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Gonzales Defends Actions on U.S. Attorney Firings
However, Democrats and some Republicans on the committee expressed dissatisfaction with Gonzales's performance, noting that he responded to dozens of questions by saying he could not recall or did not know the answers.
Schumer told reporters after the hearing that despite hours of testimony from Gonzales and other witnesses, the committee still has not received answers on who originally targeted the U.S. attorneys for dismissal and why. He said the refusal to say where the names came from suggests that the list originated "in the White House."
"Until there is a clear, concise explanation" for each of the firings, he said, "the cloud over this that they were fired for untoward political reasons is going to stay."
Schumer also said it was important for the committee now to hear from Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, and his former counsel, Harriet E. Miers. The committee has authorized subpoenas for them, but the White House has said it will allow them to appear only in private under tight restrictions, including no oath-taking and no transcript of the proceedings. The impasse has yet to be resolved.
Under questioning, Gonzales said that before the dismissals, he discussed issues related to the performance of U.S. attorneys with Bush and Rove. He said the conversations were about pursuing election fraud in three jurisdictions, one of which -- New Mexico -- was the territory of the U.S. attorney whose firing has been among the most controversial.
Senators made it clear they believe Gonzales's job is on the line. Specter, the committee's former chairman, called today's session a "reconfirmation hearing."
Although the panel has no power to actually reconsider the February 2005 confirmation of Gonzales, a longtime Bush confidant from Texas who became the nation's first Hispanic attorney general, his appearance before the committee was viewed as crucial to his efforts to fend off calls for his resignation and shore up support from GOP lawmakers.
In his opening statement, Gonzales said the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired last year "deserved better" from him and the Justice Department.
"I regret how they were treated, and I apologize to them and to their families for allowing this matter to become an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle," Gonzales said. "I accept full responsibility for this."
He acknowledged that he should have been "more precise" in discussing the firings and said that "my misstatements were my mistakes." But he said, "I never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people."
Gonzales added: "While the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. There is nothing improper in making a change for poor management, policy differences or questionable judgment, or simply to have another qualified individual serve."
He said it would be "improper" to remove a U.S. attorney to interfere with a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. "I did not do that," he said. "I would never do that. Nor do I believe that anyone else in the department advocated the removal of a U.S. attorney for such a purpose."