Senators Chastise Gonzales at Hearing

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales listens to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) at a hearing looking into his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales listens to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) at a hearing looking into his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 20, 2007

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales came under withering attack from members of his own party yesterday over the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys, facing the first resignation demand from a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and doubts from others about his candor and his ability to lead the Justice Department.

Gonzales appeared frustrated, weary and at times combative during a five-hour Senate panel hearing that was widely considered crucial to his bid to hold on to his job. He sought to present a careful defense of the firings, apologizing for the way they were handled but defending them as the "right decision."

"While the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred," Gonzales said. "It would be improper to remove a U.S. attorney to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. I did not do that. I would never do that."

Yet the attorney general, who spent the past three weeks preparing for his testimony, struggled to recall key details of his involvement in the firings, including a pivotal conversation with President Bush.

Gonzales conceded that he never looked at the prosecutors' performance reviews and did not know why two of them were being removed until after they were fired. He also said he did not remember a final high-level meeting in his office suite in November to discuss the firings, nor did he remember when he decided to carry out the dismissals.

"I recall making the decision," Gonzales said at one point. "I don't recall when the decision was made."

The numerous uncertainties irritated many of the Republican committee members, who criticized Gonzales for bungling the dismissals and their aftermath, and questioned his apparent disconnection from the process. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the panel's most conservative member, joined Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and other committee Democrats in calling on Gonzales to resign.

"I believe there's consequences for mistakes. . . . And I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation," Coburn said.

The sharp criticism from Coburn, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and other Republicans poses another difficult political challenge for Gonzales, who has been under siege by Democrats for weeks but has heard only a handful of Republicans call for him to step down.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said yesterday that Bush "was pleased with the attorney general's testimony" and that Gonzales "has the full confidence of the president."

"He again showed that nothing improper occurred," Perino said. "He admitted the matter could have been handled much better, and he apologized for the disruption to the lives of the U.S. attorneys involved, as well as for the lack of clarity in his initial responses."

Seven U.S. attorneys were fired on Dec. 7, and another was removed earlier last year, as a result of a suggestion from the White House two years ago. Democrats allege that some prosecutors may have been removed to interfere with political corruption probes, and two of the fired prosecutors have alleged improper pressure from GOP lawmakers.

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