Gonzales faces skepticism from GOP, Democrats at Senate hearing

Gonzales on the hot seat
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, defending his handling of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

(AP) - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales confronted a fresh call for his resignation from a fellow Republican Thursday as he struggled to survive a bipartisan Senate challenge to his credibility in the case of eight fired prosecutors.

"The best way to put this behind us is your resignation," Sen. Tom Coburn bluntly told Gonzales, one GOP conservative to another.

Gonzales disagreed and told the Oklahoma senator he didn't know that his departure would put the controversy to rest.

The exchange punctuated a long day in the witness chair at a Senate hearing for the attorney general, who doggedly advanced a careful, lawyerly defense of the dismissals of the prosecutors. He readily admitted mistakes, yet told lawmakers he had "never sought to deceive them," and added he would make the same firings decision again.

"At the end of the day I know I did not do anything improper," he said.

"Today the Department of Justice is experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history."

Gonzales sat alone at the witness table in a crowded room for the widely anticipated hearing. There was no doubt about the stakes involved for a member of President Bush's inner circle, and support from fellow Republicans was critical to his attempt to hold his job.

"The moment I believe I can no longer be effective I will resign as attorney general," Gonzales said after first making it clear he did not believe it had come to that.

The White House offered support. Spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters, "I think the president has full confidence" in his attorney general.

Struggling to save his credibility and perhaps his job, Gonzales testified at least 45 times - before lunch - that he could not recall events he was asked about.

After a long morning in the witness chair, he returned to face fresh Republican challenges to his credibility. "Why is your story changing?" asked Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, noting that the attorney general was now accepting responsibility for the firings after initially saying he had played only a minor role.

In response, Gonzales replied that his earlier answers had been "overbroad" and the result of inadequate preparation.

The process that led to the firings "should have been more rigorous," he added, although he repeatedly defended the decisions themselves.

Moments later, Coburn delivered his verdict. He said the firing issue was "handled incompetently. The communication was atrocious. It's generous to say there were misstatements."

Democrats, too, bored in.

"Since you apparently knew very little about the performance about the replaced United States attorneys, how can you testify that the judgment ought to stand?" asked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked Gonzales whether he had reviewed the evaluation records of the dismissed prosecutors, who Justice Department officials initially said had been fired for inadequate performance. He said he had not.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., questioned Gonzales sharply over his insistence that one former prosecutor, Carol Lam of California, had been told of Justice Department concerns with her record on immigration violations. The senator said Lam had testified to the contrary.

But given Gonzales' political need for Republican support, the line of questioning from several GOP lawmakers was ominous.

"We have to evaluate whether you are really being forthright," Sen. Arlen Specter bluntly informed the nation's chief law enforcement officer.

The Pennsylvania Republican said Gonzales' description of his role in the firings was "significantly if not totally at variance with the facts."

"Most of this is a stretch," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said after listening to Gonzales' explanation of the dismissals. "It's clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or the White House and (they) just made up reasons to fire them."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he was concerned about Gonzales' inability to recall a meeting he attended last November when the firings were discussed.

The attorney general began his turn as a witness after a tongue-lashing from Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee's chairman.

"Today the Department of Justice is experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history," said the Vermont Democrat. "There's a growing scandal swirling around the dismissal" of prosecutors, he added.

The hearing room was filled as Gonzales slid into the witness chair at midmorning. Protesters wearing orange garb and pink police costumes were among the spectators. The words "Arrest Gonzales" were duct-taped to their backs.

Gonzales has provided differing versions of the events surrounding the firings, first saying he had almost no involvement and later acknowledging that his role was larger - but only after e-mails about meetings he attended were released by the Justice Department to House and Senate committees.

Urged in advance by Republicans to clear up any inconsistencies, Gonzales spoke at times in careful, lawyerly terms.

"I now understand there was a conversation with myself and the president," he said at one point.

Democrats have stoked the controversy over the dismissals, suggesting there were political considerations. But the first several hours of the hearing produced few if any fresh details.

Gonzales acknowledged speaking with Bush and White House adviser Karl Rove about complaints over election fraud cases in New Mexico, where David Iglesias was the U.S. attorney.

The conversation with Bush occurred on Oct. 11, Gonzales said. Iglesias' name was added to the list of those to be fired between Oct. 17 and Nov. 15 - a week after the November elections.

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