Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced sharp questioning Thursday from Democrats and Republicans alike on the Senate Judiciary Committee as he tried to counter a tidal wave of criticism of him over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
“Today, the Department of Justice is experiencing a crisis of leadership, perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history,” said the committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “The truth is that these firings have yet to be explained, and there is mounting evidence of improper considerations and actions resulting in the dismissals.”
Also, Leahy made clear in his opening statement, “I cannot excuse the attorney general’s actions and his failures from the outset to be forthright with us, with these prosecutors and with American people.”
Some of the toughest questioning of Gonzales, though, came from Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he believed that Gonzales and other senior Justice Department officials had decided to fire the prosecutors first, then made up justifications for the firings after a crisis engulfed the department.
“Some of them sound good, some don’t,” Graham said of the justifications.
Gonzales, who publicly apologized to the fired prosecutors, said repeatedly that he could not remember any details of a critical Nov. 27 meeting at the Justice Department, where the plan to oust several federal prosecutors was discussed, or an Oct. 11 meeting to discuss voter fraud allegations with President Bush and his top political adviser, Karl Rove.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has already called for Gonzales’ resignation, engaged in a testy exchange with him over whether he lied to Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) regarding the replacement of the U.S. attorney in Arkansas and whether the Bush administration would seek Senate confirmation of a new prosecutor there.
Gonzales admitted that he had heard complaints from both Rove and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) about David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney for New Mexico. Domenici is the subject of a preliminary inquiry about his contacts with Iglesias and whether he pressured Iglesias to indict local Democrats prior to the midterm elections in November.
Though he admitted to mistakes in the Justice Department’s handling of the firings and his public response to questions about them, Gonzales stuck by the decision to sack the prosecutors.
“First, those eight attorneys deserved better – they deserved better from me and from the Department of Justice, which they served selflessly for many years,” Gonzales said. “I regret how they were treated, and I apologize to them and to their families for allowing this matter to become an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle. I accept full responsibility for this.”
Gonzales added that, after conducting his own review and speaking with Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty about whether he should “reconsider the firings,” he was not going to backtrack.
“What I have concluded is that, although the process was nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been, and while reasonable people might decide things differently, my decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified and should stand,” Gonzales said.
The attorney general also denied any suggestion that he had lied to lawmakers about his role in the firings. “I never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people,” he said. “To the contrary: I have been extremely forthcoming with information. … These are not the actions of someone with something to hide.”
Gonzales stated repeatedly in his opening statement and under questioning that “nothing improper occurred” in dismissing the prosecutors. There has been speculation by Democrats about whether Gonzales fired U.S. attorneys who were investigating Republican lawmakers for corruption.
Gonzales said his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, was responsible for reviewing U.S. attorneys. He called it “Mr. Sampson’s project” under questioning by Specter and said that he had only a “limited role” in it.
“Putting it in context, I would say that my involvement was limited. I consider that an accurate statement,” Gonzales said.
In response to inquiries from Sessions, Gonzales said five times that he could not recall attending a Nov. 27 meeting with senior Justice Department officials, which included McNulty, Sampson and Monica Goodling, a former senior adviser who has since resigned.
“I have no memory of this,” Gonzales said. “I cannot recall the contents of that meeting.”
By the end of the morning session, it was unclear if Gonzales had made any headway in his effort to stave off the calls for his resignation.