As more Republicans called last week on Alberto R. Gonzales to resign, President Bush’s aides began to look beyond the attorney general and focus on preventing the controversy over the firing of federal prosecutors from spreading — and endangering Karl Rove, the president’s top political advisor.
“This is not going to go away,” warned Joseph E. DiGenova, a former U.S. attorney in the Reagan administration. “I’m sure the president is going to let it go as long as he can … but there’s only so much bleeding he can take.”
The fracas over the fired prosecutors reflects a larger underlying problem for Bush: His political standing as president, already battered by the war in Iraq and domestic missteps like the handling of Hurricane Katrina, has only continued to erode since his party lost control of Congress in November.
Initially, the dispute centered on the Justice Department, Gonzales and his top aides. But documents released last week suggested that Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers were also involved in the decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys after the 2004 election. That brought the issue to the threshold of the Oval Office and prompted reporters to ask whether Bush had been involved.
“I want you to be clear here: Don’t go dropping it at the president’s door,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday when asked about Bush’s involvement.
Although U.S. attorneys are presidential appointees who can be removed at the president’s discretion, the firings have flared into a potentially damaging issue for the administration because of indications that they may have resulted from political pressure.
Gonzales and his aides initially told Congress that the prosecutors were fired because their performance was unsatisfactory. But documents released last week showed that officials also discussed whether the U.S. attorneys had been “loyal Bushies,” in the words of one Justice Department e-mail.
Democrats, with their new majorities in the House and Senate, quickly jumped on the issue.
Bush’s diminished popularity, combined with his administration’s disdain for Congress’ view of legislative prerogatives, have given the president a slimmer margin for error — even with members of his own party.
“You’ve got Republicans in Congress who have run out their string with him,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the largely conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The shift to Democratic control has accelerated the controversy.
“Elections matter,” Ornstein said. “If the Republicans were still in charge of Congress, even by one vote, the reaction to this would have been that it was just a personnel matter. The administration might still have had a problem, but it would have taken a lot longer to develop.”