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Gonzales: Firings were not improper

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales talks to NBC News' Pete Williams in an exclusive interview about the controversy surrounding the firings of U.S. attorneys.
/ Source: NBC News

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spoke to NBC News' Pete Williams in an exclusive interview on Monday about the controversy surrounding the firings of U.S. attorneys. The following is a transcript of their discussion:

Pete Williams: Mr. Attorney General, what is it that you would like people to know about this controversy?

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: Let me begin with the attacks on my credibility, which really have pained me and my family.  You know, I have grown up — I grew up with nothing but my integrity.  And someday, when I leave this office, I am confident that I will leave with my integrity.  The United States attorneys that were asked — to resign — were appointed by this president, they serve, like me, at the pleasure of the president.

I asked for their resignation not for improper reasons.  I would never have asked for their resignations to interfere with a public corruption case or in any way to interfere with an ongoing investigation.  I just wouldn't do that.  And if you look carefully at the documentations we've provided to Congress, there's no evidence of that.

But just to be sure, I've asked the Office of Professional Responsibility at the department to look into this.  And — they will be working, along with the Office of Inspector General, to make it clear and reassure the American people that nothing improper happened here.  Our record in public corruption at the department is extremely strong.  And I think if you look at the record, you'll see that whether or not you're a governor, whether or not you're a member of Congress, whether or not you're a deputy secretary at a — a Cabinet agency, whether or not you're a local official, whether or not you're Republican, whether or not you're Democrat, we have an obligation.

We've upheld that obligation to ensure that public officials do not violate the public's trust.  I believe in truth and accountability, Pete.  And everything that I've done is supportive of that principle.  I directed the department to turn over over 3,000 pages of documents.

I directed the department officials participate in interviews and — and hearings before the Congress.  As — as I've indicated, I've asked OPR to be involved, to work with the Office of Inspector General so we can reassure the American public that nothing improper happened here.  I've got nothing to hide in terms of what I've done.  And we now want to reassure the American public that number improper happened here.

If I find out that, in fact, any of these decisions were motivated, the recommendations to me were motivated for improper reasons to interfere with the public corruption case, there will be swift and — there will be swift and decisive action.  I can assure you that.
Williams: Meaning people would be fired?

Gonzales: Absolutely.  Because there is no place for that.  Our prosecutors have to — there has to be no question about the integrity, the professionalism, undue influence of prosecutions in connection with public corruption kind — kinds of cases.  And if I find out that any of that occurred here involving the Department of Justice officials, yes, they will be removed.

Williams: Can you answer some of the questions that have come up over the weekend?  As you know, there was a — an email that came out Friday night that showed that ten days before the firings there was a meeting in your office which you attended to discuss the firings.  And yet when you talked to us here at the Justice Department two weeks ago, you said you were not involved in any discussions about the firings.  Can you — can you explain what seems like a contradiction?

Gonzales: Let — let me just say — a wise senator recently told me that when you say something that is either being misunderstood or can be misunderstood, you need to try to correct the record and make the record clear.  Let me try to be more precise about my involvement.  When I said on March 13th that I wasn't involved, what I meant was that I — I had not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not United States attorneys should resign.

After I became attorney general, I had Kyle Sampson coordinate a department review of the performance of United States attorneys.  And I expected him to — to consult with appropriate Department of Justice officials who had information and knowledge about the performance of United States attorneys.  From time to time, Mr. Sampson would tell me something that would confirm in my mind that that process was ongoing.

For example, I recall him mention to me that — inquiry from the White House about where were we in — in identifying underperformers?  And there are other similar type reminders that occurred during this process that I'm going to discuss specifically with the Congress.  I was never focused on specific concerns about United States attorneys as to whether or not they should be asked to resign.  I was more focused on identify — or making sure that the White House was a prop — was appropriately advised of the progress of our review.  And I was also concerned to ensure that the appropriate Department of Justice officials, people who know — knew about the performance of — of United States attorneys, that they were involved in the process.

Now, of course, ultimately at the end of the process or near the end of the process, the recommendations were — were presented to me.  There had been a lot of work done to review the performance of the United States attorneys.  And recommendations were presented to me that reflected the recommendations of Kyle Sampson and of others in the department.  And so there was obviously a discussion with respect to that — that recommendation.

And, of course — having decided there will be changes, there was — there was a discussion about how do we implement this change?  And so that is in — in essence — the context of my involvement and the substance of my comments on March 13th.

Williams: So you didn't get into the decision about specifically which U.S. attorneys to include on this list until the very end?

