Candor at the Capitol
THE TESTIMONY of a former top Justice Department aide before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday shifted the focus of the storm over the firing of U.S. attorneys squarely back to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. That shift happened around 11:24 a.m., when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) had the following exchange with D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's ex-chief of staff:
Specter: Was your e-mail correct that Attorney General Gonzales was present at a meeting on [Nov. 27], at which there were discussions about U.S. attorneys?
Sampson: I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate.
Specter: So he was involved in discussions, contrary to the statement he made at his news conference on March 13th?
Sampson: I believe yes, sir.
Mr. Sampson went on to testify that he and Mr. Gonzales first discussed replacing U.S. attorneys in January 2005, when Mr. Gonzales was attorney general-designate. He added that they spoke about the plan "from time to time" in 2005 and 2006 and that Mr. Gonzales gave the green light. "The decision makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president," Mr. Sampson said. "I and others made staff recommendations, but they were approved and signed off on by the principals."
Mr. Gonzales has been getting an earful in private meetings across the country with angry prosecutors who have criticized his leadership and his handling of the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys last year. As we have said, so far there is no hard evidence of underlying wrongdoing; President Bush is entitled to replace federal prosecutors, who serve at his pleasure. Mr. Sampson testified that "some were asked to resign because they were not carrying out the president's and the attorney general's priorities." If true, that's perfectly acceptable. Wrongdoing would consist of firing attorneys to derail political corruption prosecutions of Republicans or because of a failure to improperly pursue Democrats. Nothing in Mr. Sampson's testimony added to the so-far thin case that that occurred.
But Mr. Gonzales now finds himself squarely in the cross hairs -- and he has only himself to blame. The shifting excuses for the firings and his less-than-candid statements about what he knew and when he knew it have infuriated Democrats and kept Republicans at a distance. Even the White House won't come to his defense. "I'm going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself," said Bush administration spokeswoman Dana Perino yesterday.
On March 14, Mr. Bush called Mr. Gonzales from Mexico and told him to go to Capitol Hill to set the record straight and repair his tattered credibility. He is not scheduled to testify until April 17. The Judiciary Committee says it would be willing to accommodate him if he wants to appear when Congress comes back into session after the Easter break. If he intends to remain in office -- a resolution we don't favor -- Mr. Gonzales needs to pick up the phone. Questions need to be answered. He's waited long enough.