Fallout from Attorney Firings Lands on White House

The firing of eight U.S. attorneys has put U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in political peril. And the House Judiciary Committee seeks testimony from presidential adviser Karl Rove. Both developments cause pain at the White House.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now for a wider picture of this week's political news we're joined by NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, Juan, as we just heard there are calls for Attorney General Gonzales to resign. How serious is this situation for the White House politically?

WILLIAMS: Well, politically, Renee, the question is here: How do you handle an aggressive Democratic majority on Capitol Hill that's investigating its focus on this U.S. attorney's probe? And in specific, you know, you could go beyond that to say the whole oversight and the possible use of subpoenas in cases ranging from the Walter Reed investigation, even the FBI powers to abuse the Patriot Act. All of this is investigations now being launched by a Democratic Congress.

And so Fred Fielding, the current White House counsel, has to figure out how he's going to manage those kinds of probes in a way that will not add fuel to a political fire. And of course the sense is that you've got to protect Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser. There's no desire on the part of the White House to have him hanging out there.

And don't forget the president's good friend, his top adviser for many years and the former White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales. And the idea that the president will have to sacrifice his old pal, again, is extremely upsetting to the White House.

MONTAGNE: Well, back to this whole question of the U.S. attorneys and them being fired. As Ari pointed out, it's unusual for these dismissals to be overtly political, although presidents can dismiss them at their pleasure legally. Where does this White House draw the line between an appropriate and an inappropriate dismissal?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's confused, Renee, because initially it was that that this was about a performance-based analysis and saying these folks really weren't up to snuff. Alberto Gonzales at one point said, you know, politics has nothing to do with this. This is an overblown personnel matter. He's trading up in terms of getting better people in the job. But then it turns out that when you look at the performance ratings, these folks all had pretty good performance ratings.

So it wasn't a matter of performance and then you get to the idea that some of the people who were fired, for example, were the ones who went after Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the congressman who was found to be involved in fraud with the defense industries, people who weren't going after questions about election fraud that were being pushed by Republicans who thought that Democrats were engaged in election fraud.

And at that point, then, it looks as if, especially given the e-mail traffic, that you have people like Karl Rove involved in trying to make prosecutors into an arm of the White House political office. That is to say, punish your enemies especially around election time. Use the prosecutors to make your enemies look bad. And that of course, then, would sacrifice the independence of the prosecutors and the judiciary in a way that I think people would find offensive. That's why this is such a scandal.

MONTAGNE: And so with the chairman of the Judiciary Committee saying he'll subpoena Karl Rove, what's the next step for the administration?

WILLIAMS: Well, Fred Fielding, who's the White House counsel, has been trying to negotiate this out. And initially the thought was you could have some kind of, you know, private briefing for people on judiciary. But, as you heard earlier, Pat Leahy, the Democrat chairman of the Judiciary Committee said, you know, doesn't want it anymore of that. He's sick and tired of private briefings and half-truths as he puts it.

And then Arlen Specter, who's the top Republican on the committee, has said he had a long talk on Friday with Fielding and they're trying to look at possibly, you know, maybe limiting areas to which Karl Rove would testify to avoid having the White House go to executive privilege, which of course if they did that, then it would become a bigger media story. So we'll see a lot of this play out this week. It is a real political drama dominating Washington at the moment, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

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MONTAGNE: Analysis from NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Our coverage of the inquiry continues at npr.org, where you find a who's who of the fired U.S. attorneys, a timeline, and documents that the Justice Department has released.

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