By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales sat down for a television interview this week in an attempt, he said, to "be more precise about my involvement" in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
He said he had heard complaints about some prosecutors over the years but "was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not United States attorneys should resign." He approved the list of prosecutors to be fired but let others choose them. He said he was certain that "nothing improper happened" -- but vowed "swift and decisive action" if any wrongdoing is found.
The attorney general's precise role in the firings, in other words, is still far from clear. Gonzales's interview Monday with NBC News, and his breakneck tour of U.S. attorney's offices around the country in recent days, has done little to tamp down growing unrest among fellow Republicans over Gonzales's credibility, which has emerged as the central challenge facing the embattled attorney general.
Gonzales cut short a news conference in Chicago yesterday when an aide halted questions about the firings. The appearance had been scheduled to last 15 minutes; Gonzales walked out after less than three.
Since seven U.S. attorneys were dismissed on Dec. 7 -- an eighth was sacked several months earlier -- Gonzales and his aides have issued conflicting statements about the reasons for the firings, have been contradicted by documents on key facts and have continued to send out mixed messages about core issues in the removal of the prosecutors.
Much of the confusion centers on the role of Gonzales himself. In congressional testimony and public appearances, he has sought to defend the firings while distancing himself from the process that led to them. Many of Gonzales's remarks have conflicted with subsequent statements from current and former aides, or with thousands of pages of e-mails and other documents that have been released by the Justice Department over the past three weeks.
The uncertainty has fueled calls from lawmakers for Gonzales to step down over the firings. The uproar has prompted the resignation of Gonzales's chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, and a decision this week by his senior counselor, Monica M. Goodling, to refuse to testify to Congress.
The matter of Gonzales's personal credibility came to a head last Friday, when Justice Department officials released new e-mails and other records that included records of an hour-long Nov. 27 meeting between Gonzales and his aides about the firings.
The records of the meeting contrasted sharply with Gonzales's remarks during a March 13 news conference, when he said he "was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on" in the firings process.
Gonzales attempted to clarify the situation on Monday: "When I said on March 13th that I wasn't involved, what I meant was that I had not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not United States attorneys should resign."
There are numerous other instances of confusion over Gonzales's role. A White House spokeswoman told reporters on Monday, for example, that Gonzales approved the final list of prosecutors to be fired during the Nov. 27 meeting at the Justice Department.
Yet just three days earlier, Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse issued a written statement asserting that "the information available to us does not indicate that there was discussion at this meeting about which U.S. attorneys should or should not be on the list."
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 washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.