Republican Senator Urges Gonzales to Resign Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire has called on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign. Sununu is the first Republican to join a chorus of Democrats in Congress who say the attorney general had an improper role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
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Republican Senator Urges Gonzales to Resign

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Republican Senator Urges Gonzales to Resign

Republican Senator Urges Gonzales to Resign

Republican Senator Urges Gonzales to Resign

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Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire has called on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign. Sununu is the first Republican to join a chorus of Democrats in Congress who say the attorney general had an improper role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Senator John Sununu has become the first Republican to join some of his Democratic colleagues in calling for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign. And today the Senate Judiciary Committee meets to discuss who from the White House and Justice Department should be subpoenaed to testify about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. The scandal has become one of the biggest crises of the attorney general's career.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on how Alberto Gonzales has survived previous controversies, and why this one may be different.

ARI SHAPIRO: This is hardly the first time Alberto Gonzales has been the target of congressional ire. Two years ago, when he was on the stand to become Attorney General, he calmly deflected questions from senators who wanted to know about a memo he wrote as White House counsel that narrowly defined torture.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Attorney General): First of all, sir, the president has said we're not going to engage in torture under any circumstances. And so you're asking me to answer a hypothetical that is never going to occur.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales was confirmed by a vote of 60 to 36. Almost exactly a year later, Gonzales became the top defender of a program to tap Americans' phone calls without a judge's order.

Mr. GONZALES: I do not think that we are thumbing our nose at the Congress or at the courts with respect to the terrorist surveillance program.

SHAPIRO: On each of those scandals the administration eventually retreated, disavowing the torture memos and putting the surveillance program under court oversight. But none of those controversies ever reached a point where President Bush had to personally come to his friend's defense, as he did yesterday in the controversy over eight fired U.S. attorneys.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales.

SHAPIRO: And even that was tepid.

President BUSH: He's right, mistakes were made. And I'm frankly not happy about them.

SHAPIRO: So what makes this scandal different from all other scandals? Harvard law professor David Barron has a hypothesis.

Professor DAVID BARRON (Harvard): There was a sense that those were not like Nixon-like scandals in the sense they were substantive positions that the government had which you might have thought were odious or you might have thought were attractive, but you didn't think were partisan.

SHAPIRO: In contrast, Barron says this issue has gotten more attention because the Justice Department is accused of truly playing politics with the U.S. attorney dismissals.

And there is another major difference between this scandal and others. Georgetown law professor David Cole notes that this controversy emerged with a Congress that's controlled by Democrats.

Professor DAVID COLE (Georgetown University): Which means that they decide whether subpoenas are issued for documents; they decide whether investigations are undertaken. And the fact of the matter was that for the previous six years, with the committees in Republican hands, there were virtually no subpoenas issued.

SHAPIRO: It was only after Congress demanded internal Justice Department documents that Gonzales acknowledged his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was incomplete.

Throughout his career, one of Gonzales's assets has been his close friendship with President Bush. When Gonzales was White House counsel, that friendship was a clear plus. But Pepperdine law professor Doug Kmiec believes when Gonzales became head of the Justice Department, he may have encountered a common problem in the attorney general's office.

Professor DOUG KMIEC (Pepperdine University): Namely, the responsibility to separate your obligation to be a member of the president's cabinet from your obligation to represent the interests of the law and the Department of Justice.

SHAPIRO: That has become one focus of the Democrats' attacks on Gonzales. They accuse him of pursuing the president's political goals instead of pursuing justice. So in a twist of fortune, if Gonzales wants to ensure his continued service to the president, he may have to distance himself from him.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can follow the trail of events that led up to the firings of the U.S. attorneys and read internal Justice Department e-mails at npr.org.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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Timeline: Behind the Firing of Eight U.S. Attorneys

The E-Mail Trail

In response to congressional inquiries, the Department of Justice released a series of internal communications — including e-mails with White House staff — that preceded the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

At a March 13 news conference, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admits that "mistakes were made" in the Justice Department's handling of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In Depth

The Bush administration fired seven U.S. attorneys on a single day last December. After Democrats took control of both chambers of Congress in January, they began hearings into whether those dismissals — as well as an earlier one, in June 2006 — were politically motivated. Political furor has ensued. Follow events so far:

Late December 2004: White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Justice Department official Kyle Sampson discuss replacing some or all of the country's 93 U.S. attorneys.

Jan. 9, 2005: Sampson e-mails Deputy White House Counsel David Leitch to suggest dismissing 15 percent to 20 percent of all U.S. attorneys, including those who are not "loyal Bushies." Sampson writes, "If Karl [Rove, the president's political adviser] thinks there would be political will to do it, then so do I."

February 2005: Harriet Miers, who has replaced Gonzales as White House counsel, suggests that all 93 U.S. attorneys be replaced.

Feb. 14, 2005: Gonzales is sworn in as attorney general of the United States.

March 2, 2005: Sampson e-mails Miers a chart, categorizing U.S. attorneys into one of three groups based on whether they have "produced, managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the President and Attorney General."

Sept. 23, 2005: Sampson becomes chief of staff to the attorney general

Jan. 9, 2006: Sampson e-mails Miers to suggest replacing "a limited number of U.S. Attorneys."

