Bush Offers Aides For Hill Interviews

By Michael Abramowitz and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

President Bush sought yesterday to defuse the controversy over the firings of U.S. attorneys, offering strong support for embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales while proposing to make Karl Rove and other top aides available for private interviews with congressional investigators.

The White House, however, limited the kinds of questions the aides would answer and said the interviews may not be conducted under oath or transcribed. The conditions enraged congressional Democrats, who vowed to go ahead with plans to issue subpoenas as early as today that would compel the aides to testify.

The actions raised the likelihood of another clash between the White House and the congressional Democratic leadership, which has already been pressuring the administration to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq and to improve the care of wounded service members. The president seemed eager to portray the scandal as a partisan sideshow.

Bush signaled a willingness to go to the courts if necessary to prevent his aides from giving public testimony. He described his plan for private interviews as a reasonable balance that would give Congress the information it needs while preserving the president's ability to receive confidential advice from the White House staff.

The Justice Department also released thousands of pages of internal agency documents -- though not internal White House records.

The president said some Democrats appear more interested in "scoring political points" than in fact-finding. "It will be regrettable if they choose to head down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas and demanding show trials when I have agreed to make key White House officials and documents available," Bush told reporters at a brief news conference in the White House's Diplomatic Reception Room.

Reaction from Hill Democrats was swift and negative. "I don't accept his offer," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.). "It is not constructive and it is not helpful to be telling the Senate how to do our investigation, or to prejudge its outcome."

Asked at his news conference about the declining support for Gonzales on Capitol Hill, Bush interjected: "He's got support from me." Bush called the attorney general earlier in the day and reaffirmed his strong backing, aides said.

Still, Gonzales's standing among Republicans remained shaky. Rep. Adam H. Putnam (Fla.), the No. 3 Republican in the House, said the attorney general's ability to lead the Justice Department has been "greatly compromised."

"He himself should evaluate" his future, Putnam said. He added that Republicans are hesitant to come to Gonzales's defense because of the surprise dismissal of Donald H. Rumsfeld from the Pentagon the day after the midterm elections, despite repeated public assurances from Bush that the secretary of defense would remain in his job.

But other Republicans said Gonzales may be firming up his position. "I assume he's going to survive," said Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), the Senate Minority Whip, who cautioned that the investigations need to unearth more facts before final decisions can be made.

The controversy centers on the firings of eight U.S. attorneys -- seven on Dec. 7 -- a highly unusual act in the middle of a presidential term. The Justice Department and the White House have offered shifting explanations, at first saying that most of the firings were performance-related, but later acknowledging that some were dismissed in part because they did not support the administration's agenda.

Democrats suspect that partisan politics may have had a hand in the dismissals because some of the prosecutors were investigating corruption by GOP officials. One of the e-mails released last week showed that Rove, Bush's top political adviser, had asked in early 2005 about a plan to fire U.S. attorneys. Though the e-mail does not suggest Rove's point of view, Democrats want to put him under oath to find that out.

The White House position is that the administration did a poor job communicating the reasons for the dismissals but that the president was well within his rights to fire prosecutors he had appointed. Bush said yesterday that "there is no indication that anybody did anything improper."

In a letter to lawmakers, White House counsel Fred F. Fielding indicated that he would make four White House aides available for private interviews -- Rove, former counsel Harriet Miers, deputy counsel William Kelley and political aide J. Scott Jennings. He said the interviews would be limited to communications between the White House and people outside the White House about the request for the prosecutors' resignations, including communications with congressional offices.

Bush indicated a fierce commitment to making sure that Rove and his aides do not testify in public, laying down a clear line beyond which he said Congress should not go. Although past administrations have allowed White House aides to testify before Congress -- and Bush himself permitted his then-homeland security adviser Tom Ridge to testify -- Bush said he is worried about setting "precedents that would make it difficult for somebody to walk into the Oval Office and say, 'Mr. President, here's what's on my mind.' "

Democrats were upset that, under the Bush plan, the interviews would not be conducted under oath or with a transcript. Without being under oath, aides would not face the same level of criminal charges if they were found to have intentionally lied to Congress, the Democrats said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), head of the Judiciary subcommittee leading the Senate inquiry, contended that some recording of the interviews would be needed to prove the lesser charge. "Without a transcript, it would be almost meaningless," he said.

The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee was more circumspect about the White House offer. "I would prefer to have the interviews in public," Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) said. "But it is more important to get the information promptly than to have months or years of litigation. If we are dissatisfied with the information provided in the manner offered by the President, we can always issue subpoenas."

Legal experts say previous clashes between Congress and the White House on such matters were typically settled before they reached the courts. Though Republicans on the House and Senate Judiciary committees are expected to object to the issuing of subpoenas, they are powerless to stop it.

The chairmen, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Leahy, have indicated that they will not formally serve subpoenas while talks continue with Fielding.

Moving to address the controversy over the firings, the Senate also approved a measure that would strip the attorney general's right to appoint interim U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation.

Staff writer Lois Romano contributed to this report.

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