Politics At Work In Inquiry, Bush Says

By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 25, 2007

President Bush said yesterday that he would address any wrongdoing that emerges from investigations into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year, but he complained that Congress's inquiry is being strung out for political gain.

"This investigation is taking a long time, kind of being drug out, I suspect . . . for political reasons," Bush said during a Rose Garden news conference. "In other words, as I mentioned the other day, it's just grand political theater."

Asked what assurances he could give that the Justice Department is delivering impartial justice, Bush said only that an internal investigation is taking place and "if there's wrongdoing, it will be taken care of."

Bush's remarks came as Senate Democratic leaders said they will schedule a no-confidence vote on Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales for mid-June. The vote is intended to place additional pressure on Gonzales to heed resignation calls from Democrats and some Republicans. But Bush yesterday reiterated his support for Gonzales, a longtime aide and friend.

The continued skirmishing over the prosecutor dismissals came a day after a former senior Justice Department aide leveled new allegations against Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty. Monica M. Goodling's testimony included a description of a conversation with Gonzales during which, she said, he sought to discuss the U.S. attorney firings at a time when both Congress and the Justice Department had begun investigations of the matter. Goodling said the conversation left her "uncomfortable."

Goodling, who resigned in April as Gonzales's senior counselor and White House liaison, also told the House Judiciary Committee that she had "crossed the line" by considering political criteria when reviewing applicants for some career positions at the department.

A Justice Department spokesman said after Goodling's testimony that Gonzales "never attempted to influence or shape the testimony or public statements of any witness," and that his statements to Goodling were meant "only to comfort her in a very difficult period of her life."

Democrats, however, pounced on the testimony, contending that the meeting appeared to represent an effort by Gonzales to coach Goodling. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a former U.S. attorney, said yesterday that the conversation reminded him of previous allegations that Justice Department officials had attempted to influence witnesses in the prosecutor firings.

Whitehouse cited allegations against Michael J. Elston, McNulty's chief of staff. Two of the fired U.S. attorneys, Paul K. Charlton of Phoenix and John McKay of Seattle, told Congress that Elston called them in mid-January offering an implicit agreement of Gonzales's silence in exchange for their continuing not to publicly discuss their removals. McKay said "Elston's tone was sinister."

Another fired U.S. attorney, Bud Cummins of Little Rock, said Elston called him in late February, as half a dozen prosecutors were considering whether to testify, and "essentially said that if the controversy continued, then some of the USAs would have to be 'thrown under the bus.' "

"It is surprising how often a whiff of obstruction of justice has reared its head in the course of this investigation," Whitehouse said.

Elston and his attorney have said that his statements were misunderstood, and that in both cases he was attempting to reassure the prosecutors.

During her testimony, Goodling provided details about the first prosecutor to be fired last year, Todd P. Graves of Kansas City, saying that he was asked to resign in part because he was the focus of an inspector general's inquiry. She did not elaborate.

Graves called the testimony "a gratuitous smear." He said in an interview that he had requested the inquiry to clear up allegations about his political ties. He said the investigation was still open when he left office in March 2006.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday that the no-confidence vote is not likely to take place until mid-June because of a cluttered legislative calendar that includes immigration and war spending.

Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.

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