By Peter Baker and Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 15, 2007
MERIDA, Mexico, March 14 -- President Bush expressed confidence in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales on Wednesday, but he acknowledged that "mistakes were made" in the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors, and said it "troubles me" that lawmakers believe his administration provided misleading explanations for its actions.
As he wrapped up a six-day, five-nation tour of Latin America, Bush found himself again forced to confront a political furor back home. He took time out from his Mexican schedule to call Gonzales early Wednesday, instructing him to go to Capitol Hill to repair his credibility with Congress. But Bush denied that politics drove the decision to fire the U.S. attorneys.
"I've heard those allegations about political decision-making -- it's just not true," Bush said during an appearance with Mexican President Felipe Calderón here before flying back to Washington. He added: "What Al did, and what the Justice Department did, was appropriate. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. They can be removed by the president. What was mishandled was the explanation of the cases to Congress."
On Tuesday and again Wednesday, Gonzales accepted responsibility for the "mistakes" that have triggered a congressional investigation into whether White House officials and other Republicans exerted political pressure in the dismissals, but he said he would not resign. His remarks followed the release of e-mails and other documents that show the White House began the process in early 2005 that led to the prosecutors' dismissal.
Bush offered his first account of his own role in the dismissals, saying he heard complaints about U.S. attorneys from fellow Republicans and informed Gonzales about them but did not tell him to fire anyone. Bush recalled visiting Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill and hearing them grouse about prosecutors, although he said he did not believe they mentioned specific names. Other lawmakers approached him on other occasions, he said.
Bush said he told Gonzales about the grievances. "I said, 'Have you heard complaints about . . . U.S. attorneys?' " Bush recalled, "and he said, 'I have.' But I never brought up a specific case nor gave him specific instructions. . . . It's entirely appropriate and necessary for me to pass those complaints along."
The dispute over the dismissed prosecutors intruded on the president's foreign tour for a second day, absorbing much of the discussion at the trip's final session with reporters and taking up his aides' time as they coordinated information and talking points with colleagues back in Washington.
Seven U.S. attorneys were fired Dec. 7 and another was dismissed months earlier with little explanation from Justice Department officials. Later, Justice said the firings were based on poor performance, but e-mails released yesterday show that the administration originally pondered dismissing all 93 U.S. attorneys and considered political loyalty in developing the final list.
Republican lawmakers and current and former administration officials have been exasperated at what they consider a self-inflicted political wound.
Justice should have thanked the dismissed prosecutors, said Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department spokesman in Bush's first term.
"Instead, the Justice Department made a strategic decision to come up with reasons for firing people, when they have the right to fire people," Corallo said. "The reasons were appalling. The reasons amounted to character assassination. There is no room for that."
Bush brushed off calls by Democrats to replace Gonzales, a longtime friend and adviser going back to their days in Texas. "I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales," the president said. On Wednesday afternoon, Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire became the first Republican in Congress to call for Gonzales's dismissal.
Brubaker reported from Washington. Staff writer Michael Abramowitz in Washington contributed to this report.