Gonzales Prepares to Fight for His Job in Testimony

By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 5, 2007

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has retreated from public view this week in an intensive effort to save his job, spending hours practicing testimony and phoning lawmakers for support in preparation for pivotal appearances in the Senate this month, according to administration officials.

After struggling for weeks to explain the extent of his involvement in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, Gonzales and his aides are viewing the Senate testimony on April 12 and April 17 as seriously as if it were a confirmation proceeding for a Supreme Court or a Cabinet appointment, officials said.

Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and Timothy E. Flanigan, who worked for Gonzales at the White House, have met with the attorney general to plot strategy. The department has scheduled three days of rigorous mock testimony sessions next week and Gonzales has placed phone calls to more than a dozen GOP lawmakers seeking support, officials said.

Gonzales is seeking to convince skeptical lawmakers that he can be trusted to command the Justice Department after the prosecutor firings, which he initially described as an "overblown personnel matter." Subsequent documents and testimony from his former chief of staff have shown that Gonzales was regularly briefed on the process, revelations that have led to calls for his resignation.

Justice officials and outside experts said the effort is further hampered by legal conflicts among Gonzales and his senior aides. Top Democrats have also accused department officials of misleading Congress in previous testimony, leading Justice lawyers to insist on limiting contact between key players to avoid allegations of obstructing a congressional investigation, officials said.

As a result, Gonzales and senior Justice lawyers have so far received little assistance from the White House and cannot consult with some of his closest aides, including Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, officials said.

"We are hampered because some senior officials are not able to discuss the facts as they know them in the same room, for fears of additional accusations of misleading Congress," said one Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) sent a letter to Gonzales on Tuesday, asking for "appropriate firewalls" between potential witnesses involved in the firings.

"Our question to you is: Who do we talk to at the Department of Justice?" Leahy and Whitehouse wrote. "The office of the Attorney General appears to be hopelessly conflicted."

Several central players in the prosecutor saga are out of the Justice Department building altogether. They include Gonzales's former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, who resigned last month, and senior counselor Monica M. Goodling, who is on indefinite leave and who yesterday reiterated her refusal to answer questions from Congress. Michael J. Elston, McNulty's chief of staff, also began a scheduled personal leave this week after submitting to six hours of congressional interviews last Friday, officials said.

"In a sense, this is even more difficult than a confirmation hearing, because you are defending a record that has been assailed publicly and it involves other members of Justice who are also going to be called," said former senator Daniel R. Coats (R-Ind.), who led confirmation preparations for Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers.

"It just compounds the difficulty facing any witness in this situation," Coats said. "You don't have the ability to coordinate with other organizations or individuals that are going to be testifying, and there will be a lot of people looking for inconsistencies. It is no small challenge for the attorney general."

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