An angry President George W. Bush intervened in the Justice Department’s so-called constitutional confrontation with Congress Thursday and ordered that documents seized in an FBI raid on a congressman’s office be sealed for 45 days.
The president directed that no one involved in the investigation have access to the documents taken last weekend from the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., and that they remain in the custody of the Justice Department’s solicitor general.
Bush’s move was described as an attempt to cool off a heated confrontation between his administration and leaders of House leaders of both parties, particularly Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Hastert and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said they were asking the House counsel to meet with the Justice Department to work out a resolution.
Bush’s order “gives us some time to step back and try to negotiate with the Department of Justice,” said Hastert.
Likewise, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said it would “provide additional time to reach a permanent solution that allows this investigation to continue while accommodating the concerns of certain members of Congress.”
The president said he recognized that Republican and Democratic leaders have “deeply held views” that the search violated the Constitution’s separation of powers principles. But he stopped short of saying he agreed with them, declaring the end goal was to provide materials relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation to prosecutors “in a manner that respects the interests of a coequal branch of government.”
“Our government has not faced such a dilemma in more than two centuries,” Bush said in a statement. “Yet after days of discussions, it is clear these differences will require more time to be worked out.”
Hastert, R-Ill., and Pelosi, D-Calif., responded with their own statement: “Today, we are directing the House counsel to begin negotiations with the Department of Justice regarding the protocols and procedures to be followed in connection with evidence of criminal conduct that might exist in the offices of members.”
The FBI executed a search warrant to raid Jefferson’s office Saturday night as part of a bribery investigation against the congressman. Earlier, authorities said they had videotaped Jefferson last summer taking $100,000 in bribe money and that agents had found $90,000 of that cash stuffed in a freezer in his Washington apartment.
Two people have pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson to promote a high tech business venture. Jefferson has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.
The raid, which historians said was the first such search of a congressman’s Capitol quarters in the more than two centuries since the first Congress convened, set off loud complaints from both Republicans and Democrats that the executive branch was overstepping its authority.
Hastert and Pelosi issued a rare joint statement Wednesday demanding that the FBI return the documents and saying that Jefferson then should cooperate more fully with the investigation.
Other lawmakers warned that the constitutional confrontation could spark a voter backlash, if Congress was seen as protecting its own at all costs.
Bush urged the Justice Department and the House to continue discussions and to resolve the matter quickly.
“Those who violate the law _ including a member of Congress _ should and will be held to account,” the president said. “This investigation will go forward and justice will be served.”
The dispute had continued to escalate _ raising concerns for Bush and his legislative agenda on Capitol Hill _ when Hastert earlier Thursday accused the Justice Department of trying to intimidate him in retaliation for his criticism.
The speaker was responding to an ABC News report that quoted an unnamed law enforcement source as saying that he was “in the mix” of the department’s separate investigation into influence peddling by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
“This is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people,” Hastert said on Chicago’s WGN radio.
Later, he said, “All I’m saying is, here are the dots. People can connect any dots they want to.”
White House spokesman Tony Snow called the accusation “false, false, false.”
“They’re not leaking information to try to undermine the House speaker,” Snow said. “I got pretty categorical denials.”
“We are not going to dignify or speculate about the motives of anonymous sources providing inaccurate information,” said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
The department issued its first denial of the ABC story minutes after it aired. The speaker demanded a retraction from ABC News, which stood by its story. Hastert threatened in a letter from his lawyers to sue the network and reporters and executives for libel and defamation.
“Our response to the letter is our reporting on the story,” said ABC News Vice President Jeffrey Schneider.