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So you're attorney general of the United States, and documents sent to Congress show you misled lawmakers. You said the White House was not involved in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, and it turns out the White House did discuss the firings. So what do you do? If you're Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, you brush off demands for your resignation and insist the dismissals were right and proper.
NPR's David Welna reports on a battle over political power in the justice system.
DAVID WELNA: The documents sent to the Senate and House Judiciary Committees are a paper trail showing two years of collusion between the White House and the Justice Department. Previously undisclosed e-mails sent by Kyle Sampson -who before Monday was Attorney General Gonzales' chief of staff - show extensive consultations over how to get rid of eight federal prosecutors.
In his detailed plan for firing them, Sampson warns White House operatives, quote, "prepare to withstand political upheaval." And that is exactly what the White House got. New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer led the charge on Capitol Hill yesterday, demanding Gonzales' resignation.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): We were told by the attorney general that he would, quote, "never, ever make a change for political reasons." It now turns out that this was a falsehood, as all the evidence makes clear, that this purge was based purely on politics to punish prosecutors who were perceived to be too light on Democrats or too tough on Republicans.
WELNA: And Patrick Leahy, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Gonzales will have a lot of explaining to do.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): There will be very specific hearings. I'm tired of the we'll brief all of you who want - I don't want anymore. I've had the briefings. I didn't get the answers. We'll now have them under oath in an open hearing.
WELNA: Republicans were also dismayed. Senator John Cornyn of Texas is a strong ally of the White House, yet this is what he said when asked whether Gonzales should resign.
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): I'm concerned, but I know the person, and so I'm willing to give him an opportunity to come forward and explain himself. I will have to agree with Senator Leahy that appearances are troubling.
WELNA: Another White House ally, Nevada Republican Senator John Ensign, is outraged over the firing of Nevada's former U.S. attorney, Dan Bogden.
Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): He was an excellent prosecutor. If they thought that his priorities were wrong, they should have just informed him. He had limited resources. He had fewer resources today than he had four years ago in the fastest growing state in the country. That shows you that the oversight from the attorney general office was totally inadequate.
WELNA: Attorney General Gonzales clearly had some major damage control to do, so he cancelled travel plans and called a news conference at the Justice Department. He claimed things happened there that he did not know about.
Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Department of Justice): In an organization of 110,000 people, 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.
WELNA: Gonzales then borrowed a memorable line from Ronald Reagan. He declared, quote, "mistakes were made."
Attorney General GONZALES: I accept responsibility for what happened here. And I regret the fact that information was not adequately shared with individuals within the Department of Justice, and that consequently, information was shared with the Congress that was incomplete.
WELNA: But Gonzales insists the prosecutors' firings were, quote, "the right thing to do." And he made it clear he has no intention of stepping down. Gonzales has strong ties to President Bush. He was his White House lawyer, as well as his secretary of state in Texas.
Gonzales got a great big seal of approval yesterday from White House communications director Dan Bartlett, who was traveling with the president in Merida, Mexico.
Mr. DAN BARTLETT (Communications Director, White House): The president has all the confidence in the world in Alberto Gonzales as the attorney general for the United States of America. He has also - feels it's important that the information as to how these decisions were made be provided. He accepts the decisions so far that were made by attorney general for the resignation of Kyle Sampson, and that he is satisfied that we are addressing the concerns, but made very clear the decision, the original decision to remove the seven U.S. attorneys who serve at the discretion of the president was the right decision.
WELNA: Actually, it was eight U.S. attorneys. One fired in June, another seven in December. The new documents show that presidential advisor Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and many other White House regulars were involved in the prosecutors' firings.
Yesterday, House Judiciary Chair John Conyers announced his panel, too, would be seeking their sworn testimony.
Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, House Judiciary Committee): The old days of the previous Congresses are over, Mr. President. And so we'll get to the bottom of this crisis with or without cooperation.
WELNA: And so what began as individual lawmakers wondering how their U.S. attorneys got fired has now grown into a political firestorm, pitting Democrats and some Republicans against a White House that refuses to back down.
David Welna, NPR News.
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