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."
Gonzales is getting little support from Republicans in Congress, according to several GOP aides. Gonzales is scheduled to testify next Thursday before the Senate Appropriations Committee on budget matters, and then on April 17 at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing focused on the prosecutor firings.
Aides said the tenor has been set on the GOP side by Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the judiciary panel. Specter has told Gonzales in private that he should consider beginning his testimony with an apology.
In previous confirmation hearings -- including those for Gonzales in January 2005 and Alito and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. since then -- the White House, the Justice Department and Judiciary Committee Republicans closely coordinated their efforts.
In the case of Roberts, Specter's chief counsel, Michael O'Neill, attended one of the mock testimony sessions known as "murder boards," according to a former GOP committee staffer, who requested anonymity to speak freely about internal panel activities. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was in attendance to watch a similar session with Alito.
Gillespie, now head of the Virginia GOP, and Flanigan, who pulled out of contention in 2005 as Gonzales's pick for deputy attorney general, did not return telephone calls seeking comment on their recent discussions with him.
After traveling around the country much of last week in an attempt to shore up fractured relations with U.S. attorneys, Gonzales has spent this week sequestered in his fifth-floor office suite, poring over thousands of pages of documents related to his upcoming testimony. He canceled tentative plans for a family vacation this week to focus on the hearings, officials said.
"The attorney general is very focused and is spending extensive time preparing this week to testify before Congress," spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
Top Democrats have focused in recent days on escalating their demands for testimony from Goodling, Gonzales's senior counselor and White House liaison. She has told Congress that she will assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions about the firings.
Leahy and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have questioned whether Goodling is attempting to hide criminal activity by refusing to answer questions.
Goodling's attorneys, John M. Dowd and Jeffrey King, responded in a letter yesterday that such allegations "are unfortunately reminiscent of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who infamously labeled those who asserted their constitutional right to remain silent before his committee 'Fifth Amendment Communists.' "