Key members of Congress are pledging to hold hearings and grill Bush administration insiders under oath on the role of the White House in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales brushed off demands for his resignation and insisted that firing the attorneys was "the right thing to do."
But Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, was dismissed Monday. And documents sent to the Senate and House Judiciary committees seem to indicate that Gonzales misled lawmakers earlier in the process by saying the White House was not involved in last year's firing.
The documents detail two years of dealings between the White House and the Justice Department.
Previously undisclosed e-mails sent by Sampson show extensive consultations over how to get rid of eight federal prosecutors.
In his detailed plan for firing them, Sampson warns White House operatives that they must "prepare to withstand political upheaval."
That is exactly what the White House got. Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, led the charge on Capitol Hill Tuesday demanding Gonzales' resignation.
"We were told by the attorney general that he would 'never, ever make a change for political reasons,'" Schumer said. "It now turns out that this was a falsehood. As all the evidence makes clear, this purge was based purely on politics to punish prosecutors who were perceived to be too light on Democrats or too tough on Republicans."
And Patrick Leahy, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Gonzales will have a lot of explaining to do:
"There will be very specific hearings," Leahy said. "I am tired of the 'we'll brief all of you, but...' I don't want that any more. I've had the briefings. I didn't get the answers. We'll now have them under oath, in open hearing."
Republicans were also dismayed. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is a strong ally of the White House, yet this is what he said when asked whether Gonzales should resign:
"I'm concerned, but I know the person, and so I'm willing to give him an opportunity to come forward and explain himself," Cornyn said. "I will have to agree with Senator Leahy that appearances ... are troubling."
Another White House ally, Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign, is outraged over the firing of Nevada's former U.S. attorney, Dan Bogden:
"He was an excellent prosecutor," Ensign said. "If they thought that his priorities were wrong, they should have just informed him. He had limited resources. He had fewer resources today than he had four years ago in the fastest growing state in the country!"
Ensign called oversight from the attorney general's office "totally inadequate."
Gonzales cancelled travel plans and called a news conference at the Justice Department.
"In an organization of 110,000 people, I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls of the Department of Justice, nor am I aware of all decisions," he said.
Gonzales then borrowed a memorable phrase from Ronald Reagan. "Mistakes were made," he declared.
"I accept responsibility for what happened here," he said "And I regret the fact that information was not adequately shared with individuals within the Department of Justice and that consequently, information was shared with the Congress that was incomplete."
But Gonzales insisted the prosecutors' firings were "the right thing to do," and he made it clear he has no intention of stepping down.
Gonzales has strong ties to President Bush. He was his White House lawyer as well as his secretary of state in Texas. And Gonzales got a great big seal of approval yesterday from White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, who was traveling with the president in Merida, Mexico.
"The president has all the confidence in the world in Alberto Gonzales as the attorney general for the United States of America," Bartlett said. "He also feels it's important that the information as to how these decisions were made be provided, he accepts the decisions so far that have been made by the attorney general to accept the resignation of Kyle Sampson, and he is satisfied that we are addressing the concerns. But make very clear the decision — the original decision to remove the seven U.S. attorneys who serve at the discretion of the president — was the right decision."
Actually, it was eight U.S. attorneys, one fired in June, another seven in December. The new documents show that presidential adviser Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and many other White House regulars were involved in the prosecutors' firings.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary, announced that his panel would be seeking sworn testimony from those White House insiders.
"The old days of the previous congresses are over, Mr. President," Conyers said. "And so we'll get to the bottom of this crisis with or without cooperation."
So what began as individual lawmakers wondering how their U.S. attorneys got fired has now grown into a political firestorm, pitting Democrats and some Republicans against a White House that refuses to back down.