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President Supports Gonzales Despite Calls for Resignation

March 14, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: We begin with the crisis of confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, “This Week” Anchor: Do you think you let him down?

GWEN IFILL: Making the round of morning news programs today, embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he had no plans to resign.

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General: Ultimately, I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States. That will be a decision for the president to make.

GWEN IFILL: But a congressional outcry continued, as Democratic leaders said Gonzales misled them and oversaw the politically motivated firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: Never in history of the country has anything like this ever happened. What is done is untoward, it’s wrong, it’s unethical, it’s immoral, I believe it’s illegal, and Gonzales should be fired.

GWEN IFILL: President Bush, wrapping up a trip to Latin America, admitted he was unhappy with the way the Justice Department handled the matter, but said he will stand by his longtime friend, “Al.”

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: What Al did was and what the Justice Department did was appropriate. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. In other words, they’re appointed by the president. They can be removed by the president. What was mishandled was the explanation of the case.

GWEN IFILL: Justice Department officials initially claimed the U.S. attorneys, who appeared on Capitol Hill last week, were dismissed for poor performance. They insisted no White House staff was involved in the decision.

But 150 pages of e-mails released this week showed a two-year pattern of correspondence between Gonzales’ chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and former White House counsel Harriet Miers about the firings. Sampson stepped down as chief of staff late Monday. Miers left the White House in January.

In one memo, Sampson recommended retaining those who had “exhibited loyalty to the president,” and recommended removing those attorneys who had “chafed against administration initiatives.”

Of Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney representing San Diego, Sampson asked in one e-mail whether the deputy attorney general’s office has “ever called Carol Lam and woodshedded her regarding immigration enforcement.”

At last week’s hearing, Lam discussed the call she got from a Justice Department official last December.

CAROL LAM, Former U.S. Attorney, California: He indicated that the Department of Justice wanted to thank me for my years of service and that they wanted to take my office in a different direction. I asked for — and that they would like my resignation, effective Jan. 31.

GWEN IFILL: Sampson also wrote in his e-mails about a plan to replace Arkansas U.S. attorney Bud Cummins with a former aide to White House adviser Karl Rove. Sampson wrote the move “was important to Harriet, Karl, et cetera.”

The Bush administration has laid much of the blame for the scandal on Sampson for allowing Justice Department officials to repeatedly tell Congress that the firings were not coordinated with the White House.

ALBERTO GONZALES: I relied upon my chief of staff to drive this process, in terms of evaluating where we could make improvements in districts. I relied upon my chief of staff to ensure that people who are communicating to the Hill had all the appropriate information to make sure that the communications to the Hill were complete and were accurate. And, in that sense, I could have done a better job.

GWEN IFILL: Gonzales is scheduled to return to Capitol Hill to answer questions from congressional leaders later this week.

The situation for Gonzales

Noel Francisco
Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General
[W]hat really needs to be focused on is the substance of the decisions. And if the substance of the decisions was right, then there's no reason for removing the attorney general, and everything else is overblown rhetoric.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for more, we're joined by Noel Francisco. He served as White House associate counsel, and deputy assistant attorney general during President Bush's first term. He's now in private practice in Washington.

And Michael Greenberger, he was principal deputy associate attorney general in the Clinton administration. He's now a professor of law at the University of Maryland and the director of its Center for Health and Homeland Security.

Michael Greenberger, after what we heard last week from FBI Director John Mueller about the national security letters and the abuse of their unequal application, and what we heard this week about what happened for the prosecutor firings, do you think Alberto Gonzales should keep his job?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER, University of Maryland: Well, I don't think it's a question anymore of whether he should keep his job. It seems to me that the politics of this situation and the propriety of the actions within the department are coming together.

The American people have obviously lost confidence in the attorney general, and that's being reflected, not just by what the Democratic senators are saying, but what very conservative Republican senators are saying, Sen. Sununu's statement tonight, but other statements by Sen. Murkowski, Jeffrey Sessions of Alabama.

I think the confidence in the Justice Department and the confidence in the attorney general to be in charge of the department and lead it forward is in question. And I must say, I think the keystone to that concern was his trying to pin this on his chief of staff, saying that he had delegated it all to his chief of staff.

