E-mails indicate the top presidential 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, White House e-mail shows the subject was broached at least a month before the administration previously said it was -- after Gonzales' February 3, 2005, confirmation as attorney general.
The e-mail discusses the prospect of replacing all 93 U.S. attorneys in President Bush's second term and notes that Gonzales aide Kyle Sampson talked about 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 was responding 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."
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, said -- an assertion the White House disputed.
Eventually, the Justice Department pushed out U.S. attorneys in eight judicial districts, replacing them with interim appointees. This sparked outrage on Capitol Hill over the rare midterm shakeup and spurred calls for Gonzales' resignation from several Democratic senators and one Republican.
The interim appointments were made under a provision of the antiterrorist USA Patriot Act, which says the interim appointees can serve indefinitely without the normal Senate confirmation.
Among those calling for Gonzales to step down was Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, who said Thursday that Gonzales lied about plans for the U.S. attorney's position in Arkansas. He said Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee the Bush administration planned to replace prosecutors appointed on an interim basis with nominees who would be confirmed by the Senate.
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 said. "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."
"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 were rejected outright by 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 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.
On Wednesday, White House counsel Fred Fielding held a half-hour meeting with leaders of the House and Senate judiciary committees to discuss lawmakers' requests for testimony about the firings.
A senior administration official said Fielding gave no firm answers as to whether White House aides would testify. Democratic leaders gave him a Friday deadline to respond, but White House and administration officials said Bush was likely to invoke executive privilege and bar his advisers from giving public testimony.