WASHINGTON — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales apologized to the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys in a conference call Friday as he tried to hold on to his job amid the scandal over the firings of eight federal prosecutors.
In another move to repair his credibility, Gonzales named a respected U.S. attorney from Virginia, Chuck Rosenberg, as his interim chief of staff to replace Kyle Sampson, who stepped down because of his involvement in the controversy.
But pressure for Gonzales' resignation continued to build.
In recent days, the Justice Department and the White House have been forced to defend the firings after internal e-mails revealed a coordinated effort to root out U.S. attorneys who'd fallen out of favor with the administration.
Administration critics and allies alike were startled by the degree to which politics appeared to be driving the planned purge of the Republican appointees in the months before the 2006 congressional elections. In one e-mail, one official said the plan was to replace "underperforming" U.S. attorneys and retain the "vast majority" who were "loyal Bushies."
On Friday, Democrats seethed when the Bush administration missed a deadline to turn over new documents in a congressional investigation into whether the firings were part of a larger effort to politicize the department. More Republicans also publicly questioned Gonzales' independence from Bush and his management of his staff.
Across the country, morale within U.S. attorneys' offices deteriorated, leaving many feeling misled by the Bush administration.
"They feel a strong sense of betrayal," said a former Bush administration Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his friends in the administration.
Late Friday, the Justice Department said it would turn over on Monday the remaining documents that Congress requested.
But the White House offered no such assurance, and Democrats prepared for a fight if Bush and his lawyers decided to assert executive privilege.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said he was prepared to issue subpoenas for documents and testimony from Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser and deputy chief of staff, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and others "to ensure that we are not being stonewalled or slow-walked on this matter."
Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., said the White House was "playing a dangerous game of chicken" that Congress would win.
Gonzales took a less defiant approach during his telephone call to prosecutors.
Gonzales apologized to the prosecutors not for the firings but for their execution, including for inaccurate public statements about poor job performance, according to people familiar with the afternoon conference call.
"It shouldn't have happened," Gonzales said, according to one lawyer familiar with the conversation. The lawyer, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the matter, said Gonzales acknowledged that he'd seemed too detached during his news conference earlier this week. He told the prosecutors that he "should have known" about the dismissal planning by his former chief of staff.
"I want you to feel like you can be open with me," Gonzales told the attorneys, and he gave his assurance that their independence was expected and that they wouldn't be punished.
The lawyer described the call as "forward looking," suggesting that Gonzales perhaps didn't plan to step down.
Rosenberg, Gonzales' new interim chief of staff, was praised as "a guy of unimpeachable integrity" by Robert Spencer, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Va. "He is brilliant and hard-working and widely respected by the U.S. attorneys in every other part of the Department of Justice," he said. "You couldn't come up with a better guy to straighten this out than Chuck."
But two more congressional Republicans urged Bush to dismiss Gonzales, and other Bush loyalists cooled their support for him.
Rep. Paul Gillmor, R-Ohio, said Gonzales "has become a lightning rod and has distracted from the mission of the Department of Justice. Given the totality of the circumstances, I think it would be better for the president and the department if the attorney general were to step down."
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., wrote to Bush warning that if Gonzales allowed politicization of the Justice Department, "then our nation's law enforcement officers will lose the trust of the American people."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a former U.S. attorney and attorney general of his home state, told National Public Radio that while he always considered Gonzales a straight-shooter, if it turned out that he'd deliberately misled Congress, "I think he will be out of there."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Greg Gordon contributed to this report.)