TOPICS > Politics

Gonzales Faces Tough Questioning in Senate

April 19, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: By the accounts of Democrats and Republicans alike, Alberto Gonzales entered today’s hearing with his job on the line.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Your ability to lead the Department of Justice is in question. I wish that weren’t not so, but I think it certainly is.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), New York: If the attorney general cannot answer a straightforward, factual question from a senator about recent events, how can he possibly run the department?

KWAME HOLMAN: For months, Gonzales has given differing explanations of his role in the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys dismissed without warning late last year. Gonzales sought to set the record straight in his opening remarks this morning.

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General: U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. There is nothing improper making a change for poor management, policy differences, or questionable judgment, or simply to have another qualified individual serve.

It would be improper to remove a U.S. attorney to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. I did not do that; I would never do that.

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.

KWAME HOLMAN: But it was clear from the start of the hearing that many committee members were not satisfied with Gonzales’ apology, nor with his defense of the Justice Department’s actions.

Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy asked Gonzales how he could be certain there was nothing improper about the firings if he wasn’t heavily involved in the process, as Gonzales has maintained.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: How can you give us those assurances, since you had a limited involvement, the process wasn’t vigorous, and you left it, basically, to somebody else?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, Senator, since then, of course, I have gone back and looked at the documents made available to Congress. I also had a conversation with the deputy…

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: This is since then?


SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: But when you made the judgment and decision, when you made the judgment and decision, you didn’t know, did you?

ALBERTO GONZALES: On December 7th — I know the basis on which I made the decision, no reasons that would be characterized as improper. I think I was justified.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: But you didn’t know whether those decisions were proper or improper, since you’ve said you had limited involvement, the progress was not vigorous, and you basically gave the assignment to Mr. Sampson…


SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: … as he testified and you approved?

ALBERTO GONZALES: … I think that I’m justified in relying upon what I understood to be the recommendation, the consensus recommendation of the senior leadership. And I think, as we look through the documents, as you glean through the documents, nothing improper occurred here. You have more information about the testimony of witnesses than I do.

KWAME HOLMAN: But throughout the day, the main point of contention was the attorney general’s role in the firings versus that of his senior staff. Several senators focused on a March 13th press conference, where Gonzales restated his limited involvement in the firings.

ALBERTO GONZALES: … was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on…

KWAME HOLMAN: Gonzales later admitted he misspoke, that he did have some involvement, but that correction came only after the Justice Department released e-mails and memos that showed Gonzales had been involved in numerous discussions about the firings.

Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: And I know you’re familiar with this record, because I know you’ve been preparing for this hearing.

ALBERTO GONZALES: I prepare for every hearing, Senator.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Do you prepare for all your press conferences? Were you prepared for the press conference, where you said there weren’t any discussions involving you?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I’ve already said that I misspoke. It was my mistake.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I’m asking you: Were you prepared? You interjected that you’re always prepared. Were you prepared for that press conference?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I didn’t say that I was always prepared. I said I prepared for every hearing.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, and I’m asking you, do you prepare for your press conferences?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, we do take time to try to prepare for the press conference.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: And were you prepared when you said you weren’t involved in any deliberations?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I’ve already conceded that I misspoke at that press conference. There was nothing intentional…

KWAME HOLMAN: Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions focused on one critical meeting where Gonzales was present, according to the attorney general’s former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who resigned in March after the controversy erupted. Sampson said that meeting took place on November 27th, 10 days before the rash of prosecutor firings.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Do you recall that meeting and where it took place?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I have searched my memory. I have no recollection of the meeting. My schedule shows a meeting for 9:00 on November 27th, but I have no recollection of that meeting.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: And this was not that long ago. This was in November of last year?

ALBERTO GONZALES: According to my calendar, November 27th.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: And Mr. Sampson seemed to indicate that he really — he understood it was a momentous decision, that there would probably be political backlash. He’d even performed some outline about how that should be managed. And you don’t recall any of that?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I can only testify as to what I recall. Believe me, I’ve searched my mind about this meeting. I’d have no reason not to talk about this meeting.

At some point, of course, Mr. Sampson presented to me the recommendations. And at some point, I understood what the implementation plan was, but I don’t recall the contents of this meeting, Senator. I’m not suggesting that the meeting did not happen.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sessions also pointed to the testimony of Michael Battle, who oversaw the U.S. attorney program at Justice until he, too, resigned last month. Battle told Senate investigators that Gonzales was involved in several meetings where the firings were discussed.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: And Mr. Battle, who was there, testified that you were there, and he thought you were there most of the time. Would you dispute Mr. Battle?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, Senator, putting aside the issue, of course, sometimes people’s recollections are different. I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Battle’s testimony.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Well, I guess I’m concerned about your recollection, really, because it’s not that long ago. It was an important issue, and that’s troubling to me, I’ve got to tell you.

KWAME HOLMAN: One senator after another repeated how poorly Gonzales and his colleagues handled the firings and their weak justifications for doing it. Six of the eight prosecutors had received glowing job evaluations during their tenure, yet were told their firings were performance-related.

