WASHINGTON — The White House and a key Republican senator reaffirmed support Saturday for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales even as Democrats questioned his credibility for apparently misrepresenting his role in firing eight federal prosecutors.
Critics said the latest document disclosure — more than 280 pages of e-mails, calendar notations and other documents sent to Congress late Friday — bolstered their case for Gonzales’ ouster.
Yet one longtime ally who largely has kept quiet about the attorney general’s fate issued a statement of support.
“He has always been straightforward and honest with me,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “So, unless there is clear evidence that the attorney general deliberately lied or misled Congress, I see no reason to call for his resignation.”
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Contradicted by documents?
Gonzales has said he participated in no discussions and saw no memos about plans to carry out the firings on Dec. 7 that Democrats contend were politically motivated.
His schedule, however, shows he attended at least one hourlong meeting, on Nov. 27, where he approved a detailed plan to execute the prosecutors’ firings.
Democrats said the new documents appear to show Gonzales was more involved than he claimed earlier.
“How much scrutiny do we have to put behind everything the attorney general says?” the House Judiciary Committee chairman said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I know he’s busy, and he could have done things that he didn’t remember, but we’re going to give him as much rope as he needs,” said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the Nov. 27 meeting “widens the gap between the evolving explanations the Bush administration has offered and the facts that keep coming to light.”
But White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said the documents do not conflict with Gonzales’ earlier statements.
“The president continues to have confidence in the attorney general,” Perino said. “As the Justice Department said last night, these new documents are not inconsistent with its previous statements.”
Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Saturday there are no plans for Gonzales to resign.
Gonzales: 'I never saw documents'
Also, several Republicans in both the House and Senate said they needed to learn more about how closely he was involved in the firings. Still stopping short of calling for Gonzales’ resignation, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., “thinks it’s better to have an attorney general that Congress has confidence in,” spokesman R.C. Hammond said.
At issue were statements Gonzales made at a March 13 news conference that appear to conflict with what the documents show.
On that day, Gonzales portrayed himself as largely unaware of the process of firing the prosecutors, depending instead on then-chief of staff Kyle Sampson — who resigned March 12 — to handle it.
“I never saw documents,” Gonzales said then. “We never had a discussion about where things stood. What I knew was that there was ongoing effort that was led by Mr. Sampson, vetted through the Department of Justice, to ascertain where we could make improvements in U.S. attorney performances around the country.”
At the same news conference, Gonzales said he was “very dismayed” that the department may have given incomplete or misleading information to Senate and House panels investigating whether firings were politically motivated. The attorney general said he would take “corrective actions” to prevent it happening again.
The new documents, however, included a page from Gonzales’ calendar that shows he participated in an hourlong Nov. 27 meeting with five senior officials at the department to discuss the firings.
At the meeting, aides said, Gonzales approved detailed “roll out” plans for the firings. That plan involved notifying Republican home-state senators of the impending dismissals, preparing for potential political upheaval, naming replacements and submitting them to the Senate for confirmation.
Six of the eight prosecutors who were ordered to resign are named in the plan.
“A good lawyer will tell you, when the story keeps changing, it’s usually because someone has something to hide,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., renewing his demand that Gonzales quit.
Roehrkasse, the Justice spokesman, said Gonzales does not remember “deliberations over which U.S. attorneys should or should not be replaced.”
“Towards the end of the process, he recalls a discussion with Kyle Sampson about the list of names recommended for replacement and some of the considerations that went into those recommendations,” Roehrkasse said of Gonzales. “He concurred.”
There is little in the thousands of department documents released over the past two weeks that directly name Gonzales. An e-mail from Jan. 9, 2005, mentions a conversation between Gonzales and Sampson about White House suggestions to replace all 93 U.S. attorneys as part of a second-term house cleaning.
“Judge and I discussed briefly a couple of weeks ago,” Sampson wrote back to White House aide David Leitch; Gonzales is a former Texas state Supreme Court justice. The across-the-board firings, however, were ultimately rejected. Gonzales himself called it a “bad idea” and “disruptive.”
Sampson is scheduled to testify Thursday before Leahy’s committee about his — and, presumably, Gonzales’ — role in planning and carrying out the dismissals.
One e-mail in the new batch of documents highlights anew the White House’s political team involvement in the firings.
“Does a list of all vacant, or about to be vacant, US Attorney slots exist anywhere?” White House deputy political director J. Scott Jennings wrote in an e-mail to Sampson last Dec. 3. The e-mail, titled “USATTY” was written from the Internet domain address of “gwb43.com,” which is registered to the National Republican Committee.
Sampson answered back a few minutes later, the e-mails show. “My office. Want me to send to you tomorrow?” he wrote.
NBC's Pete Williams contributed to this report.