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.
Much of the uproar, however, has centered on statements by Gonzales and some of his aides about the dismissals that are contradicted by information in e-mails and other documents released by the Justice Department. The conflict has grown to include a showdown between the Bush administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress over access to White House records and employees.
One bit of good news for Gonzales came late in the day, when Specter, the committee's ranking Republican, announced that he will refrain from publicly asking Gonzales to resign. Justice Department officials had said privately that their best hope for yesterday's hearing was to keep key Republicans, particularly Specter, from calling on Gonzales to quit. About half a dozen GOP lawmakers have asked the attorney general to step down.
A Justice Department official said last night that Gonzales's aides consider the lone Republican call for his resignation yesterday a "positive barometer."
"While we realize Senate Republicans are not happy, they are willing to stick with the attorney general," said the official, who spoke about members of Congress on the condition of anonymity.
Specter and Gonzales got off to a rough start, arguing heatedly over the attorney general's preparation for news conferences and hearings. Specter also questioned Gonzales's candor about meetings and conversations on three of the prosecutors that Gonzales had with his staff, White House aides and Bush.
"The reality is that your characterization of your participation is just significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts," Specter said.
By the close of the hearing, Specter told Gonzales that his "panorama of responses" to questions created a "loss of credibility." He said he will privately offer Bush his opinion about whether Gonzales should remain attorney general.
Another Republican on the committee, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), openly questioned whether Gonzales was telling the truth about the reasons behind the firings.
"Is this really performance-based, or did these people just run afoul of personality conflicts in the office and we were trying to make up reasons to fire them because we wanted to get rid of them?" he asked.
During his opening remarks and subsequent testimony, Gonzales repeatedly said that nothing improper occurred in the firings. He specifically denied that he or other Justice officials removed any prosecutors to influence individual corruption cases.
Committee Democrats argued that standard was overly narrow, and they focused on evidence in testimony and documents that Gonzales had direct involvement in the firing of three prosecutors before his final approval of the plan: Bud Cummins of Little Rock, David C. Iglesias of New Mexico and Carol S. Lam of San Diego.
Gonzales said he made the final decision to approve the firings but took the recommendations of his assistants without closely reviewing their reasons for dismissing each prosecutor. He said his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, was in charge of the details and updated him only occasionally on his progress. The attorney general said he made a mistake by not being more closely involved in the process.
Gonzales confirmed statements by Sampson that presidential adviser Karl Rove passed along GOP complaints to Gonzales last fall about the alleged lack of aggressiveness by Iglesias and two other U.S. attorneys in prosecuting voter fraud. Gonzales said he passed on the complaints to Sampson, who at some point in the same time period placed Iglesias on the firing list.
The attorney general said he could not remember a similar conversation on Oct. 11 with Bush, who has publicly confirmed the discussion.
While the panel's Democrats focused primarily on the alleged rationale for the firings, many of the Republicans concentrated on Gonzales's declared lack of involvement and inability to remember significant details. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a former U.S. attorney, seemed stunned when Gonzales said he could not recall a crucial Nov. 27 meeting at which a final plan for carrying out the firings was discussed.
"I'm concerned about your recollection, really, because it's not that long ago," Sessions said. "It was an important issue. And that's troubling to me, I've got to tell you."
Several senators asked Gonzales how he would fare under the criteria for removal that were applied to the fired U.S. attorneys.
"You said something that struck me, that sometimes it just came down to 'These were not the right people at the right time,' " Graham said, referring to previous remarks by Gonzales. "If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?"
Gonzales responded: "Senator, what I would say is, is that I believe that I continue to be effective as the attorney general of the United States. We've done some great things."