That’s what Gonzales argued in a March 13th newspaper editorial, but Michael Battle, who had the job of calling the attorneys and actually doing the firing, has said he knew nothing about any performance problems until shortly before he was directed to dismiss them.

Under questioning from California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, Gonzales admitted he never looked at performance evaluations of the U.S. attorneys’ offices.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), California: You’re testifying to us that you made these decisions without ever looking at the performance reports.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, that is correct.

KWAME HOLMAN: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham followed.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: I guess what I’m trying to wonder, is this really performance-based or did these people just run afoul of personality conflicts in the office, and we were trying to make up reasons to fire them because we wanted to get rid of them?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Sir, I think, if you look at the documentation, I think you can see that there is documentation supporting these decisions.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch. I think it’s clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or at the White House, and, you know, we made up reasons to fire them. Some of it sounds good; some of it doesn’t. And that’s the lesson to be learned here.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Sir, I respectfully disagree with that. I really do.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was Texas Republican John Cornyn, a longtime friend of Gonzales and staunch ally of the administration, who gave the attorney general a chance to say what he would have done differently.

ALBERTO GONZALES: I think I would have had the deputy attorney general more involved, directly involved. I think that I should have told Mr. Sampson who I wanted him to consult with specifically. I should have asked him, “Who are you going to consult with?” I should have asked — I should have told him, “I want the recommendation to include these people.”

And so I think these are the things, when I talk about a more rigorous, a more structured process, I think these are the kinds of things that, in hindsight, that I wish would have happened.

KWAME HOLMAN: But for Cornyn’s Republican colleague, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the entire episode has done far too much damage to the Department of Justice.

SEN. TOM COBURN (R), Oklahoma: I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered, and I believe that the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.

KWAME HOLMAN: After more than seven hours in front of the committee, Alberto Gonzales was dismissed.

The Justice Department's integrity

Sen. Patrick Leahy
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman
I see the Department of Justice without the strong leadership that it should have, devolving into a political arm of the White House, instead of being the independent Department of Justice that I've always known.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to the two senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the chairman, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and the ranking Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.

Chairman Leahy, to you first. What did you want to know from the attorney general today? And did you get it from him?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: Well, I've heard several different explanations, in January, a couple in March, interviews, the USA Today statement, interview with MSNBC, statements before our committee, and then again today. They're all somewhat different.

And, in a way, it's very frustrating, because I see the Department of Justice without the strong leadership that it should have, devolving into a political arm of the White House, instead of being the independent Department of Justice that I've always known throughout my life in both Republican and Democratic administrations. I found it very, very sad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you did not get the information, or whatever it was?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: No. No. You know, a great deal of time was spent both by the senators, and we had both Republican and Democratic senators who came and did a superb job in asking questions. They prepared, worked very hard at it.

I know that the attorney general is going through all kinds of so-called murder boards of people asking him questions and preparing for it, and it was almost like it was something off the cuff. I found it very, very disappointing. And I feel -- what bothers me the most, I fear for the integrity of the Department of Justice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Specter, what did you want from the attorney general? And did you get it?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: I was looking, first, for him to reestablish his integrity. I wanted to see if he could reconcile so many conflicting statements, and he couldn't do it.

He had said that he wasn't involved in, quote, "conversations," didn't have any, quote, "memoranda," was not involved in, quote, "deliberations," and when confronted with statements by three of his top deputies to the contrary, he was unable to explain the inconsistencies.

I also had asked him in advance of the hearings to document precisely why these U.S. attorneys were asked to resign so that you would have a clear picture of the justification. And that was not done in advance. And in the course of a hearing where there are 19 senators asking questions, it's not possible to get the details in a coherent way, which would be necessary to justify the action which was taken.

And then the third facet of my concern was the morale of the department. The Department of Justice has very grave responsibilities in this country, 93 U.S. attorneys across America, for the administration of civil and criminal justice. And there's no doubt about the impact on the morale beyond those who were asked to resign. Everybody else must have been wondering whether they were getting a message and wondering when the next shoe would drop.

Investigation of firings continues

Sen. Arlen Specter
It's really all a muddle as to what happened. I do not believe that it has been shown that they were influenced politically, but we don't know yet why they were asked to resign. And until that is done, there are clouds of suspicion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Specter, are you saying you still don't know why those eight U.S. attorneys who were fired were let go?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: That's correct: We do not know. And we are continuing to investigate. We have taken sworn testimony from people in the department.

We're looking for some responses from White House personnel, but the man to really present it -- and it really had to be done in writing, in advance, in a coherent way. But we do not have a coherent statement as to why those U.S. attorneys were asked to resign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Leahy, is anything about this episode clearer now in your mind after the attorney general spent today before the committee?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I think it's clear one of the things that we suspected the most, that the Department of Justice was becoming an almost political arm of the White House. You don't have that clear, bright line between the two.

I know the president has a White House counsel, and he should have, but the attorney general is supposed to be the attorney general of the United States, not the attorney general of the president. And I think that they never figured out where you let the political arm of the White House, Karl Rove and other political operatives there, into the Department of Justice.

