WASHINGTON – President Bush on Thursday ordered the Justice Department to seal records seized from the Capitol Hill office of a Democratic House member, representing a remarkable intervention by the nation’s chief executive into an ongoing criminal probe of alleged corruption.
The order was aimed at quelling an escalating constitutional confrontation between the Justice Department and the House, where Republican and Democratic leaders have demanded that the FBI return documents and copies of computer files seized from the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La.
In a six-paragraph statement, Bush cast the dispute in historic terms and said he issued the order to give Justice Department officials and lawmakers more time to negotiate a compromise. “Our government has not faced such a dilemma in more than two centuries,” Bush said. “Yet after days of discussions, it is clear these differences will require more time to be worked out.”
The order capped five days of tumultuous negotiations involving the White House, the Justice Department and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who denounced the Saturday night raid as an infringement on the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches and had joined Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in demanding that the seized documents be returned.
Bush hoped to mollify Hastert, one of his most reliable legislative allies, at a time of increasingly sour relations with the GOP-controlled Congress, according to White House sources. Tempers rose so high this week that some House Republicans threatened to seek the resignation of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, although GOP leaders said the idea was not seriously considered.
The agreement also marked a setback for the FBI and Justice Department, which had refused demands to return the materials – and had resisted pressure from the White House to cordon them off, according to several officials familiar with the debate.
Bush signaled in his statement, however, that he expected the documents to eventually be made available to prosecutors. “Those who violate the law – including a Member of Congress – should and will be held to account,” Bush said. “This investigation will go forward, and justice will be served.”
In effect, Bush’s order serves to grant a portion of a legal motion filed on Thursday by Jefferson, which asked that the materials seized by the FBI be locked in a secure place “to allow for full briefing and careful consideration by the court of the serious Constitutional issues and the unprecedented circumstances that give rise to this motion.”