Gonzales Goes Before the Senate: What to Expect

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales goes before the Senate this week amid growing calls for his resignation. He's set to testify before the Judiciary Committee about the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Senators want to know what role Gonzales played in the dismissals — and who in the White House was involved. An overview of what to expect from the hearing:

Why has the Judiciary Committee called Gonzales to testify again?

The last time Gonzales testified about the U.S. attorney firings was in January. Since then, documents and testimony from other Justice officials have contradicted the attorney general's version of events. Even his supporters say Gonzales needs to address those contradictions.

For example, during his last appearance, Gonzales told the committee that he wanted all of the replacement U.S. attorneys to be confirmed by the Senate. But Justice Department e-mails show that Kyle Sampson, who was then Gonzales' chief of staff, discussed using a provision in the Patriot Act reauthorization to avoid Senate confirmation for the new U.S. attorney in Arkansas.

At a press conference on March 13, Gonzales said that although he signed off on the firings, "I never saw documents. We never had any discussion about where things stood." Then Sampson, who resigned after the scandal broke, told senators that he had regular discussions with Gonzales about the dismissals.

Gonzales and other Justice Department officials also told Congress that all of the firings were performance-related, but Justice Department documents show that politics also played a role.

What is he going to tell the committee?

The Justice Department released the attorney general's written testimony over the weekend. It's part apology and part defense. Gonzales says he should have handled the dismissals better, but he defends the Justice Department's decision to fire the eight U.S. attorneys.

Although the statement does not go into detail about why each of the eight prosecutors was dismissed, Gonzales says, "It is unfair and unfounded for anyone to conclude that any U.S. attorney was removed for an improper reason."

He also admits to being "less than precise" when discussing the resignations, such as his comments at his March 13 press conference, when he said he did not take part in conversations about the firings.

Could Gonzales' testimony have implications for other Bush administration officials?

Democrats have set their sights on White House officials, including political adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) released a list of 10 questions he plans to ask the attorney general, and more than half of them deal with communications that Gonzales may have had with the White House.

Some of the former U.S. attorneys have testified that they believe they were dismissed as punishment for prosecuting Republicans or going too easy on Democrats. Administration officials have flatly denied those claims. If Democrats can show that the firings were an attempt to affect pending investigations, some of the people at the White House and the Justice Department involved in the dismissals could be accused of obstruction of justice.

At the Justice Department, there are also officials below Gonzales who apparently made false statements to Congress. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William Moschella both testified about the firings, and in both cases, their testimony has since been contradicted by Justice Department documents.

Some senators say that the firings were an attempt to make an end-run around Congress. How so?

When Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act a year ago, the bill included a provision allowing the attorney general to appoint new U.S. attorneys indefinitely without Senate confirmation. Although Gonzales says he never intended to use that provision, Justice Department documents suggest otherwise.

In one e-mail, Gonzales' aide Sampson wrote of the replacement U.S. attorney in Arkansas, "Our guy is in there, so the status quo is good for us. Pledge to desire a Senate confirmed U.S. Attorney, and otherwise hunker down."

Last month, Congress voted overwhelmingly to reverse that section of the Patriot Act reauthorization. The Bush administration initially opposed the change but eventually backed down.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee used the power of subpoena for the first time against Gonzales, requesting more documents on the firings. How does this bear on his Senate appearance?

Although the Justice Department has already delivered thousands of pages to Capitol Hill, some of those documents are partially or entirely blacked out. The House panel wants un-redacted versions of those documents. They also want copies of any correspondence the Justice Department had with members of Congress or with U.S. attorneys about the firings.

The Justice Department delivered another raft of documents Friday — more than 2,000 pages. There were a lot of redactions and repetitions, but also a few interesting nuggets. Still, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said the documents are not a complete response to the subpoena. He said he hopes the attorney general responds in full by Monday.

Lawmakers are looking at these documents to try to find clues to how the U.S. attorney dismissals unfolded. The evidence they find — and contradictions that emerge between the documents and Justice officials' public statements — may become fodder for questions they'll ask Gonzales this week.

What happens if senators decide that Gonzales intentionally deceived them?

U.S. attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president, so there's nothing wrong with firing them for any reason or no reason. The attorney general's wrongdoing, in the eyes of many lawmakers and, increasingly, of the American public, is that he seems to have made false statements about why he fired them and how the decision was made.

There are criminal penalties for making false statements to Congress, but it seems very unlikely that Gonzales would actually be charged with a crime. He's going to Congress to try to resolve the issue and make it go away. If senators come out of the hearing more confused or less sympathetic to the attorney general, it makes it harder for him to hang onto his job. Many lawmakers from both parties have already called on Gonzales to resign. It will be important to watch Wednesday morning whether those calls grow louder or quieter.

Does it look likely that Gonzales will resign?

That's up to President Bush. He's known for his loyalty, and Alberto Gonzales has been friends with the president since their Texas days. So far, Mr. Bush has said that he backs Gonzales, but he has also said, "Al was right: Mistakes were made, and he's going up to Capitol Hill to correct them." The outcome may hinge on how much of a burden Gonzales and this scandal continue to be on the White House. A recent poll from the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg shows that just over half of Americans — 53 percent — think Gonzales should go.

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