WASHINGTON—Republican support for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales evaporated before his eyes Thursday as a Senate hearing into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys generated more pressure for his resignation.
Struggling to keep his job, Gonzales sat stoically as former allies on the Senate Judiciary Committee turned against him. One of the panel's Republicans joined Democrats in urging the attorney general to step down. Others sharply criticized his management skills or questioned his credibility.
"I believe that you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered. I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told Gonzales.
Gonzales defended the firings, apologized for his previous misstatements and rebuffed calls for his resignation.
"I have to know in my heart that I can continue to be effective as the leader of this department. Sitting here today, I believe that I can. And every day I ask myself that question," he said near the start of the daylong hearing. "The moment I think I can no longer be effective, I will resign as attorney general."
Gonzales' testimony before the Senate committee was widely viewed as a make-or-break moment for the attorney general, and lawmakers in both parties agreed that it didn't go well for him.
White House officials, however, said President Bush was pleased with Gonzales' performance. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Gonzales "has the full confidence of the president."
The reaction on Capitol Hill wasn't nearly as positive. Democrats said they didn't hear anything to shake their belief that at least some of the prosecutors were fired because they stood up to pressure to go after Democrats or go easy on Republicans.
Republican lawmakers rejected suggestions that the firings were politically motivated, but they criticized Gonzales' handling of the controversy.
Even Republicans who defended Gonzales said that he'd made mistakes.
"I think we all will agree—I think you've agreed—that this was poorly handled," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told Gonzales. "I mean, how many times do you have to be flagellated over that?"
As Gonzales left the committee room, protesters sang, "Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Gon-za-les, goodbye," a take-off on the 1969 hit "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee's top Republican, stopped short of calling for Gonzales' resignation, but questioned his credibility and his ability to oversee the Justice Department.
"There are two people who have to decide that question," Specter said, after declaring that Gonzales' actions had created a cloud over the Justice Department. "I want to leave it to you and the president."
Other committee Republicans told Gonzales that his credibility was in tatters. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a former U.S. attorney and formerly one of Gonzales' staunchest defenders, told him that he never should have approved the firings.
"I believe, frankly, you should have said no," Sessions said. "Your ability to lead the Department of Justice is in question. I wish that were not so, but I think it certainly is."
Gonzales insisted that the dismissals were performance-related, not the result of partisan political considerations.
The one exception was former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins, who Gonzales said lost his job in Arkansas because "there was another well-qualified individual that the White House wanted to get in place there."
"Let me be clear about this: While the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred," he 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."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Gonzales' explanation "a stretch." Graham said he believes that the prosecutors were fired because of personality conflicts and that the Justice Department "made up reasons to fire them."
"Sometimes, it just came down to these were not the right people at the right time. If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?" he asked Gonzales.
"What I would say is, is that I believe that I can continue to be effective as the attorney general of the United States," Gonzales replied.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed frustration with Gonzales' faulty memory throughout the process that led to the firings on Dec. 7, 2006.
The attorney general said he couldn't remember any early discussions about the firing plan in late 2005. He couldn't remember any discussions last year about which prosecutors should be targeted for dismissal.
He couldn't remember his conversation with Bush last October, when Bush complained that federal prosecutors weren't being aggressive enough against voter fraud. He couldn't remember a Nov. 27 meeting, in which other aides said he gave final approval to the firing plan.
"My schedule shows the meeting for 9:00 (a.m.) on November 27th, but I have no recollection of that meeting," Gonzales said.
"I'm concerned about your recollection, really, because it's not that long ago," Sessions said. "That's troubling to me, I've got to tell you."
Gonzales was particularly vague about the extent of White House involvement in the firings and who came up with the idea of a prosecutor purge. "There are clearly some things I don't know about what happened, and it's frustrating to me, as head of the department, to not know that still today," he said. "I think that was my plan."
Gonzales also drew scorn for telling lawmakers that he knew little about the reasons for the firings when he approved them. The attorney general said he trusted his staff to come up with the target list.
"You have answered `I don't know' or `I can't recall' to close to 100 questions. You are unfamiliar with inner workings of your department," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., scolded. "I urge you to re-examine your performance, and for the good of the department and the good of the country, step down."
Both sides had weeks to prepare for the Senate showdown, but the question-and-answer session produced little new information about the reasons behind the firings or any White House involvement. Gonzales said most of the eight federal prosecutors were asked to step down last year because of management problems or poor judgment in handling the myriad issues that came their way.
Gonzales expressed regrets about his handling of the dismissals, but stood his ground in the face of a hostile grilling. He showed a combative edge at times, but never lost his composure.
"While reasonable people might decide things differently, my decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified and should stand," he said.
Former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, a Republican who was fired from his post in New Mexico, said he wouldn't be surprised to see Gonzales step down.
"I think he was wounded," Iglesias said after watching his former boss testify on television. "He was a bleeding swimmer in a shark tank."
Specter seemed particularly annoyed by Gonzales' assertion at a March 13 news conference that he had little involvement in the firings.
"Senator, I've already said that I misspoke. It was my mistake," Gonzales said when Specter peppered him with questions about his misstatement.
"Senator, I don't want to quarrel with you," Gonzales said during another heated exchange with Specter.
"I don't want you to, either," the Pennsylvania Republican shot back. "I just want you to answer the question."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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