A Defiant Stance In Jefferson Probe
Saturday, May 27, 2006
The Justice Department signaled to the White House this week that the nation's top three law enforcement officials would resign or face firing rather than return documents seized from a Democratic congressman's office in a bribery investigation, according to administration sources familiar with the discussions.
The possibility of resignations by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales; his deputy, Paul J. McNulty; and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III was communicated to the White House by several Justice officials in tense negotiations over the fate of the materials taken from Rep. William J. Jefferson's office, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Justice prosecutors and FBI agents feared that the White House was ready to acquiesce to demands from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other lawmakers that the materials be returned to the Louisiana congressman, who is the subject of a criminal probe by the FBI. Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, David S. Addington, was among the leading White House critics of the FBI raid, telling officials at Justice and on Capitol Hill that he believed the search was questionable, several sources familiar with his views said.
Administration officials said yesterday that the specter of top-level resignations or firings at Justice and the FBI was a crucial turning point in the standoff, helping persuade President Bush to announce a cease-fire on Thursday. Bush ordered that the Jefferson materials be sealed for 45 days while Justice officials and House lawmakers work out their differences, while also making it clear that he expected the case against Jefferson to proceed.
Spokesmen for the White House, Cheney's office, the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment, saying they would not discuss internal deliberations.
White House officials were not informed of the search until it began last Saturday and did not immediately recognize the political ramifications, the sources said. By Sunday, however, as the 18-hour search continued, lawmakers began lodging complaints with the White House.
Addington -- who had worked as a staffer in the House and whose boss, Cheney, once served as a congressman -- quickly emerged as a key internal critic of raiding the office of a sitting House member. He raised heated objections to the Justice Department's legal rationale for the search during a meeting Sunday with McNulty and others, according to several sources.
The talk of resignations adds another dramatic element to the remarkable tug of war that has played out since last Saturday night, when about 15 FBI agents executed a search warrant on Jefferson's office in the Rayburn House Office Building.
The raid -- the first physical FBI search of a congressman's office in U.S. history -- sparked an uproar in the House, where Hastert joined Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in demanding that the records be returned because they viewed the search as an illegal violation of the constitutional separation of powers.
Hastert wrote in an article published in USA Today yesterday that House lawyers are working with the Justice Department to develop guidelines for handling searches of lawmakers' offices. "But that is behind us now," Hastert wrote. "I am confident that in the next 45 days, the lawyers will figure out how to do it right."
Also yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) met with Gonzales at the senator's Capitol Hill office.
"We've been working hard already, and we'll continue to do so pursuant to the president's order," Gonzales told reporters on his way into Frist's suite just off the Senate floor.