When you see the e-mails, "Well, we have to fire these people, we have to put loyal Bushies in, we'll send a signal," that's -- everything is wrong about that. Everything is wrong.

If you give this signal that only certain types of prosecutions will be allowed, that they have to have a political basis to them, that hurts everybody all the way down to the cop on the street. It removes the independence of the criminal justice system.

Now, I mean, this actually goes way beyond the fate of Attorney General Gonzales. This goes to what has to be one of the most significant parts of our whole country, the Department of Justice. And I'm afraid it has been badly, badly compromised.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what are you going to do about that, your committee -- go ahead.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Let me disagree with Senator Leahy on the aspect of the U.S. attorneys being the political arm of the White House. I do not believe that has been established.

But the best way to clear the air is to demonstrate that there was cause for the requests that they resign. It's really all a muddle as to what happened. I do not believe that it has been shown that they were influenced politically, but we don't know yet why they were asked to resign. And until that is done, there are clouds of suspicion.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, Arlen, if I could be clear on that, I'm not suggesting that they were successful in it, but I got the distinct impression they were trying to influence them politically. And that's the thing that bothers me.

And I think it sends a chill over U.S. attorneys around the country, because there's been no explanation given why you would take some very, very good U.S. attorneys, use an obscure provision of the Patriot Act and to put them in so you'll never have to appear for confirmation, and so much so that one of the rare instances of both Republicans and Democrats joining together in the House and the Senate, we voted overwhelmingly to repeal the act that the administration used to appoint these very same prosecutors.

The White House's involvement

Sen. Patrick Leahy
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman
Let's appoint an independent expert to find the e-mails that were suddenly lost. I mean, it's almost -- I suggested it's like saying, "The dog ate my homework." Now, let's find those e-mails. Let's find why they were suddenly lost.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, gentlemen, we should say...

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Wait, there is an explanation beyond political influence, and the explanation is incompetence. We couldn't get factual answers as to why he said, on one hand, he wasn't involved in discussions or deliberations and why three subordinates said he was. We couldn't get factual answers as to the reasons why these people were asked to resign.

So there's no -- the lack of competence comes through ringing, not politics, just incompetence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are two other things I want to get to quickly, but first we should point out the White House did put out a statement late today saying the president was pleased with the attorney general's testimony, and that he felt he answered your questions, and that he had admitted mistakes were made, but that he has the full confidence of the president.

Senator Leahy, are you prepared to take this further? You said a minute ago, there are signs here of White House involvement in the Justice Department. You do have the ability to subpoena White House aides, whether it's Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers. Will you do that?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: If that's the only way we can get the information, of course we will. I will do that only after consultation with Senator Specter, but you also have the House of Representatives subpoenaing a pile of material.

And we got this grudgingly. We've asked, Senator Specter and I, asked, let's appoint an independent expert to find the e-mails that were suddenly lost. I mean, it's almost -- I suggested it's like saying, "The dog ate my homework." Now, let's find those e-mails. Let's find why they were suddenly lost. There's a lot more in here we have to find.

Again, this administration is going to be gone in a little over a year and a half. I want to establish the foundations so that, whoever the next administration is, whether it's Republican or Democratic, that they will never resort to this kind of -- Senator Specter calls it incompetence. I call it meddling. Either way, it's not the way the Department of Justice should be run.

Testimony of White House officials

Sen. Arlen Specter
I believe that it is indispensable to have a transcript. That is nonnegotiable. But I think we can work out the issue of not being under oath. There's a five-year penalty for a false statement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Specter, how much further do you think this whole thing should be taken?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I believe that the idea which Senator Leahy and I advanced, to have an impartial expert look at the e-mails and the computer system, has been accepted by the White House. They say they have nothing to hide, and I take them at their face value.

I believe we will work it out, to get the White House personnel in. I believe that it is indispensable to have a transcript. That is nonnegotiable. But I think we can work out the issue of not being under oath. There's a five-year penalty for a false statement.

I think we can work out the matter with the House of Representatives -- Democrats and Republicans, from both bodies -- without having the full bodies. And while I would prefer to have a public session, as long as there's a transcript and we know what was said, I'd be prepared to compromise on that. And, then, if we're not satisfied, we can always issue subpoenas.

But look here: If we go the subpoena route, the last time that was done, it took over two years. Executive privilege has to be respected within bounds, and congressional oversight has to be respected.

So what we need to do -- there's too much bickering in this town generally. Patrick and I don't engage in it. But let's come to terms with the White House. I've been talking to White House counsel Fred Fielding, as Pat has, and I think we'll get a lot of these key points worked out to get at the facts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Senator Leahy, we may see testimony then or an appearance, a meeting, by Karl Rove?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, I think we're going to see testimony of a lot of people, and we'll eventually get to the bottom of this. If they have nothing to hide, I'm sure they'll come forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if the president seems to, again, say that the attorney general has his full confidence, that's where the White House leaves it?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, the president has set a very low bar, indeed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to have to leave it there. Senator Specter and Senator Leahy, gentlemen, thank you both.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Nice to be with you. Thank you.