Bush Reaffirms Confidence in Gonzales Amid New Disclosures

"A good lawyer will tell you, when the story keeps changing, it's usually because someone has something to hide," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), left, shown with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). (By Brendan Smialowski -- Bloomberg News)
By Dan Eggen and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 25, 2007

President Bush issued a new declaration of confidence in embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday, affirming his support a day after new disclosures showed that Gonzales was more closely involved in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys than he had previously acknowledged.

Bush used his weekly radio address, taped before the latest documents were released Friday night, to back Gonzales, his loyal aide of a dozen years, and the decision to install "new leadership" in some U.S. attorney offices. He accused Democrats of attempting to "waste time and provoke an unnecessary confrontation" by seeking sworn testimony from White House aides about the dismissals.

But the disclosure late Friday that Gonzales and his aides discussed final plans for the dismissals at a Nov. 27 meeting prompted a renewed call for Gonzales's resignation from his leading Democratic critic, who said the revelations further damage the attorney general's credibility with Congress. At least four Republican lawmakers have also demanded that Gonzales quit.

"A good lawyer will tell you, when the story keeps changing, it's usually because someone has something to hide," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Gonzales said earlier this month that he had not seen any memos or participated in discussions about the removal of eight U.S. attorneys, characterizing himself as detached from the details of the plan. But the new documents released by the Justice Department late Friday show that Gonzales held an hour-long meeting with his deputy, Paul J. McNulty, and three aides just 10 days before seven of the dismissals were carried out, on Dec. 7.

Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that Gonzales's "words are being unfairly characterized" and that Gonzales "does not recall being involved in deliberations over which U.S. attorneys should or should not be replaced."

"Towards the end of the process, he recalls a discussion with [his former chief of staff] Kyle Sampson about the list of names recommended for replacement and some of the considerations that went into those recommendations," Roehrkasse said. "He concurred."

The documents are the latest disclosure to conflict with the Justice Department's version of events. They undermine days of effort by the White House and the department to shift attention away from the issue.

Gonzales also learned Friday that Sampson will testify publicly on Thursday. Sampson worked with the White House for nearly two years to orchestrate the dismissals of the federal prosecutors and has pointedly disputed Gonzales's explanation for his resignation last week.

Aides say Gonzales will continue to focus on other issues in the coming week, particularly Project Safe Childhood, an initiative aimed at prosecuting Internet child predators. Gonzales spent six hours doing 43 separate media interviews Friday in connection with the initiative. He will visit U.S. attorneys next week in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver and Houston, officials said.

Seven U.S. attorneys were fired on Dec. 7. Another was dismissed months earlier. The Justice Department's shifting explanations for the firings have sparked an uproar in Congress and have led to a standoff with the White House over whether presidential adviser Karl Rove, former counsel Harriet Miers and other Bush aides should testify publicly and under oath.

Gonzales and others initially portrayed the firings as routine personnel moves handled internally by the Justice Department, but 3,500 pages of e-mails and other documents released this month show that the idea originated in the White House and targeted prosecutors based in part on their perceived loyalty to Bush and his agenda. At least five of the prosecutors were overseeing public corruption investigations at the time of their ouster, and two have alleged that they were pressured by congressional Republicans about specific probes.

The latest e-mail disclosure came several days after Bush had quieted GOP concern in Congress and among some White House aides by coming out strongly in Gonzales's defense. Spokeswoman Dana Perino said yesterday that the administration does not view the latest documents as being in conflict with Gonzales's previous remarks.

"The Justice Department has been working around the clock to provide documents that are responsive to the requests" from Congress, Perino said. "When they discover more information, they release it. As DOJ said, the information released last night is consistent with what the department has said."

Gonzales appears to have used the past week to shore up his position at the White House and among Republicans on Capitol Hill. Several GOP strategists close to the White House said that they believe senior officials in the administration had wanted Gonzales to step down but that Bush stepped in this week and made it clear he wanted him to stay.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a close ally of the president, said that he believes the president wants Gonzales to stay but that the attorney general will have to offer credible explanations for the firings and their bungled aftermath. "I know the president is personally close to Al, but he expects Al to deal with the problem now that it occurred," Cornyn said. "Its going to be up to him to perform," he said, referring to Gonzales.

M. Edward Whelan III, a former Justice Department official who is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said he sees "no reason to believe that there's something that amounts to scandal" in the prosecutor firings.

"Sensible minds at the White House would recognize that throwing Gonzales overboard would give the opposition bloodlust," Whelan said. "The next two years would consist of paralyzing investigations."

Gonzales -- whose name and title rarely appear in any of the thousands of e-mails and other records released this month -- emphasized his distance from the firings at a March 13 news conference, saying he approved the idea but delegated the details to Sampson.

"I knew my chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers," Gonzales said. "But that is, in essence, what I knew about the process. I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."

But the new documents show that Gonzales reviewed the plan at the Nov. 27 meeting in his conference room, though Justice Department officials maintain that there is no evidence that individual firings were discussed or that a written version of the dismissal plan was present.

The e-mails also underscore how closely White House political aides were monitoring the project, which by that time had already resulted in the transfer of a Rove aide to Arkansas to replace a prosecutor there.

In an e-mail on Dec. 3, four days before the firings, Rove aide J. Scott Jennings asked Sampson, "Does a list of all vacant, or about-to-be vacant, U.S. attorney slots exist anywhere?" Sampson provided the list the next day, according to another e-mail previously given to Congress that listed the offices of the targeted prosecutors.

Deputy White House counsel William Kelley sent an e-mail a day later saying, "We're a go for the U.S. Atty plan."

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