WASHINGTON – The growing controversy over White House recordkeeping and disclosure swirled around presidential adviser Karl Rove on Thursday, as congressional Democrats said they were told some e-mails that Rove sent from a Republican National Committee account are missing.
Following a meeting between RNC lawyers and congressional investigators, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said he learned that Rove might have deliberately deleted them himself.
A Washington lawyer retained by the Republican National Committee, Robert K. Kelner, wrote Waxman’s committee later Thursday saying the statement “mischaracterizes the briefing” because the RNC’s search for the missing e-mails is not yet complete.
As demands for documents escalated, other Democrats suggested Thursday that the White House has withheld potentially embarrassing information, a charge the administration vigorously denies.
“I am beginning to wonder whether the White House has any interest in the American people learning the truth about these matters,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, after announcing that the panel had authorized use of subpoenas to obtain information about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.
He said on the Senate floor Thursday that a teenager could find the lost White House e-mails. “They say they have not been preserved. I don’t believe that,” Leahy told the Senate. “You can’t erase e-mails, not today. They’ve gone through too many servers.”
At the White House, spokeswoman Dana Perino rejected those comments, telling reporters “there is not an indication” that any crimes were committed in the lost e-mails, and saying that the White House Counsel’s Office is trying to retrieve them.
“We don’t have an idea on the universe of the number of e-mails that were lost,” she said. “Truly we just don’t know enough yet.”
But she also said, “I will admit it. We screwed up, and we’re trying to fix it.” She denied contentions from Leahy that the administration does not want to turn the material over. “He’s wrong,” she said.
The massive e-mail inquiry originated from once-separate congressional probes into the politicization of executive branch functions by the Bush White House.
The House and Senate Judiciary Committees, for example, uncovered the use of the RNC e-mail addresses by White House staffers as it investigated the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Waxman’s staff found the RNC addresses as they read e-mails during the investigation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Additionally, Waxman has probed efforts by Rove’s office to communicate Republican electoral priorities to political appointees at federal agencies.
Some of the e-mails were sent by the White House over special electronic communications links established by the RNC to handle political matters. Using government computers for such e-mails could violate federal laws governing presidential records and could threaten White House claims of “executive privilege” to shield internal documents from congressional scrutiny.
Rove, a political strategist who has become among the most influential presidential advisers in recent history, has encouraged Cabinet agency political appointees to pay close attention to electoral politics in making policy and other decisions, and his role is at the heart of the investigations being pushed by congressional Democrats.
Immediately after Kelner briefed investigators Thursday, Waxman sent a letter to every Cabinet secretary asking them to preserve all e-mails received from any White House official who used accounts maintained by the RNC or any “other non government account.”
Leahy and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary panel, wrote a letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding asking that the White House establish an “objective process for investigating this matter, including the use of a mutually trusted computer forensic expert.”