ALEX CHADWICK, host:
From the studios of NPR West, it's DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand.
Coming up, we talk with one of the fired U.S. attorneys the day after a former top Justice Department official testified on Capitol Hill.
CHADWICK: First, to that testimony, Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, directly contradicted some of the past statements of his former boss, so we'll begin today comparing what the two have said. Here is Attorney General Gonzales from a March 13 news conference, the day after the story first broke.
Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (United States Attorney General): That is, in essence, what I knew about the process, was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.
BRAND: And now Kyle Sampson talking to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday.
Mr. KYLE SAMPSON (Former Chief of Staff to Mr. Alberto Gonzales): I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate.
BRAND: Kyle Sampson said he and the attorney general started discussions about the firings at least two years ago, well before Alberto Gonzales was even appointed to his office. Mr. Sampson said he had briefed his boss at least five times before December, when the prosecutors were fired.
New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer quoted the attorney general: I never saw documents. We never had a discussion of where things stood. Here's Kyle Sampson.
Mr. SAMPSON: I don't think it's entirely accurate, what he said. I don't remember if the attorney general ever saw documents, I didn't prepare memos for his on this issue, but we did discuss it as early as before he became the attorney general.
BRAND: Two weeks ago, Gonzales said on "The Today Show" that he had heard of the plans to fire all U.S. attorneys.
Mr. GONZALES: I was certainly aware of the fact that the early communication between Harriet Miers and my chief of staff about removing all U.S. attorneys, and that was - I immediately rejected that then directed Kyle Sampson to do an evaluation of U.S. attorneys. I think we have an obligation…
CHADWICK: But yesterday, when Mr. Sampson was questioned how he could, with not much experience as a prosecutor, determine the fate of these U.S. attorneys, he responded:
Mr. SAMPSON: The decision-makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president. I and others made staff recommendations, but they were approved and signed off on by the principals.
BRAND: Which wasn't quite the story Gonzales told the NBC News four days ago.
Mr. GONZALES: I wasn't involved in the deliberation as to whether or not a particular United States attorney should or should not be asked to resign.
BRAND: The attorney general is set to testify before the Judiciary Committee in the middle of next month.
CHADWICK: So in their questioning of Kyle Sampson yesterday, the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee bore into the issue of the firing of U.S. attorney Carol Lam. She was in charge of the Southern District of California, which includes the border and San Diego. Here's California Senator Diane Feinstein.
Senator DIANE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): This is a woman that was handling the biggest - some of the biggest cases in the United States, and you've got a problem with her, and you're adding her to the list, and it's immigration, and no one picks up the phone to call her and say we want you to know we have this problem.
Mr. SAMPSON: I'm not suggesting that someone did give her notice.
CHADWICK: NPR's Scott Horsley is in San Diego, where he covers immigration issues a lot. Scott, welcome back.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Alex.
CHADWICK: According to the Justice Department, Ms. Lam was fired because of her immigration prosecutions, and there was a report to a high official at Justice comparing her numbers to offices in New Mexico and Arizona. This was about a year ago. What does it show?
HORSLEY: Well, it shows that while the immigration prosecutions in Arizona and New Mexico, which in many ways are similar districts, were on the increase. Prosecutions in San Diego had peaked in 2003 and '04 and since then had had a pretty steady decline.
Now, Carol Lam had said that was a result of a deliberate decision by her office to concentrate resources on the big-ticket cases, to prosecute more high-impact cases, including big-time smugglers, corrupt border patrol agents and, in one case, which culminated this week, an employer who hired illegal immigrants.
CHADWICK: So there's also the question of kind of the numbers that she's facing, and these I guess are from her office. She has more than 100 full-time U.S. attorneys working for her. About 50 of these work on immigration, and she's looking at 140,000 arrests a year.
HORSLEY: Well that's right. One of the things that the report that you mentioned talked about was sort of the productivity of her assistant U.S. attorneys compared to those in neighboring border districts, and her assistant U.S. attorneys prosecuted far fewer cases per attorney than in the neighboring districts.
Now again, one reason for that, she would say, is her assistant U.S. attorneys were handling big-time cases. These were complex prosecutions, sometimes taking weeks or months, while the neighboring district attorneys were essentially handling sort of, you know, traffic-court-type routine violations, but…
CHADWICK: She's prosecuting felons; they're prosecuting misdemeanors.
HORSLEY: That's right, but what the administration was very concerned about this time was providing some deliverables that - some numbers that would show we're tough on enforcing immigration laws, and that's where she was apparently letting them down.
CHADWICK: I was interested to see in that Justice Department report references to Lou Dobbs on CNN and remarks by a California congressman. They were very kind of paying attention to what the media was saying about this story.
HORSLEY: Well they were, and certainly to what Congress was saying. Senator Feinstein mentioned in the actuality we just heard that no one in the Justice Department had called Carol Lam on the carpet for immigration prosecutions. Certainly, Congressman Issa had protested often, and this was all happening around the time that Kyle Sampson wrote that memo where he said we have a real problem with Carol Lam.
Now, some have pointed to the coincidence of time between that and the Cunningham investigation, but it was also coincided in time with this very hot immigration debate.
