Released internal White House e-mails indicate that political adviser Karl Rove was involved in discussions in January 2005 — two months after voters elected President Bush to a second term — about replacing some federal prosecutors but allowing others to stay.
Bush's top legal aides were to tell congressional Democrats on Friday whether and under what conditions they would allow high-level White House officials, including Rove, to testify under oath in the inquiry.
The one-page document also indicates Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was considering a range of options in dismissing U.S. attorneys early in President Bush's second term. But, it concludes with Gonzales' top aide warning that an across-the-board housecleaning "would certainly send ripples through the U.S. attorney community if we told folks they got one term only."
E-mails released on Thursday by the Justice Department indicated that Gonzales and his then-chief aide, Kyle Sampson, suggested replacing 15 percent to 20 percent of federal prosecutors they identified as underperformers.
Sampson resigned under fire this week over the department's mishandling of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and misleading Congress about the process.
The White House maintains that Rove remembers first hearing about the idea to replace all 93 prosecutors from then-White House counsel Harriet Miers. White House officials Friday, however, said it was no longer certain that the idea first originated with Miers.
"I don't want to try to vouch for origination," White House press secretary Tony Snow said. Friday. "At this juncture, people have hazy memories."
"This is as far as we can go: We know that Karl recollects Harriet having raised it and his recollection is that he dismissed it as not a good idea," Snow said. "That's what we know. We don't know motivations. ... I don't think it's safe to go any further than that."
On Thursday Rove told a gathering of journalism students at Troy University in Alabama that the decision to fire each prosecutor "was made at the Department of Justice on the basis of policy and personnel."
"We're at a point where people want to play politics with it," Rove said.
Rove said the controversy was being fueled by "superheated political rhetoric," adding that there was no similar uproar when President Clinton dismissed all 93 U.S. attorneys at the beginning of his first term.
It's customary for new presidents to bring in their own team of prosecutors when they take office.
Democrats have sought to pin down Rove's role in the dismissals to prove they were politically motivated.
A midday e-mail between two White House staffers, dated Jan. 6, 2005, was titled, "Question from Karl Rove."
"Karl Rove stopped by to ask you (roughly quoting), `How we planned to proceed regarding US 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.,"' Colin Newman, a legal aide in the White House counsel's office, wrote deputy counsel David Leitch.
Leitch immediately forwarded that message to Sampson. Three days later, on Jan. 9, Sampson sent back a lengthy reply.
"Judge and I discussed briefly a couple of weeks ago," Sampson wrote, referring to Gonzales, a former Texas state Supreme Court justice. He said the Justice Department was looking at replacing "underperforming" prosecutors.
"The vast majority of U.S. Attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc., etc.," he said. Sampson noted that, at the time, all 93 prosecutors were in the middle of their terms.
"Although they serve at the pleasure of the President, it would be weird to ask them to leave before completing at least a 4-year term," he wrote.
Politically, Sampson said the firings would upset home-state senators who recommended the prosecutors who lost their jobs.
"That said, if Karl thinks there would be political will to do it, than so do I," Sampson wrote.
A Senate panel approved subpoenas for Justice Department officials Thursday in a probe of the firings. Subpoenas for President Bush's top aides, including Rove, could come next week.
White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said the newly released e-mail trail "does not directly contradict, nor is it inconsistent with what we've said."
Rove had a "vague recollection" that it was then-White House counsel Miers who first raised the idea of replacing all 93 federal prosecutors at the beginning of Bush's second term "and that he thought it was a bad idea and would be unwise."
Republican lawmakers spent Thursday urging colleagues to refrain from joining the growing chorus for Gonzales and his tops aides to resign.
"Let's give them a chance to respond before we get tough," said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "I'm prepared to get tough, but I want to get tough with a basis for doing so."
The panel wants to question Gonzales about statements made by his deputies that the firings were not efforts to install new prosecutors without Senate confirmation.
An e-mail released this week revealed the attorney general's top aide discussing how to "run out the clock" by invoking a new provision in the Patriot Act that would allow such indefinite appointments.
The Senate panel also authorized subpoenas for six of the eight fired U.S. attorneys. The six — Carol Lam of San Diego, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, Paul Charlton of Arizona, John McKay of Seattle, Daniel Bogden of Nevada and David Iglesias of New Mexico — testified under subpoena last week before the House Judiciary Committee.
Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., delayed until March 22 a vote on subpoenas for Rove; Miers and her deputy, William K. Kelley.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.