For those of us who've had the honor of serving in the Justice Department, we know the chief of staff serves at the attorney general's pleasure, but the attorney general must be in charge of delicate situations. And there's probably no more delicate situation than dealing with whether U.S. attorneys are going to stay or go.

GWEN IFILL: Noel Francisco, you worked in this administration. By the way, I think I meant Robert Mueller. I said John Mueller, but I'm correcting myself before I get to you here.

So you worked in this administration. How delicate a situation is this for Attorney General Gonzales?

NOEL FRANCISCO, Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General: Well, you know, I think that everyone would agree that this was handled very clumsily. But the real problem here was one of public relations.

The administration has not done a good job and did not do a good job of explaining their decision to the Congress and to the public. I think it's completely overblown, however, to suggest that we ought to remove a sitting attorney general because of a public relations problem.

Here, what really needs to be focused on is the substance of the decisions. And if the substance of the decisions was right, then there's no reason for removing the attorney general, and everything else is overblown rhetoric.

When you look at the substance of the decisions, I really don't think that there's much there.

These U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. They're expected to implement the president in the attorney general's law enforcement agenda. And when they don't do it, it's completely appropriate for those individuals to be removed from office.

How it was handled

Michael Greenberger
University of Maryland
The leadership of the department was in the chief of staff to the attorney general. And the attorney general today is saying he didn't know what his chief of staff was doing.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you this, and then I want to ask Mr. Greenberger, as well. Both the president and the attorney general use the formulation that "mistakes were made." And from your reading of this, what were the mistakes that were made?

NOEL FRANCISCO: The mistakes were mistakes of public relations. The White House and the Department of Justice didn't get all their ducks in a row. They didn't know what communications had actually been made and what process had been used to arrive at the decisions when they sent members of the administration up to Capitol Hill to explain those decisions.

GWEN IFILL: So it was a P.R. mistake to testify inaccurately to Congress?

NOEL FRANCISCO: It was a P.R. mistake because they didn't get their ducks in the row. I don't think the people who testified thought they were testifying inaccurately. I think there was a failure of the meeting of the minds within the administration, where the people who had the information didn't communicate it to the people who were supposed to be testifying on the Hill.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Greenberger, in your opinion, what were the mistakes that were made?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Well, I think the mistakes that are being made is, there's no one in charge of the Justice Department. The fact that top Justice Department officials went up to the Hill and didn't tell the true story of what happened with these U.S. attorneys, even though that information resided in the Justice Department, is a reflection of the Justice Department leadership.

The leadership of the department was in the chief of staff to the attorney general. And the attorney general today is saying he didn't know what his chief of staff was doing.

When you add this to last week's fiasco with the FBI, not only overstepping the bounds of the Patriot Act, but even the more critical problem that their data processing is in disarray and they don't know what evidence they're gathering from the Patriot Act, I think the senators and I think even the Republican senators know that their constituents are getting a feeling that no one's in charge here.

In the last analysis, I think the key decision-maker here is going to be the new White House counsel, Fred Fielding. He is a player who's respected on both sides of the aisle. He's experienced; he's savvy. And I believe he will make the decision.

And my guess is that he is going to find out that there is not support for the attorney general on the Hill on either side of the aisle, or not sufficient enough support, for the attorney general to go forward and do the important work of the Justice Department.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Francisco, let me ask you about a question that Mr. Greenberger just raised, which is what the attorney general actually knew. He said he was essentially out of the loop.

In your experience working at the Justice Department, how unusual is it for the attorney general to be out of the loop on something like this? And how important is it that he would know -- I guess, is it good news or bad news that he didn't know what his chief of staff was doing?

NOEL FRANCISCO: Basically, with a decision like this, you have to bear in mind that you're running a 13,000-person organization whose primary issues, the primary policy agenda that the attorney general is pushing, is not the selection of U.S. attorneys, although they are a very important aspect.

GWEN IFILL: But pardon me. We're talking about his chief of staff, not the other 110,000.

NOEL FRANCISCO: Absolutely. Typically, a decision like this, in my experience, would be delegated to the deputy attorney general working with the attorney general's chief of staff. The deputy attorney general is the person in the Department of Justice that's largely in charge of overseeing the U.S. attorneys.

