E. "Bud" Cummins, the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Arkansas -- was fired to make room for a former Rove aide returning from military service.

But earlier Thursday, Rove told an audience at an Alabama college that the administration had "reasonable and appropriate disagreements" with the remaining seven that justified their removals, and Democrats who now control Congress "want to play politics with it."

Senate committee authorizes subpoenas

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to authorize subpoenas for five current and former Justice Department officials and six fired federal prosecutors. The subpoenas have not been served because the committee hopes the officials will testify voluntarily.

Schumer, the Senate's No. 3 Democrat and a leading member of the Judiciary Committee, said the new e-mails show Rove's testimony "is now imperative" for Congress to get to the bottom of the matter.

"The only way all this can come out is when all the documents are out there and when the people we request to testify under oath do so," Schumer said. "That's standard procedure in trying to get the truth of something."

But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the e-mail was consistent with earlier statements about Rove's involvement in the matter.

"What we know and what we said is that following the 2004 elections, during the transition, a question was raised about whether we should consider replacing all U.S. attorneys for the second term," Perino said. "Karl's recollection is he heard about this idea from Harriet, and he thought it was a bad idea and it would be unwise."


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