Gonzales: Absolutely.  Now, that's not to say that during the process I may not have heard about the performance — or particular matter with respect to the United States attorney.  For example — we've already confirmed that Senator Domenici did call me about the performance of the United States attorney in New Mexico.

The president — the White House has already confirmed that there was a conversation with the president, mentioned it to me in a meeting at the Oval Office — in terms of concerns about — about the commitment — to pursue voter fraud cases in — in three jurisdictions around the country.  I don't remember that conversation, but what I'm saying is during the process there may have been other conversations about specifically about the performance of US attorneys.  But I wasn't involved in the deliberations as to whether or not a particular United States attorney should or should not be asked to resign.

Williams: By the way, do you —

Gonzales: I don't recall being involved.  Let me — let me be more — more precise because I know that — with respect to this particular topic, people parse carefully the words that I use. (LAUGHTER) And — and I wanna be careful about what I say.  And, of course, at the end of the day, I will have the opportunity to present my story to the Congress, as will other DOJ officials — Department of Justice officials.
Williams: You mentioned the conversations with the president.  What role did they play in deciding which U.S. attorneys would be on the list?

Gonzales: As far as I know, Pete — they did not play a role in — in adding names or taking off names.  Now, obviously these are — appointees of the president.  The White House was involved in placing them in their position.  The White House would have to be at least informed if a decision was going to be asked — to ask for people's resignation.

There's nothing improper about that.  And, of course, there's nothing improper about the White House communi- communicating, as a general matter, complaints about Department of Justice employees.  I want to know if, in fact, the White House has received a complaint or has con-- concerns about the performance of a department employee, I would wanna know about it.  And I'd like to hear — I'd like to hear it from the White House.
Williams: The — so the list came to you toward the end for you to sign off on.  But you were not involved in deciding who should be on or off the list during the process.
Gonzales: I was not involved in the deliberations during the process as to who-- who should or should not be — asked to resign.

Williams: If that —
Gonzales: I depended on the people who knew about how those United States attorneys — were performing — people within the department — who — who would have personal knowledge of — about these individuals, who would have, based upon their experience, would know what — what would be the appropriate standards that a United States attorney should be asked to — to achieve.

Williams: Given that, then how can you be certain that none of these U.S. attorneys were put on that list for improper reasons?

Gonzales: What I can say is this:  I know the reasons why I asked you — these United States attorneys to leave.  And it — it was not for improper reasons.  It was not to interfere with the public corruption case.  It was not for partisan reasons.

I also — we also know that there's nothing in the documents that indicates that they were asked to leave for improper reasons.  But all — but lastly, just to be sure, I have asked for an internal — review by the Office of Professional Responsibility, working with the Office of Inspector General.  And, of course, the Congress is going to be doing its own review because I want to know as well if, in fact, there were improper reasons, we — we should know about it.  And there will be accountability.

Williams: To put this question another way — if you didn't review their performance during this process, then how can you be certain that they were fired for performance reasons?
Gonzales: I — I've given — I've given the answer to the question, Pete.  I know — I know the reasons why I made the decision.  Again, there's nothing in the documents to support the allegation that there was anything improper here.  And there is an internal — department review to answer that question, to reassure the — the American people that there was nothing improper that happened here.
Williams: Given that, how difficult is it going to be — you just said there's a shortage of documentation here.  How hard is it going to be to make the case to Congress that they were not fired for improper reasons if there isn't a lot of documentation on the reasons they were put on the list?

Gonzales: I didn't — I don't think that I said there was a shortage of documentation.  Listen, what I will say is this.  The — the — the evaluations of individual United States attorneys is — is not solely contained within the documents.

Obviously, people have personal observations, personal views that may not be reflected in those documents.  Those will — will be presented — to the Congress at the appropriate time.

Williams: Obviously you're — you've chosen to stay and — and fight this issue.  Why?
Gonzales: I think that every Cabinet official has to ask themselves — every day — Is it still appropriate for me to lead a Cabinet department?  It's something that I've been asking myself more (LAUGHTER) lately than perhaps others.  Because at the end of the day, it's not about Alberto Gonzales.  It's about this great Department of Justice — that does so many wonderful things for the American people.  And our record here in the past two years in the area of civil rights, in the area of protecting our kids against child predators, protecting the country against terrorism, making our neighborhoods safe from drugs and gangs has really been outstanding.

Also about public corruption.  Our public corruption record has been tremendous.  So we've done some great things.  I believe that that can still continue.  Obviously have — I — we have to deal with this situation with the Congress.  We have to reassure the American people that nothing improper happened here.

And I'm confident that — that we'll be able — be able to do that.  But I also believe that — hat we can still move forward and still continue to do great things for the American people.  And as long as I have the confidence of the president, I intend to do just that.