George W. Bush said last week that he's troubled that "both Republicans and Democrats" believe they got something other than "straightforward communication" about the reasons for firing eight U.S. attorneys last year. What the president didn't say: The White House played a role in determining what at least one Justice Department witness would tell Congress.
Documents released by the Justice Department Monday night include e-mail communications regarding a meeting Deputy White House Counsel William Kelley called for March 5, 2007, the day before Principal Deputy Attorney General William Moschella was to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the U.S. attorney scandal. The purpose of the meeting: "To go over the Administration's position on all aspects of the US Atty issue and why the US Attys were asked to resign."
Kelley said the meeting would involve, among others, Justice Department officials Kyle Sampson, Paul McNulty and Moschella as well as "some folks here" -- "here" meaning, presumably, the White House or at least the White House counsel's office. In a follow-up e-mail, Sampson said that the White House would want to cover "how we are going to respond substantively to each of the U.S. Attorney's allegations that they were dismissed for improper reasons."
The documents show that, later in the evening on March 5, Sampson forwarded to Kelley -- which is to say, the Justice Department forwarded to the White House counsel's office -- a draft of the opening statement Moschella would deliver the next morning. In response, Christopher Oprison, a lawyer in the White House counsel's office, said he was "gathering comments," then sent back a "redlined version with suggested edits" at about 9:30 p.m.
It's not clear whose comments Oprison had collected, but the "cc" list on his e-mail back to Justice may provide some clues. It includes Kelley and White House Counsel Fred Fielding as well as Associate White House Counsel Michael Scudder and Landon Gibbs, who appears to be a staff assistant in the White House counsel's office.
The changes Oprison asked to have made in Moschella's opening statements were relatively modest. The bigger question is what White House officials may have told Moschella to say once members of the House Judiciary Committee started asking questions. As we've noted previously, Moschella did everything he could to leave the committee with the impression that White House involvement in the firing of the U.S. attorneys began only after the Justice Department had a list of attorneys ready for review. That impression was false; former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Karl Rove started the process more than a year earlier. Now that we know that White House officials met with Moschella before he testified, it's more than fair to ask what they told him about what he should be telling Congress -- and what they knew, if anything, to be the truth of the matter.