WASHINGTON — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales confronted a fresh Republican call for his resignation Thursday as he struggled to survive a withering, bipartisan Senate attack on his credibility in the case of eight fired prosecutors.
“The best way to put this behind us is your resignation,” Sen. Tom Coburn bluntly told Gonzales — one GOP conservative to another — at a daylong Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Gonzales disagreed and told the Oklahoma senator he didn’t know that his departure would put the controversy to rest. “I am committed to working with you in trying to restore the faith and confidence you need to work with me,” he said.
The exchange punctuated a long day in the witness chair for the attorney general, who doggedly advanced a careful, lawyerly defense of the dismissals of the federal prosecutors. He readily admitted mistakes, yet told lawmakers he had “never sought to deceive them,” and added he would make the same firings decision again.
“At the end of the day I know I did not do anything improper,” he said.
But another Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, delivered a virtual invitation for him to step down.
He said the committee would continue its investigation and urged Gonzales to provide additional information. "If you decide to stay on it’s up to the president," he said.
Support from White House
Gonzales sat alone at the witness table in a crowded room for the widely anticipated hearing. There was no doubt about the stakes for a member of President Bush’s inner circle, and support from fellow Republicans was critical to his attempt to hold his job.
“The moment I believe I can no longer be effective I will resign as attorney general,” Gonzales said after making it clear he did not believe it had come to that.
The hearing was drawing to a close on Capitol Hill when Bush spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters at the White House, “The attorney general has the confidence of the president. ... The attorney general acted to replace the U.S. attorneys and there was nothing improper.”
Struggling to save his credibility and perhaps his job, Gonzales testified at least 45 times that he could not recall events he was asked about.
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After a long morning in the witness chair, Gonzales returned after lunch to face a fresh challenge to his credibility. “Why is your story changing?” asked Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, noting that the attorney general was now accepting responsibility for the firings after initially saying he had played only a minor role.
In response, Gonzales replied that his earlier answers had been “overbroad” and the result of inadequate preparation.
The process that led to the firings “should have been more rigorous,” he added, although he repeatedly defended the decisions themselves.
Gonzales sat alone at the witness table in a crowded hearing room for the widely anticipated hearing. There was no doubt about the stakes involved for a member of President Bush’s inner circle, under pressure to resign since the dismissals of the prosecutors.
Diminishes role in firings
Gonzales insisted Thursday he played only a small role in the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors. Skeptical senators reacted with disbelief.
"We have to evaluate whether you are really being forthright," Specter bluntly informed the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
Specter said Gonzales' description was "significantly if not totally at variance with the facts."
"I don't want to quarrel with you," Gonzales replied after Specter asked again whether his was a fair, honest characterization.
Gonzales told the committee there was no impropriety in last winter's firings and the decision was "justified and should stand."
Gonzales conceded that "reasonable people might disagree" with the decision. He said the process by which the U.S. attorneys were dismissed was "nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been."
Apology to attorneys
Offering an apology to the eight and their families, he also said he had "never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people" on that or any other matter.
Majority Democrats expressed skepticism at the attorney general's testimony.
"Since you apparently knew very little about the performance about the replaced United States attorneys, how can you testify that the judgment ought to stand?" asked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked Gonzales whether he had reviewed the evaluation records of the dismissed prosecutors, who Justice Department officials initially said had been fired for inadequate performance. He said he had not.
The attorney general began his turn as a witness after a tongue-lashing from Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee's chairman.
"Today the Department of Justice is experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history," said the Vermont Democrat. "There's a growing scandal swirling around the dismissal" of prosecutors, he added.
Specter offered no more comfort in his opening remarks.
He said the purpose of the hearing was to determine whether the committee believes that Gonzales should remain in office. "As I see it, you come to this hearing with a very heavy burden of proof," Specter said as Gonzales listened intently, lips pursed, a few feet away.
Specter: ‘Not a game of gotcha’
"This is not a game of gotcha," said Specter. In a reflection of the stakes, he told the attorney general he faced the equivalent of a "reconfirmation hearing."
Protesters wearing orange garb and pink police costumes were among the spectators. The words "Arrest Gonzales" were duct-taped to their backs.
Gonzales has provided differing versions of the events surrounding the firings, first saying he had almost no involvement and then later acknowledging that his role was larger — but only after e-mails about meetings he attended were released by the Justice Department to House and Senate committees.
At points, Gonzales spoke in careful, lawyerly terms.
"I now understand there was a conversation with myself and the president," he said at one point.
And responding to Specter, he seemed to differentiate between the formal bureaucratic process that led to the dismissals and his own involvement.
Democrats have stoked the controversy over the dismissals, suggesting there were political considerations involved.
Gonzales acknowledged speaking with Bush and White House adviser Karl Rove about complaints over election fraud cases in New Mexico, where David Iglesias was the U.S. attorney.
The conversation with Bush occurred on Oct. 11, Gonzales said. Iglesias' name was added to the list of those to be fired between Oct. 17 and Nov. 15 — a week after the November elections.
Critics allege that some of the eight fired were dismissed to interfere with ongoing corruption investigations in ways that might help Republicans. Gonzales strongly denies that, but Democrats have maintained that a stiff denial is insufficient without more details.
Waiting on Gonzales
The president has stuck by Gonzales, a longtime aide going back to Bush's days as governor of Texas, through calls for him to resign by several Democratic lawmakers as well as a few Republicans.
Gonzales has resisted, saying in previous prepared testimony he has "nothing to hide" but apologizing "for my missteps that have helped to fuel the controversy."
The Virginia Tech shooting that delayed the hearing for two days could have tempered the tone of the proceedings, several lawmakers said. But both Democrats and Republicans were eager to get on with the Gonzales matter.
"I think that it's appropriate to move forward," said Schumer before the hearing. Schumer is the New York Democrat leading the investigation on the Senate side.
"The sooner it's over, the better," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, whose support of Gonzales is one key to the attorney general's fate.
Republicans urged Gonzales to be more assertive and answer the questions more specifically than he did in his prepared testimony, which was released by the Justice Department on Sunday in anticipation that the hearing would be held Tuesday.
"I hope he doesn't apologize," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who spoke with Gonzales a week ago. "He is in a really miserable position where people are focused and saying nasty things. He thinks that he acted appropriately. I told him he ought to be less gracious in his responses."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.