The Senate Judiciary Committee postponed Tuesday's questioning of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on the firings of eight federal prosecutors, saying the proceedings would be inappropriate in light of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy made the decision Monday to postpone the long-awaited hearing that has been considered Gonzales' last chance to quiet a controversy that has prompted calls in both parties for his resignation.
Leahy said the hearing had been rescheduled for Thursday. He said he made the decision after conferring with Gonzales and the committee's senior Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. "All three of us agree," he said.
"I'm sure that he will want to be dealing with the matters of the shooting," Leahy said of Gonzales.
Gonzales' efforts to clarify his role in the firings of eight federal prosecutors may be imperiled by conflicts between his prepared Senate testimony and details already released by the Justice Department and former aides.
"I never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people about my role in this matter," Gonzales wrote in the 25-page statement, which was released in advance of his appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I do acknowledge however that at times I have been less than precise with my words when discussing the resignations."
The Senate panel, which oversees the Justice Department, is investigating whether the firings were politically motivated. Democrats and Republicans alike have called for Gonzales to resign, questioning his credibility over shifting explanations on how involved he was in the process.
'Unprecedented crippling' of Constitution
On Monday, the conservative American Freedom Agenda also urged Gonzales to step down, calling him an "unsuitable steward of the law."
Gonzales "has presided over an unprecedented crippling of the Constitution's time-honored checks and balances," five of the group's members, including former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Fein, former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia and conservative activist Richard Viguerie, wrote in a letter to the White House and the Justice Department. "He has brought the rule of law into disrepute, and debased honesty as the coin of the realm."
Responding, Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse noted that at least nine law enforcement and Hispanic groups have written letters of support for Gonzales. In a March 16 letter to President Bush, for example, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association president Art Gordon called Gonzales "an honest man with high integrity."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she was not aware of the conservatives' letter or whether Bush has seen it.
Bush spoke with Gonzales by phone on Monday morning and discussed the attorney general's testimony, Perino said. She would provide no other details. But Perino downplayed speculation that Gonzales is in a make-or-break situation when he testifies on Capitol Hill.
Asked if the hearing was a matter of job security for Gonzales, Perino said, "No, I don't think so. The attorney general has the full confidence of the president."
Gonzales has defended himself several times during the firestorm, beginning with remarks to reporters on March 13 that later contrasted with more than 5,600 pages of e-mails, schedules, memos and other Justice Department documents released to show that the firings were not improper.
The contradictions continue in Gonzales' prepared testimony, including:
- His assertion that the process to replace underperforming U.S. attorneys began "shortly after the 2004 election and soon after I became attorney general."
According to an e-mail written on Jan. 9, 2005, before Gonzales was confirmed as attorney general, Justice aide Kyle Sampson wrote that he and Gonzales had discussed replacing prosecutors "a couple of weeks ago."
- Gonzales' recollection that he was briefed sporadically through the process of reviewing which prosecutors would be replaced. His prepared testimony says those updates, described as "brief (and) relatively few in number" focused primarily on the review process itself. "During those updates, to my knowledge, I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign," he wrote in his statement.
Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 29 that he remembered discussions with Gonzales regarding "this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign." Sampson left the Justice Department over the controversy March 12.
- Gonzales' assertion that he was not involved in selecting who would replace the targeted prosecutors. "I do not recall making any decision, either on or before December 7, 2006, about who should replace the U.S. attorneys who were asked to resign that day," he says in the prepared testimony.
But Sampson, the attorney general's chief of staff, had compiled a list nearly a year earlier of names of possible replacements. They included Rachel Brand, who heads the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, to replace Margaret Chiara in Michigan, and Tim Griffin, a Rove protege who now is acting U.S. attorney in Arkansas.
Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse has said those suggested replacements were merely proposals, and that none was selected before the prosecutors were told to resign.
- In his March 13 comments about the firings, Gonzales said he "was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on." That was contradicted by e-mails showing he attended a Nov. 27, 2006, meeting about the dismissals.
In his written testimony, Gonzales said he had only an indirect role in the firings but acknowledged he approved the final recommendations "near the end of the process."
On Sunday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, recounted claims by a former Justice official, contradicting Gonzales' assertions that he had limited knowledge of the dismissals and that the firings were based on performance.
Schumer, D-N.Y., said former Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys director Michael Battle told congressional investigators during a closed-door interview that that a memo about the firings was distributed at the Nov. 27 meeting. Battle also said he "was not aware of performance problems with respect to several of the U.S. attorneys" when he called to fire them, according to Schumer.
Based on the prepared testimony, Democrats sounded skeptical that Gonzales would be able to clear up the confusion.
"The attorney general has offered another in a series of contradictory statements about the mass firing of U.S. attorneys," Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement Sunday. "Truth is essential to the administration of justice, yet it has been impossible to discern the truth in this matter based on the shifting explanations and changing stories coming out of the Justice Department and the White House."