White House Stands by Gonzales

The White House reiterates its support for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, even as Republican backing crumbles around him. Alex Chadwick discusses the latest developments over the controversial firing of U.S. attorneys with NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Two debates divide Washington this week: how to fund the war in Iraq, and what about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales? On Thursday, senators expect to hear testimony from his former chief of staff who was ousted for the way he handled the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

Ron, welcome back. Let us start with Mr. Gonzales and the delivery of more documents on Friday. This is sometimes called a Friday dump, right? Bring us up to date on that.

RON ELVING: Well, Alex, I hope you had a better weekend than Alberto Gonzales had, starting with a Friday night data dump - a couple hundred additional pages left over from the previous overnight data dump earlier in the week from the Justice Department.

This batch happened to include a meeting memo for November 27th last year, a memo about an hour-long meeting of the top officials in Justice with Alberto Gonzales present to get his signoff on the plan for firing U.S. attorneys.

Now, the Justice people and the White House immediately said this was not a contradiction. It did not contradict all of Gonzales's earlier statements about not being involved in this. And we always did know he had signed off on the firings at just about this time - November 27th last year.

So again, you have to make a judgment call. Has he been caught in a lie here, or did he really sign off on the firings at that meeting without getting into the merits of the cases against these individual attorneys as he has said?

Then, of course, on Saturday, the president again said he supports the attorney general. But then on the Sunday morning talk shows, several Republican senators who might have been more supportive of Gonzales said they had problems, thought he'd been less than truthful, thought he still had a ways to go in saving his job.

CHADWICK: The part of his defense that I don't get is his saying I - you know, this is a personal matter because I lost faith in these people. How do you lose faith in people if you aren't involved in trying to look into what they've done?

ELVING: Seems a hard one to answer. Apparently, he would be suggesting that he was persuaded to lose faith in them by the report that he got from Kyle Sampson, his chief of staff.

CHADWICK: So what do expect this week when Mr. Sampson appears to testify before the Senate?

ELVING: That is the big event on Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I think we're going to hear from Sampson. He's not going to trash his former boss. I don't expect him to come in like John Dean in the Watergate hearings. But his testimony could also shed light on the roll of the White House in all of this. The person who was White House liaison between the Department of Justice and the White House - a woman named Monica Goodling - has suddenly taken a leave of absence from the Department of Justice, and no one seems to know where she is.

CHADWICK: Hmm. OK. On Friday, the House passed the funding bill for Iraq with a timetable for getting out of there by September of next year. President quickly dismissed this as political theater. Now it's up to the Senate. What's there?

ELVING: The Senate bill's a little bit different, Alex. Instead of a hard target of getting combat troops out of Iraq by September of next year, the Senate approach is to set a soft target, if you will - a nonbinding goal of getting the troops out by a year from now, March 31st.

But whatever is actually eventually passed - and the Republicans, of course, are going to try to get that withdrawal timetable language removed - whatever's eventually passed will probably be subject to the same criticism from the president. And then Congress is going to be gone for a week or two in early April for a Easter recess, and we're not going to have the funding for the troops passed.

CHADWICK: Hmm. Well, where is that going to leave things?

ELVING: Well, the president is going to veto anything he doesn't like. So if there's any kind of withdrawal language or timetable language in there, then we're going to get a veto. And then it'll have to come back to Congress for an attempted override in mid to late April.

CHADWICK: Well, the Senate and the House version would have to be reconciled in committee hearings. Would that happen before the recess?

ELVING: That could not happen before the recess. There just doesn't seem to be enough time. So that's probably going to have to happen later.

CHADWICK: So April's going to be an interesting month, Ron.

ELVING: It is indeed.

CHADWICK: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thanks very much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex.

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