March 9, 2006: President Bush signs the USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization into law. One provision allows the attorney general to appoint replacement U.S. attorneys indefinitely without Senate confirmation.

May 11, 2006: Sampson e-mails White House official William Kelley: "Please call me at your convenience to discuss ... the real problem we have right now with [San Diego U.S. Attorney] Carol Lam that leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day after her 4-year term expires."

The Los Angeles Times reports that Lam's corruption investigation of Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham has expanded to include another Republican congressman from California, Jerry Lewis.

June 2006: The Justice Department dismisses H.E. "Bud" Cummins III of Arkansas. His replacement, J. Timothy Griffin, is a former aide to Karl Rove.

Sept. 13, 2006: Sampson writes an e-mail to Miers, urging the administration to circumvent Congress in appointing replacement U.S. attorneys: "I strongly recommend that, as a matter of administration policy, we utilize the new statutory provisions that authorize the AG [attorney general] to make USA [U.S. attorney] appointments ... we can give far less deference to home-state Senators and thereby get (1) our preferred person appointed and (2) do it far faster and more efficiently, at less political cost to the White House."

Fall 2006: President Bush meets with Gonzales and relays general complaints about U.S. attorneys' performance, without naming specific prosecutors.

October 2006: Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) each call U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to ask about a federal corruption probe into some New Mexico Democrats.

The Justice Department adds Iglesias to a list of U.S. attorneys slated for dismissal.

Nov. 15, 2006: Sampson e-mails Miers, copying Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty on the message. Sampson writes, "I am concerned that to execute this plan [firing seven U.S. attorneys simultaneously] properly, we must all be on the same page and be steeled to withstand any political upheaval that might result. If we start caving to complaining U.S. attorneys or Senators, then we shouldn't do it — it'll be more trouble than it's worth."

Nov. 27, 2006: Gonzales attends an hourlong meeting to discuss the upcoming U.S. attorney dismissals.

Dec. 2, 2006: Sampson e-mails Justice official Michael Elston: "Still waiting for green light from White House [to fire U.S. attorneys]."

Dec. 7, 2006: The Justice Department dismisses seven U.S. attorneys: Daniel Bogden of Nevada, Paul Charlton of Arizona, Margaret Chiara of Michigan, David Iglesias of New Mexico, Carol Lam of San Diego, John McKay of Seattle, and Kevin Ryan of San Francisco.

Jan. 11, 2007: Three senators propose legislation to restore Senate authority to oversee U.S. attorney appointments.

Jan. 18, 2007: Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee: "I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons, or if it would in any way jeopardize an ongoing, serious investigation." (Hear Gonzales' testimony.)

Feb. 6, 2007: McNulty testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee: "In every single case where a United States attorney position is vacant, the administration is committed to filling that position with the United States attorney who is confirmed by the Senate." (Hear NcNulty's testimony.)

Feb. 23, 2007: Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling sends several members of Congress a letter saying, in part, "The [Justice] Department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin."

March 6, 2007: Former U.S. attorneys testify before Congress. Some say they believe they were fired for political reasons.

March 9, 2007: Gonzales says he will not fight congressional proposals to undo the PATRIOT Act provision that gave him more authority to appoint replacement U.S. attorneys.

March 12, 2007: Justice Department officials say Sampson did not tell people at the agency about the extent of his communications with the White House. Sampson resigns as the attorney general's chief of staff.

March 13, 2007: The Justice Department sends documents to Capitol Hill detailing the correspondence between White House and Justice Department officials over the U.S. attorneys issue. Gonzales insists that he will not resign amid calls for his ouster. He cancels travel plans and holds a news conference to say, "Mistakes were made." He adds, "I never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood." (Hear Gonzales apologize.)

March 14, 2007: President Bush says at a news conference in Mexico, "I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales." Mr. Bush says the firings were mishandled, and he's not happy about it. He says, "Al was right: Mistakes were made. And he's going to go up to Capitol Hill to correct them."

March 15, 2007: The Senate Judiciary Committee grants Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) authority to subpoena five Justice Department officials and six fired U.S. attorneys.

March 16, 2007: Sampson releases a statement through his lawyer saying that he did not resign because he failed to tell Justice officials the extent of his communications with the White House. Instead, he says, he resigned because he did not "organize a more effective political response" to the dismissals.

March 19, 2007: The Justice Department sends Congress 3,000 pages of documents related to the U.S. attorney dismissals.

March 20, 2007: White House counsel Fred Fielding offers to make White House officials available to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees for private interviews without an oath or transcript. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy responds, "I don't accept his offer."

March 26, 2007: The Justice Department's White House liaison and senior counselor to Gonzales, Monica Goodling, says she will invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to respond to questions from Congress about the U.S. attorney dismissals.

March 28, 2007: The Justice Department says its Feb. 23, 2007, letter to Congress denying Rove's involvement in the U.S. attorney dismissals is "contradicted by Department documents."

March 29, 2007: Sampson testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In response to questions about several of the attorney general's statements about the U.S. attorney dismissals, Sampson says, "I don't think it's entirely accurate."

April 6, 2007: Goodling resigns from the Justice Department.

April 10, 2007: The House Judiciary Committee subpoenas Justice Department documents related to the U.S. attorney dismissals.

Gonzales appoints Kevin O'Connor, U.S. attorney for Connecticut, as his chief of staff.