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Inside Politics

Senators come up short on Rove smoking gun

Story Highlights

• Kyle Sampson gets questions about Karl Rove's involvement in firings
• Former aide says Rove reviewed plan to fire U.S. attorneys
• Sampson admitted he once suggested firing Patrick Fitzgerald
• Fitzgerald successfully prosecuted Dick Cheney's former chief of staff
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee may have spent Thursday grilling Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' former chief of staff, but many of their questions were directed at a man not even in the room -- Karl Rove.

Clearly frustrated about not being able to question Rove directly, senators used Kyle Sampson's voluntary appearance before the committee to discern how much President Bush's trusted political consigliere was involved in the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

Sampson told senators the plan to replace the attorneys had been reviewed by Rove, which Sampson believed he needed to do before they were fired.

But ultimately, Sampson's testimony provided no smoking gun pointing to Rove.

Sampson said he does not remember any communications with Rove, either in person or on the phone, about getting one of Rove's former aides, Tim Griffin, appointed to one of the eight vacancies created by the firings, in the Eastern District of Arkansas.

"I don't remember anyone telling me that Mr. Rove was interested in Mr. Griffin being appointed," Sampson said.

When pressed about an e-mail he wrote at the time saying the Griffin appointment was "important" to Rove and White House Counsel Harriet Miers, Sampson said the statement was "an assumption" based on the fact that he knew two other Rove aides were interested in it.

Sampson also said he does not remember Rove ever suggesting that Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago who served as special prosecutor in the Lewis "Scooter" Libby case, be put on the list of federal prosecutors to be sacked.

Sampson said it was he who first raised the possibility of firing Fitzgerald, at a meeting with Miers and her deputy, William Kelley, in order to gauge their reaction. He told senators he immediately regretted it.

"They looked at me like I'd said something totally inappropriate, and I had," Sampson said.

Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, was convinced in March of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to federal agents investigating the 2003 disclosure of a CIA agent's identity.

U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, and the White House has insisted that nothing illegal was done in replacing the eight prosecutors.

However, Democrats are hoping to buttress their argument that the firings were politically motivated by connecting them to Rove, the mastermind of the president's political operation since before he was governor of Texas.

"By insinuating it's Karl Rove who has the clearance here, it's insinuating that it's a partisan process, not a nonpolitical or politically even-handed application of uniform standards of law enforcement," said Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general.

Bush has refused to allow Rove and White House aides to publicly testify under oath before Congress about the firings. Democratic leaders have rejected a White House offer to allow the aides to be questioned privately without being put under oath, and they are considering issuing subpoenas, which could set off a constitutional tussle over executive privilege.

Sampson resigned from the Justice Department amid the controversy over the firings.


DEMOCRATS' KEY QUESTIONS

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont:

  • Exactly what happened?

  • To what extent were questions raised by the White House?

    Sen. Charles Schumer, New York:

  • Why were attorneys targeted to be fired?

  • Who wanted them on the list?

  • Who was consulted about the list?

    Source: Wednesday Leahy-Schumer news conference
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