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Editors Gauge Impact of Attorney Firings on Gonzales

March 27, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is defending himself against allegations that he misled Congress and the public about his involvement in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

An internal Justice Department e-mail, released Friday night, shows he attended a meeting last November, 10 days before the firings. The e-mail seemed to contradict his earlier denial of involvement in the dismissals.

The attorney general was interviewed last night on NBC.

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General: What I meant was that I had not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not United States attorneys should resign. I don’t recall being involved. Let me be more precise, because I now know that, with respect to this particular topic, people parse carefully the words that I use.

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent days, several influential Republican senators have questioned Gonzales’ ability to continue in his post.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: If we find he has not been candid and truthful, that’s a very compelling reason for him not to stay on.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, Anchor, “This Week”: Do you think he can still serve effectively as attorney general?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: Well, I do not. And I think the president is going to have to make a tough choice here.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: He’s got support with me. I support the attorney general.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president has stood by his attorney general, a long-time confidante and friend. Mr. Bush has, in turn, blasted congressional Democrats for rejecting a proposal that key White House aides, Karl Rove and former counsel Harriet Miers in particular, talk to members behind closed doors without a transcript and not under oath.

GEORGE W. BUSH: My concern is they would rather be involved with, you know, partisanship. Maybe this is an opportunity to score political points.

JEFFREY BROWN: Despite the president’s stance, the Judiciary Committees in both houses of Congress voted last week to authorize subpoenas to White House aides, though they have yet to be formerly issued.

And last night, the House followed an earlier Senate action and voted to strip the attorney general’s office of the power to appoint U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation.

Also yesterday, Monica Goodling, an aide to Mr. Gonzales, said she would invoke the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if called to testify before Congress.

As for public opinion, a poll out today from USA Today and Gallup shows that, by more than 3 to 1, those surveyed said that Congress should investigate White House involvement in the firings. And 68 percent believe subpoenas should be issued for White House officials in order to compel testimony.

But while supportive of the inquiries overall, 59 percent of those polled said Democrats are investigating to gain political advantage, while just half that number believe they are motivated by real ethical concerns.

Public reaction to attorney firings

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more public opinion on this, we turn to four editorial page editors: Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune; James Gibbons of the Houston Chronicle; Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and Nolan Finley of the Detroit News.

Well, Bob Kittle, starting with you, one of the prosecutors involved, Carol Lam, comes from your area. So did that make it a big story out there?

BOB KITTLE, San Diego Union-Tribune: Jeffrey, it's been a very big story now for weeks in San Diego, because Carol Lam was very highly respected and, in nearly all cases, the law enforcement community felt that she was unjustly fired, fired for political reasons.

And some, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, have raised the possibility that she was fired because of her aggressive investigations of Republicans in Congress. So it's been a very big story here.

JEFFREY BROWN: How about James Gibbons in Houston? You're in a city where people know the Bush family. They know the attorney general well. How has it played out there?

JAMES GIBBONS, Houston Chronicle: Many Houstonians feel great kinship with the Bush family. And they've known the president and his parents for years. And they're reluctant to condemn the administration outright.

However, the Houston Chronicle editorial last Friday pointed out that the attorney general, by the misrepresentations and contradictions, has badly served the president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nolan Finley, you wrote an editorial that said, "The flap about the Bush administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys is overblown." So I guess you think there's been too much coverage of this as a story?

NOLAN FINLEY, Detroit News: Well, when Lee Iacocca asked Henry Ford II why he was being fired as CEO of Ford Motor Company, and Ford said, "Because I just don't like you," and that's all that should have been said in this case.

These were at-will employees that could be fired without cause. And why on Earth Gonzales talked himself into such a mess, I still can't figure out.

But, really, it hasn't resonated in our market. I mean, we've got suburban housewives being chopped up by their husbands. It hasn't knocked that off of page one. I think so far it's been a curiosity here more than a real issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Cynthia Tucker, a curiosity in Atlanta or a real issue?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: There is some interest in this story here, perhaps not as much as there was in the controversy over Walter Reed, but we've had a lot of letters from readers on both sides, although, unlike the Walter Reed controversy, this one seems to be breaking more along partisan lines.

Those who had been staunch supporters of President Bush see this as a tempest in a teapot. And many who have tended to lean toward Democrats see this as a real scandal involving very genuine ethical issues.

And that's a point of view the Atlanta Journal-Constitution takes, by the way. We have called for the attorney general's resignation.

JEFFREY BROWN: You've called for the resignation already?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Yes, we have.

'Still waiting for all the facts'

JEFFREY BROWN: Bob Kittle, you have written critically, I guess, about this. Tell us a little bit about -- well, you started to tell us about why, because of the local connection with the prosecutor. But I also noticed that you have not called for the resignation yet. Why not?

BOB KITTLE: Well, Jeffrey, we're waiting for all of the facts to come in. I mean, editorial boards are often very quick to call for an official's resignation.

We've been harshly critical of the attorney general. And we have basically concluded that, certainly, these prosecutors were fired for political reasons, not for performance reasons. But we're still waiting for all of the facts before we make a judgment on whether the attorney general should leave.

The real question today, though, is not whether we think he should leave, but whether he can restore his own credibility. His credibility has been severely undermined. His integrity now is being questioned because of inconsistencies in what he has said.

So the real question about whether he should go or stay, I think, is whether he can restore his own credibility. And I think that's going to be almost impossible for him to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, staying with you, though, what are you looking for? What is it that will convince you one way or the other on whether he can do that?