So it doesn't at all surprise me that a personnel decision with respect to eight out of 93 U.S. attorneys, amongst all of the various different policy initiatives that the Department of Justice is running in running the FBI, tracking down terrorists, all of that, it doesn't at all surprise me that this one what I believe is a relatively small decision was delegated to the deputy attorney general and the chief of staff and others in the department.

GWEN IFILL: You think replacing eight U.S. attorneys was a relatively small decision?

NOEL FRANCISCO: Relatively small decision when you compare it to what the Department of Justice as a whole is doing, when you compare it to the anti-terror agenda, to the drug enforcement agenda, to all of the other things that the Department of Justice is charged with doing across the country and, frankly, across the world.

Previous hirings and firings

Noel Francisco
Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General
So the fact that you can disguise politically motivated decisions by firing everybody doesn't seem to me to redound to the benefit of that decision.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Greenberger, a lot of people who defend Attorney General Gonzales has said, "Hey, this is what Bill Clinton did. He got rid of all the U.S. attorneys, as well, at the beginning of his term." Is this something that's unusual?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Well, President Clinton got rid of all the prior U.S. attorneys at the beginning of his term, and President George W. Bush got rid of all the U.S. attorneys at the beginning of his term.

What is unusual is -- I think the public is prepared to give a new president the right to put in 93 new U.S. attorneys. These are not bystanders in the Justice Department. They are the face of the Justice Department in the 93 judicial districts across the country.

And making a decision of this sort in midstream, when these people have formulated their policies -- Carol Lam had gone after Duke Cunningham; there was information that she was going after other Republican congressmen -- to remove these people in midstream, when their ratings are high, is of the utmost importance. And for the attorney general not to be on top of that is a highly questionable matter.

And I believe that many conservative Republican senators recognize that. They've lost faith in the department, and they will want a change in leadership.

GWEN IFILL: You can respond to that.

NOEL FRANCISCO: Gwen, I really don't believe this was a removal in midstream. My understanding is that most, if not all, of the U.S. attorneys who were removed had completed their four-year term. So their term was up.

And going back to what the Clinton administration did, at the time when it removed the 93 U.S. attorneys, that had never been done before in the history of the country. And at the time, there was an active investigation going on in Chicago into then-Congressman Rostenkowski, who was one of President Clinton's key allies in Congress in pursuing the president's legislative agenda. And the U.S. attorney who was removed in that case was 30 days away from making an indictment decision.

They also removed the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Arkansas, who was charged with investigating Whitewater. So the fact that you can disguise politically motivated decisions by firing everybody doesn't seem to me to redound to the benefit of that decision.

The timing of the firing

Michael Greenberger
University of Maryland
The Republican senator from Nevada yesterday was very upset about his U.S. attorney being sent away when he thought that man was doing an outstanding job.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Greenberger, do you attach any significance at all to the timing of this, that the interim law had just gone into effect which allowed them to appoint replacements for these U.S. attorneys without congressional, Senate approval?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Oh, there's no doubt that's the case. The e-mails that were revealed yesterday -- Attorney General Gonzales' chief of staff pointed to the law and said, "We've got the law. If we don't use it now, what good is having the law?"

And not only that, but he laid out a plan for sort of slow-rolling the senators so that there would never be a confirmation process in the remainder of the Bush term; that is to say, keeping these new appointees, the ones who've replaced the existing Bush appointees, in office, without ever putting them up for confirmation before the Senate.

GWEN IFILL: Should that law be rolled back?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: I think it will be rolled back. There's a great deal of concern about this. The Republican senator from Nevada yesterday was very upset about his U.S. attorney being sent away when he thought that man was doing an outstanding job.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Francisco?

NOEL FRANCISCO: I think it would be a terrible mistake to roll that law back, and having nothing to do with the situation that we're in right now. Prior to the amendment to the law, judges were the ones who appointed interim U.S. attorneys.

I think there's a real problem when we have federal judges making political appointments into the executive branch. It violates our core notion of separation of powers, and it also presents a practical problem.

How would you feel if you were a criminal defendant being prosecuted by a U.S. attorney before a judge who picked the U.S. attorney? It smacks of fundamental unfairness, and that's exactly what separation of powers is intended to prevent.

GWEN IFILL: We're going to have to leave it there for tonight. Noel Francisco and Michael Greenberger, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: My pleasure.