WASHINGTON — President Bush denied Wednesday that partisan politics played a role in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, and he characterized the controversy over the dismissals as a big misunderstanding.
But before the day was out, a Republican senator joined the call for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to step down, and Senate Democrats declared their intention to compel testimony from top White House officials by subpoena. Congressional Democrats and some of the ousted U.S. attorneys said the firings appeared to be an effort to purge prosecutors who resisted political interference with their work.
"We must have a strong, credible attorney general who holds the confidence of Congress and the American people. I do not believe Alberto Gonzales can fill that role," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., the first congressional Republican to call for Gonzales' ouster. "The president should fire the attorney general."
Bush, speaking out for the first time on the issue, said Gonzales should have done a better job defending the firings but didn't do anything wrong.
"I've heard those allegations about, you know, political decision-making. It's just not true," Bush said. "What the Justice Department did was appropriate . . . What was mishandled was the explanation."
Administration officials say that seven prosecutors were fired because of poor performance. They've acknowledged that another prosecutor, former U.S. attorney H.E. "Bud" Cummins, was forced out of his job in Arkansas to make room for a protege of presidential adviser Karl Rove.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to vote Thursday on subpoenas to force testimony from Rove and other White House officials if they refuse to submit to voluntary interviews about their roles in the firings. White House counsel Fred Fielding met with lawmakers behind closed doors Wednesday to try to avoid a legal showdown, with no conclusive outcome.
Fielding said he hopes to decide by Friday what documents to turn over to Congress and whether the White House will assert executive privilege to try to shield Bush's advisers from answering questions.
"Frankly, I don't care whether he says he's going to allow people (to testify) or not. We'll subpoena the people we want," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told CNN.
Leahy, a former Vermont prosecutor, scoffed at Bush's assurances that politics played no role in the firings.
"We're finding more and more evidence of political manipulation of prosecutors," he said. "Everybody knows there's politics involved."
In an interview Wednesday, Cummins questioned whether the Justice Department seriously evaluated any of the other U.S. attorneys who they insisted were removed for performance reasons.
"If they had serious questions, where are the memos proving there was a real performance review?" he asked. "They released all of these embarrassing memos, don't you think they would have released the paper trail?"
Cummins also said that e-mails released by the White House earlier this week demonstrated that performance wasn't the issue. "It's clear that, in at least some instances, politics played a significant part," he said.
Gonzales, fighting to keep his job, said he would meet with members of Congress later this week to explain the dismissals.
"These firings were not politically motivated. They were not done in retaliation. They were not done to interfere with a public corruption case," the attorney general said on NBC as he made the rounds of the morning talk shows.
Bush offered a lukewarm endorsement of his beleaguered aide, expressing confidence in Gonzales while criticizing his handling of the firings.
"Mistakes were made. And I'm frankly not happy about them," Bush said during a joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in Merida, Mexico.
Bush described the mass firing as "a customary practice," but former prosecutors and legal experts disagree. While it's true that newly elected presidents routinely replace holdover U.S. attorneys from the previous administration, the replacement appointees typically are allowed to stay on the job as long as the president stays in office.
The practice of retaining U.S. attorneys stems from the idea that once a president installs a new team, the prosecutors should be left alone to do their jobs without fear of political repercussions.
The Justice Department official who engineered the firings acknowledged in a 2006 memo to the White House that the Bush administration's approach differed from the approach taken by former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in their second terms.
"During the Reagan and Clinton administrations, Presidents Reagan and Clinton did not seek to remove and replace U.S. Attorneys they had appointed whose four-year terms had expired, but instead permitted such U.S. Attorneys to serve indefinitely," Kyle Sampson, a top Gonzales aide, wrote.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers said they wanted to know more about any involvement by Bush and Rove in the firings. Bush said he passed along complaints about various prosecutors to Gonzales, but didn't urge any firings.
"I never brought up a specific case nor gave him specific instructions," Bush said. "When members of the Senate come up and say to me, `I've got a complaint,' I think it's entirely appropriate and necessary for me to pass those complaints on."
Administration documents released by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday showed that the White House and the Justice Department began planning the dismissals two years ago. The initial proposal called for firing all 93 U.S. attorneys, but that was replaced with a scaled-back plan to target prosecutors who'd fallen out of favor for various reasons.
The test for continued employment included whether the U.S. attorney had "produced, managed well and exhibited loyalty to the President and Attorney General," one of the documents said.
The administration also engineered an change in the Patriot Act that allowed Bush to install replacement U.S. attorneys without seeking Senate confirmation.