BOB KITTLE: Well, if we see convincingly -- and in testimony later in the week, we may see -- that the attorney general was directly involved in orchestrating the firings of some of these U.S. attorneys, in particular Carol Lam in San Diego, for either political reasons or because she was expanding her investigation of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, certainly then the firing is inexcusable.

And we have focused very much on Carol Lam, so we're looking to see what all the facts show in that case.

Serving his client?

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, James Gibbons, you mentioned that you have already written an editorial raising some of the criticisms of Alberto Gonzales, but I think you, too, have not yet called for a resignation. What is it that you are waiting for? What do you want to see next?

JAMES GIBBONS: Perhaps I can just recall two experiences that shed some light on how Mr. Gonzales found himself in this position in the first place.

You know, what some people may not recall is that he served with great distinction on the Texas Supreme Court after being appointed by then-Governor Bush. And he famously castigated a fellow conservative justice, Priscilla Owen, for judicial activism in a case involving abortion and parental notification.

However, Mr. Gonzales has just spent much of his career working for the Bush family. And at a luncheon when he was White House counsel, he recalled how he'd grown up in the barrio and worked his way through Rice University and Harvard Law.

And he said this was -- you know, what a great country this is, that someone from his modest background can grow up to work for a famous family like the Bushes.

And I think he simply cannot delineate the broad public interest from, you know, his client's interest. And that's what has prevented him from serving effectively as an attorney general. If he can change, then all for the good.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nolan Finley, are you suggesting that that's precisely what he should be doing, in a sense, serving his client?

NOLAN FINLEY: Well, we don't think that Gonzales should be dismissed or resign for firing these prosecutors. He certainly had a right to do so. If it turns out that he lied under oath before Congress, I mean, that's a whole different ballgame.

I think the communication of the firings is more of an issue than the firings themselves. And I'm concerned that Congress is trying to establish a new standard for the dismissal of political appointees.

They can be fired for political reasons. They can be fired without cause. And that's always been the case.

When Jimmy Carter came into Detroit and fired the U.S. attorney for poking into Coleman Young's closets, there was no investigation, no one challenged the reasons. That's a presidential power, presidential authority that Congress ought to be careful about messing with just because they're dealing with an unpopular and weak president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cynthia, do you want to jump in and respond to that one? I take you see it differently.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I do see it differently. I mean, it is absolutely true that U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. They are political appointees.

But it is also true that you can come awfully close to obstruction of justice if you fire a U.S. attorney because you believe he's prosecuting somebody you don't want prosecuted or he is refusing to prosecute someone you do want prosecuted.

The attorney general is the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the country. The Justice Department represents the law, the tradition of the law, applied fairly across the board, without regard to gender, without regard to race, and certainly without regard to political ideology.

And so, if these U.S. attorneys have been fired or at least some of them have been fired because they were investigating people the president didn't want investigated, then that is a very serious matter indeed and, as I said, may border on obstruction of justice.

Future for Bush administration

JEFFREY BROWN: Bob Kittle, let me broaden out just a little bit and see how the Washington political moment here looks to you, to you all. This case comes after the Scooter Libby trial. It comes after the Walter Reed stories. There's the fight in Congress now over funding the war, all this after an election, of course, last year.

Generally speaking, how do things look to you now?

BOB KITTLE: Well, I think, just speaking for myself and not trying to speak for how people in San Diego would view it, I think, you know, in my view, there's a lot of disillusionment with this administration, for all of the reasons that you cited, the war being the principal one.

The war is the reason that Congress changed hands. And the president's handling of the war, I think, colors everything else.

But there's a broader perception now, and this has happened with other administrations in the closing couple of years, that the American people are almost ready to move on. They're ready to get rid of this administration and move on to the next one.

And there's a lot of disillusionment with the seeming ineptitude of the Bush administration on a number of matters. And I think it's going to be very difficult for the president to have a successful final two years in office because of that and because of the current scandal with the Justice Department.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nolan Finley, what do you think? Is there a chance over the next two years for the president to take some initiatives and do some things?

NOLAN FINLEY: I think it will be difficult. I think you're seeing an administration that has not been able to find its feet, particularly in this last year, year-and-a-half.

Taken as a stand-alone issue, this wouldn't resonate, I don't think, with voters. But when you add it to all of the other missteps and miscommunications, it's just a confirmation of why people are dissatisfied, why they don't trust the president, and why they're ready to move on.

JEFFREY BROWN: James Gibbons, what do you think? Is it just -- we're talking about the president here -- but is it a focus on both parties at this point? Or is it really focused on the administration?

JAMES GIBBONS: Well, the administration has the greatest challenge, and I think it's because of the continued involvement in the war.

The Houston Chronicle, although it has a centrist editorial policy and resides in a conservative town, reprinted an editorial that we had written before the invasion, listing all the reasons why it shouldn't go ahead.

And one of those was, you know, would leave foreign policy in disarray and divert the nation's resources to lesser objectives. Having done that, there's no way out of it at this point for the president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cynthia, Mr. Gibbons just mentioned the war again. Just as the last election just seems to be there all the time, the war, the war, the war. Is that still what's floating behind all of these stories that come into the news?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I think that the war is responsible for so many -- the disillusionment among so many Republicans and former Bush supporters. And that's true here even in Georgia, which is a very red state.

The last poll that I saw showed that the president's approval rating was less than 50 percent here. And that's mostly because of the war. And because of that dissatisfaction or disillusionment, all of these other things just add a steady drumbeat that seems to indicate incompetence, or distortions, or inability to tell the truth.

That has just turned a lot of people off. So I think that there are a lot of people who were former Bush supporters who are now also ready for this presidency to end.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Cynthia Tucker, Bob Kittle, James Gibbons and Nolan Finley, thanks all very much.