CHADWICK: NPR's Scott Horsley in San Diego. Scott, thank you again.
HORSLEY: My pleasure.
CHADWICK: Now to Bud Cummins. He's one of the federal prosecutors who lost his job back in December. Bud Cummins, we spoke to you two weeks ago. Thanks for being with us again.
Mr. BUD CUMMINS (Former U.S. Attorney): Pleasure to be here.
CHADWICK: Did you learn anything yesterday from Kyle Sampson's testimony?
Mr. CUMMINS: I learned a little. I was a little disappointed in his lack of willingness to be more forthright about the process to the extent there was a process. He seemed to want to only speak in general terms and refer to himself over and over as the aggregator of information.
And I was a little frustrated, I guess, by the Senate process, which it is what it is, but it's not a courtroom, and the way they rotate questions, there's a real difficulty in following a line of questions to get to the point. They'll start down one road, and then their time will run out, and the next senator will start on a completely different subject, and I think to a great extent, that played to Kyle's benefit yesterday because they really didn't get final answers on certain issues from him.
CHADWICK: You know, let me raise one thing that came up, and this didn't concern your district. It concerns the Southern District of California and Carol Lam. We've been talking about her position on immigration, the kinds of cases that she prosecuted, the kinds of cases she chose not to prosecute. What's your view on that as a former federal prosecutor and someone who must have been weighing the political factors in the numbers of cases that you prosecute and the kinds of cases?
Mr. CUMMINS: Carol was trying to raise the bar and prosecute more serious felony cases instead of just posting big numbers. She had a legitimate strategy in place. If they wanted to alter it, they could've sat down with her and said we'd like you to go in a little bit different direction here.
There's no evidence that they ever did that, so to me to say they took the drastic and unprecedented step of removing a presidentially appointed United States attorney who was obviously successful in almost every area that she worked in over something they never talked to her about to is just kind of outrageous.
CHADWICK: Bud Cummins, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas until he was dismissed last December. Bud, thanks for speaking with us again.
Mr. CUMMINS: My pleasure, thank you.
BRAND: Alberto Gonzales still has his job, and he still has the support of the president. Deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said today, quote, I can tell you that the president has confidence in him. The president believes the attorney general can overcome the challenges that are before him.
Joining us now, as he does every Friday, is NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams. Hi, Juan.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Hello, Madeleine.
BRAND: Well, give us a little sense of what else is going on there at the White House. Do you have any sense of how the testimony of Kyle Sampson was received there?
WILLIAMS: Not well, and the Justice Department immediately responded by putting out a statement saying that in fact what Kyle Sampson said was not contradicting Alberto Gonzales's frequent statements that he was only involved in knowing about the process, as opposed to the specifics. But I don't think anybody bought that. In fact, the New York Times editorial page, the Washington Post editorial page have both come out this morning saying that Sampson flatly contradicted - here I'm quoting the Times - what Gonzales has been saying.
Then yesterday at the White House, the president had in the entire Republican caucus because of concern over the war vote and the whole notion of the appropriations, the legislation there calling for a withdrawal and setting a deadline.
But in the midst to that discussion, up comes Gonzales. And Madeleine, the tenor of the president's response was curious, because rather than a spirited response to the question, what he said was that Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, will have to go up on the Hill - I believe it's April 17th - and in that testimony, the president said he's going to have to fix his relationship with the Congress.
BRAND: Hmm, so quite a difference from how he appeared last week in a news conference with reporters.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it's different. And I think it's in part telling because what you have is - it's interesting. Fred Fielding, who is now the White House counsel, has not been a big supporter of Gonzales in all this because the perspective coming from the White House counsel's office is that a weakened attorney general, one who is being lambasted by Republicans as well as Democrats - and don't forget Republicans played a big role yesterday - John Kyl of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Charles Grassley of Iowa. Grassley said the American people are entitled to a consistent and truthful story about what happened and he doesn't feel that they've been getting that.
That kind of tension weakens the White House with Republicans and weakens their position when it comes to resisting subpoenas and demands for information coming from the Democrats.
BRAND: Hmm. So at what point does Gonzales become just too much of a political liability for the president?
WILLIAMS: Well, you see, the problem here is that it's personal, Madeleine. He's his friend. They've been together a long time. I think he's already a liability, but looking down the road, the question is what's the tipping point and I suspect that the president is going to give Alberto Gonzales every opportunity to save himself. And what may be required at this point is that Alberto Gonzales move up the date of that testimony, not let it hang until the 17th of April, but find a way to get up there earlier and to try to reconcile what he has said. And it's all over the map, but try to make it straight and repair the damage with the Congress, as the president is calling for.
BRAND: Well, meanwhile today, more Justice Department officials are on the Hill. They are talking behind closed doors with House and Senate Judiciary Committee investigators. Who's talking and how big a deal is this?
WILLIAMS: This is interesting. You know, the Congress took its spring break beginning today, but here you have the judiciary committees of both House and Senate, meeting with Michael Elston, who is Paul McNulty - McNulty is the deputy attorney general - and so Elston is his chief of staff and three other aides, trying again to say the Justice Department wasn't doing this for political reasons. We'll see if a transcript comes out in the next few days.
BRAND: All right. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Thank you, Juan.
WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.