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Gonzales TV Appearance Sheds No Light on Firings

Gonzales's account has also clashed with that of his former chief of staff, Sampson, who coordinated the dismissal effort with the White House for more than two years. Before the release of documents to the contrary, Gonzales and others had characterized the dismissals as personnel issues handled by the Justice Department with only minimal White House input.

Gonzales has since acknowledged approving the idea of firing a group of "underperforming" U.S. attorneys in early 2005, but he has said Sampson handled the details. Gonzales also said he accepted Sampson's resignation March 12 because "information that he had was not shared with individuals within the department," who then provided inaccurate testimony to Congress.

Sampson -- who has agreed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday -- has disputed that version of events, saying in a statement issued by his attorney that he resigned only because he had "let the attorney general down" by failing to foresee the political impact of the firings.

Gonzales's hazy recollections have fueled criticisms from Democrats and, increasingly, from Republicans. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said yesterday that Gonzales's explanations have been "absolutely abysmal," and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said "there are some inconsistent stories he is going to have to explain."

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said the attorney general has wounded himself with statements that were later contradicted. "That's why there's a reluctance from people up here to get too far out," Thune said. "You don't know what the next shoe is going to be to drop."

A Justice Department official emphasized yesterday that other Republicans, including Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), have urged lawmakers to wait for testimony from Gonzales in April before reaching conclusions.

During his brief public appearance yesterday in Chicago, Gonzales said he is doing all he can to prove that his role in the firings was above board. "I believe in truth and accountability," he said. "Everything I've done in connection with this matter supports that principle."

But Gonzales was in no mood to linger over reporter's questions. He declined to comment on Goodling's assertion of her Fifth Amendment right, and declined to say on what date he approved the final list of U.S. attorneys to be dismissed. He said it was "sometime in the fall of 2006."

After meeting privately with U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Chicago -- who had been rated an "undistinguished" prosecutor by Sampson -- Gonzales gave a 64-second opening statement and then invited questions. He spent 1 minute 38 seconds answering three queries about the firings, then left the stage.

Staff writer Peter Slevin in Chicago and staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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