The New York Times is reporting that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and other senior officials and federal prosecutors would have all quit if President Bush had ordered the DOJ to relinquish the seized Jefferson documents.
WASHINGTON, May 26 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, and senior officials and career prosecutors at the Justice Department told associates this week that they were prepared to quit if the White House directed them to relinquish evidence seized in a bitterly disputed search of a House member’s office, government officials said Friday.
Mr. Gonzales was joined in raising the possibility of resignation by the deputy attorney general, Paul J. McNulty, the officials said. Mr. Gonzales and Mr. McNulty told associates that they had an obligation to protect evidence in a criminal case and would be unwilling to carry out any White House order to return the material to Congress.
The potential showdown was averted Thursday when President Bush ordered the evidence to be sealed for 45 days to give Congress and the Justice Department a chance to work out a deal.
The evidence was seized by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents last Saturday night in a search of the office of Representative William J. Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana. The search set off an uproar of protest by House leaders in both parties, who said the intrusion by an executive branch agency into a Congressional office violated the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. They demanded that the Justice Department return the evidence.
The possibility of resignations underscored the gravity of the crisis that gripped the Justice Department as the administration grappled with how to balance the pressure from its own party on Capitol Hill against the principle that a criminal investigation, especially one involving a member of Congress, should be kept well clear of political considerations.
It is not clear precisely what message Mr. Gonzales delivered to Mr. Bush when they met Thursday morning at the White House, or whether he informed the president of the resignation talk. But hours later, the White House announced that the evidence would be sealed for 45 days in the custody of the solicitor general, the Justice Department official who represents the government before the Supreme Court. That arrangement ended the talk of resignations.
F.B.I. officials would not comment Friday on Mr. Mueller’s thinking or on whether his views had been communicated to the president.
And they would have been fully justified. The FBI is expected to investigate federal crimes regardless of where the evidence leads them. A Congressperson’s office is not a safe haven from investigation or searches.
The argument that the search of Jefferson’s office was inappropriate or wrong because it was the first search of a Congressional office by a federal investigator in the 219 years is a ridiculous one. As I said earlier, simply because a Congressional office has not been searched before doesn’t mean it can’t be searched when a valid search warrant was issued by a federal judge.
Update: The AP is reporting that President Bush decided to call for a 45 day cooling off period regarding Rep. Jefferson’s seized documents when the House threatened “budgetary retaliation” against the DOJ.
WASHINGTON – The constitutional showdown that followed the
FBI’s search of a congressman’s office came down to this: The House threatened budgetary retaliation against the Justice Department. Justice officials raised the prospect of resigning.
That scenario, as described Saturday by a senior administration official, set the stage for President Bush’s intervention into the fight over the FBI’s search of the office of Rep. William Jefferson (news, bio, voting record), D-La., an eight-term lawmaker being investigated on bribery allegations.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his deputy, Paul McNulty, were said to be ready to quit if the Justice Department was asked to return the Jefferson documents, the senior administration official said on condition of anonymity. The resignation of FBI Director Robert Mueller also was implied, the official said.