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Congress Scrutinizes Attorney General Gonzales’ Role

President Bush and Congress edged closer to confrontation Tuesday over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys and the future of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. A panel analyzes the situation and the role of an attorney general.

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    President Bush began his day with an early morning phone call of support to Alberto Gonzales, just as White House spokesperson Dana Perino was denying news reports that the search was on for a new attorney general.

    But as the day progressed, so did the firestorm on Capitol Hill surrounding the Justice Department's abrupt dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys late last year. Democrats said 3,000 new e-mails and documents released by Justice late last night confirmed that the firings were politically motivated.

    Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.

    SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: It was an abuse of power committed in secret to steer certain outcomes in our justice system and then to try to cover up the tracks.


    Republican John Cornyn, however, downplayed the significance of the dismissals, once again noting that President Clinton fired all 93 U.S. attorneys when he took office.

    SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: I don't see what the hubbub is about relieving eight U.S. attorneys of their job; that's within the right of every president.


    But the latest documents shed new light on the build-up to the firings and the administration's attempts to control the damage once they occurred.

    On December 5th, two days before seven of the attorneys were fired, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty wrote in an e-mail that he had second thoughts about dismissing Daniel Bogden of Nevada. "I'm still a little skittish about Bogden," he said. "I'll admit I have not looked at his district's performance."

    That would seem to contradict earlier testimony from Justice officials that the firings were performance-related. In fact, the e-mails show that McNulty caused a stir within Justice in February, after he told a Senate committee that one U.S. attorney, Bud Cummins of Little Rock, was moved aside to make room for a protege of White House political adviser Karl Rove.

    Attorney General Gonzales apparently was "extremely upset," according to a Justice spokesman, and thought some of the statements that McNulty had made were inaccurate.

    And earlier this month, as congressional Democrats prepared to subpoena the fired prosecutors to testify, internal Justice Department e-mails show that Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, said Bud Cummins should not testify because he "would tell the truth about his circumstances" of being fired so that Rove's aide could take over in Little Rock.

    Unhappy with the shifting stories, Democrats are prepared to subpoena Sampson to testify and had hoped to get Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers to testify, as well.

    SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), California: The time for slippery explanations is over.


    But this afternoon, following a private meeting with White House counsel Fred Fielding, Democrats Chuck Schumer and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said the White House offered only private interviews with the two, not under oath and not to be transcribed.

    REP. JOHN CONYERS (D), Michigan: We are disappointed, and I think that may be an understatement.


    During his statement at the White House this evening, President Bush said that was the best deal he was going to offer.

    GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants. The initial response by Democrats, unfortunately, show some appear more interested in scoring political points than in learning the facts.

    It will be regrettable if they choose to head down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas and demanding show trials when I have agreed to make key White House officials and documents available. I have proposed a reasonable way to avoid an impasse; I hope they don't choose confrontation.


    Late today, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy rejected the White House offer.