Furor Over Firings Rages Despite Gonzales Admitting Mistakes
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stood in his flag-bedecked conference room Tuesday, surrounded by grand portraits of his predecessors, and tried to get ahead of the U.S. attorney firing crisis that has consumed the Justice Department and threatens to tarnish his already controversial legacy.
Comparing himself to a CEO of a big company, Gonzales said that he takes responsibility for the way the department fired the U.S. attorneys and how it explained its decisions. But while resorting to the long-favored "mistakes were made" tradition, Gonzales also distanced himself from the year-and-a-half-long process that resulted in the firings, even though his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who just resigned, was intimately involved.
"As we can all imagine, in an organization of 110,000 people," said Gonzales, "I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls of the Department of Justice, nor am I aware of all decisions."
Sampson's resignation is just the first of a series of dominoes to fall in the quickly escalating crisis at the Justice Department over the firings of eight federal prosecutors last year that Democrats in Congress have charged were politically motivated. It's a crisis that could engulf Gonzales and his political team if it isn't contained quickly.
But key Democrats in Congress, notably Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, have vowed to stoke this fire until it results in Gonzales's resignation.
The story has turned into a political and media frenzy, with Schumer vowing to use subpoena powers to summon President Bush's political adviser Karl Rove as well as other senior Bush aides to testify about their roles in the firings. And most likely, Sampson also will be called to testify under oath about how the list of prosecutors was drawn up.
"We stand by the fact that no U.S. attorney was removed to interfere with a public corruption investigation," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse told U.S. News, "or, for that matter, to interfere with a criminal or civil investigation or prosecution."
Democrats in Congress remain yet to be convinced. If Schumer makes good on his subpoena threat, it could result in a legal showdown between this administration and Congress over the issue of executive privilege. There's a long tradition regarding White House staff not testifying publicly and especially in response to subpoenas, and this administration in particular has wielded executive privilege to refuse to provide information to Congress even when Republicans were running the show.
The speed of Sampson's departure, former Justice officials say, signals the seriousness of the crisis. More resignations and firings are sure to follow. Sampson's resignation came in the wake of revelations today that then White House counsel Harriet Miers had proposed to Sampson the firing of all 93 U.S. attorneys at the start of Bush's second term in 2005even though they were all his people.
Documents released by the Justice Department showed that the dismissals occurred after Bush had passed on to Gonzales complaints he'd received that some prosecutors had not aggressively gone after voter-fraud cases involving Democrats, according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. Gonzales then agreed to fire a small group of U.S. attorneys instead. Sampson has said he failed to tell his boss how much he had communicated with Miers, resulting in Gonzales, his deputy Paul McNulty, and others providing inaccurate testimony to Congress over the evolution of the firings.