Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales acknowledged Tuesday that “mistakes were made” in the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys last year, but he rejected calls for his resignation from Democrats incensed by fresh evidence that the Bush administration testified inaccurately about its role in the controversy.
The increasing pressure on Gonzales coincided with the House Judiciary Committee’s release of e-mails between Justice Department officials and the White House detailing a quiet two-year campaign to oust U.S. attorneys who had fallen out of favor with the administration.
The e-mails undercut the sworn congressional testimony of several Justice Department officials, including Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty, the department’s No. 2 official, about the circumstances of the departures. The release of the messages put the White House and the Justice Department on the defensive and fueled the burgeoning controversy on Capitol Hill.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee stepped up its investigation into the dismissals as well, sending letters seeking cooperation from past and present White House officials, including President Bush’s top political strategist, Karl Rove. The panel also sent letters to Gonzales and White House counsel Fred F. Fielding seeking documents relating to the firings.
Gonzales sought to contain the firestorm at a hastily called news briefing, accepting responsibility for the ouster of the eight prosecutors and acknowledging that the situation had been poorly handled. But he said he would continue in the job and pinned most of the blame on the failure of his chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, to keep him and other department officials informed. Sampson resigned Monday.
“I am here not because I give up,” Gonzales said. “I am here because I’ve learned from my mistakes, because I accept responsibility, and because I’m committed to doing my job, and that is what I intend to do.”
Gonzales abruptly canceled travel plans in order to address the matter. He previously had downplayed the replacement of the prosecutors, calling it an overblown personnel matter.
But on Tuesday, Democrats intensified their pressure on Gonzales. “It appears to me he is over his head in this job,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Echoing Reid’s call were several past or present Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has led the charge for Gonzales to resign, said, “Either Atty. Gen. Gonzales knew what his chief of staff was doing -- that’s a pretty severe indictment -- or he didn’t, which means he doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what’s going on in the Justice Department.”
Even some Republicans expressed concern about Gonzales’ leadership Tuesday, but added that they were withholding judgment.
“I want to see if he’s willing to make the changes that are necessary at the Department of Justice because things have been handled poorly up to this point,” said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). “We’re going to find out what kind of leader he is during this crisis.”
“I’m certainly not going to defend how they handled these things,” Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. When asked whether Gonzales should go, Lott said, “That’s not for me to say. That’s the president’s decision.”
The White House defended the attorney general and the decision to remove the prosecutors. Presidential Counselor Dan Bartlett said that Bush and Gonzales had not discussed the controversy and that Gonzales had not offered to resign.
“The decision, the original decision to remove the seven U.S. attorneys who serve at the discretion of the president, was the right decision,” Bartlett said during a briefing with reporters in Merida, Mexico, where Bush is meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
Bartlett acknowledged that in October 2006, after receiving complaints from members of Congress, Bush discussed with Gonzales the issue of whether U.S. attorneys were adequately enforcing voter-fraud laws. But the conversation was routine and appropriate, Bartlett said, adding that the two men did not discuss any specific prosecutors.
“There was no directive given, as far as telling him to fire anybody or anything like that,” he said.
Bartlett disputed the notion that Sampson had become a scapegoat for misconduct elsewhere in the administration.
“I take issue with the fact that he is the fall guy in this,” Bartlett said. “All the decisions that were made with regards to the removal of these U.S. attorneys were proper decisions. What was not done properly, and didn’t live up to the standards of the attorney general of the Bush administration, was the fact that Mr. Sampson didn’t share that information as freely as he should have with members of his own team there at the Department of Justice who were going up to Congress to testify about this.”
Sampson could not be reached for comment.
The president appoints U.S. attorneys in each of the 93 federal court districts, so their selection is inherently political. But Democrats have charged that, with these dismissals, the Bush administration has set a dangerous precedent. None of the eight prosecutors removed last year had been accused of any misconduct while in office. Some of those fired have said they felt pressured by Republicans in their home states to investigate Democrats.
Gonzales’ supporters have cited the fact that President Clinton removed every U.S. attorney when he took office in 1993 as evidence that political motives have always infused the selection of U.S. attorneys.
On Tuesday, Sen. Clinton sought to differentiate that situation from the current one.
“When a new president comes in, a new president gets to clean house,” she said in an interview to be broadcast this morning on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “It’s not done on a case-by-case basis where you didn’t do what some senator or member of Congress told you to do in terms of investigations into your opponents. It is ‘Let’s start afresh’ -- and every president has done that.”
The current controversy arose when eight U.S. attorneys were dismissed late last year. When reports of the firings first surfaced, the Justice Department took the position that they were internal decisions that were based on performance.
But the e-mails belie that version of events. They show that the White House was involved in the dismissals from the beginning, and that officials there regularly passed on information to the Justice Department about complaints they had received about individual prosecutors, and how and when to replace them.
The purge started with a suggestion by then-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers in February 2005 that all 93 U.S. attorneys be replaced, apparently part of a sweeping gesture to give other Republican lawyers a chance to burnish their resumes.
Gonzales said he rejected that idea and assigned Sampson to evaluate whether individual prosecutors should be dismissed. Eventually, Sampson worked out a five-step “Plan for Replacing Certain United States Attorneys,” complete with instructions and talking points.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow defended the appropriateness of the contacts with the Justice Department, saying White House officials had a duty to pass along concerns.
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Merida, Mexico, contributed to this report.