Democrats Thursday demanded a perjury probe against embattled US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, as the Senate whipped up a new legal row by subpoenaing White House political guru Karl Rove.
The double-pronged assault came as a senator investigating a scandal over fired federal prosecutors said President George W. Bush was guilty of Nixon-style obstruction, prompting an angry White House counter-attack.
Gonzales, one of Bush’s closest aides, faced new demands for his resignation, and took another blow as the director of the FBI contradicted an element of his testimony during a tense Senate committee hearing this week.
The Senate Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas against Rove and Scott Jennings, deputy White House political director, to compel testimony in a row over prosecutors who Bush critics say were fired for political reasons.
A group of Democratic senators meanwhile asked Solicitor General Paul Clement to open a perjury probe into Gonzales’s testimony during his Senate grilling on Tuesday.
“The attorney general took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
“Instead, he tells the half-truth, the partial truth and everything but the truth — and he does it not once, not twice, but over and over and over again.”
At the center of the latest storm is a March 2004 meeting between White House aides and lawmakers and a visit to the bedside of the then-seriously ill attorney general John Ashcroft, while Gonzales was a White House official.
Gonzales maintains the meeting addressed “intelligence activities” that were under legal dispute and has denied it focused on warrantless wiretaps.
But FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared to contradict that, in testimony before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Thursday, saying it was a discussion on an NSA (National Security Agency) program “that has been much discussed,” referring to the wiretap operations.
The Rove subpoena landed a day after the House Judiciary Committee issued contempt of Congress citations against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and ex-legal counsel Harriet Miers, after they ignored subpoenas arising from the prosecutors row.
Bush barred their testimony by invoking executive privilege, a doctrine allowing him to keep documents and testimony secret if he deems it necessary to the functioning of the presidency, but Democrats say that smacks of a cover-up.
The White House accused Democrats in Congress of using the row to score political points.
“Every day this Congress gets a little more out of control — a new call for a special prosecutor, a new investigation launched, a new subpoena issued, an unprecedented contempt vote, and an old score somehow settled,” said deputy press secretary Tony Fratto.
The White House has made various offers for officials to speak to the committee, but not under oath, but Democrats say they don’t trust them to tell the truth about the firing of the nine prosecutors.
“It is obvious that the reasons given for the firings of these prosecutors were contrived as part of a cover-up and that the stonewalling by the White House is part and parcel of that same effort,” said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy.
“Not since the darkest days of the Nixon administration have we seen efforts to corrupt federal law enforcement for partisan political gain and such efforts to avoid accountability,” he said, referring to Richard Nixon, the president who stepped down over the Watergate scandal in 1974.
“There is a cloud over this White House and a gathering storm.”
But the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter, who concurred with the subpoenas to Rove and Jennings, said that the call for a special prosecutor to examine Gonzales was going too far.
“I think that Senator Schumer has made a practice of politicizing this matter,” Specter told reporters.
“Senator Schumer’s not interested in looking at the record, he’s interested in throwing down the gauntlet and making a story in tomorrow’s newspapers.”