WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales defended his role yesterday in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, after damaging testimony from his former chief of staff that he gave inaccurate accounts of his involvement in the matter.
In Boston to attend an event on preventing sexual exploitation of children, the attorney general told reporters that he wasn't involved in talks over which individual prosecutors to dismiss. "There obviously remains some confusion about my involvement in this," Gonzales said. "At the end of the day, I know what I did. And I know that the motivations for the decisions I made were not based on improper reasons.
"I believe in truth and accountability, and every step that I've taken is consistent with that principle," he said. "I am fighting for the truth as well."
His credibility already smarting from weeks of shifting explanations and surprising late-night document disclosures, Gonzales took a major hit Thursday when D. Kyle Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the attorney general had been long and deeply involved in a matter that Gonzales has said he knew little about.
Although a two-week recess by Congress might give Gonzales some breathing room, even some Republicans question whether he can last much longer, despite continuing statements of support from the White House.
"I think it is going to be hard for him to recover. He has lost the faith of the U.S. attorneys," said a top Republican aide, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "And when you have lost the faith of the U.S. attorneys, you have done damage to the department - even if there is nothing nefarious about it and even if it was just human error and mistake."
The backlash over the firings continued yesterday on several fronts.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, wrote Gonzales asking him to issue a formal statement clearing the name of former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias, who was among the eight prosecutors dismissed last year.
Schumer cited testimony by Sampson on Thursday that in retrospect he would not have placed Iglesias on the list of prosecutors to be dismissed. The hearing revealed that Iglesias was a late addition to the list and came as the White House and Republican lawmakers were complaining about his handling of a corruption probe involving state Democrats.
Also yesterday, congressional investigators spent almost six hours questioning the chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty in the first in a series of private interviews with Justice officials about the firings. The aide, Michael Elston, helped prepare McNulty for a congressional appearance earlier this month in which McNulty gave what turned out to be misleading testimony about the firings.
Elston was also accused of telling one of the fired U.S. attorneys to keep quiet about the matter, an allegation he has denied.
The Justice Department is making six officials who were involved in the dismissals available for questioning before the House Judiciary Committee. The panel said it could not release any details about the interviews as part of an agreement with the Justice Department. Officials said Elston was accompanied by two department attorneys and a private lawyer he had retained.
Meanwhile, many Republicans have become lukewarm, and in a few cases hostile, to Gonzales' continued stewardship at the department. Many are adopting a wait-and-see attitude and say they are withholding judgment until he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17.
Aside from contradicting Gonzales' account of the affair, Sampson's testimony about how the eight prosecutors were targeted struck both Democratic and Republican lawmakers as cavalier.
In questioning Sampson on Thursday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, seemed baffled that Gonzales did not appear to take the issue more seriously, and implied that the problem was a lack of experience.
"Did the attorney general himself object? Did he call to the White House and say this is not a good idea?" Sessions asked.
Sampson replied that Gonzales did not.
A former U.S. attorney in Alabama for 12 years, Sessions said that while an attorney general owes an allegiance to the president who appointed him, "they're the country's lawyers. And I think sometimes they just have to say no. And I think a lot of attorney generals have."
Some former prosecutors think that Gonzales' failure to appreciate the crucial role U.S. attorneys play in carrying out the daily mission of the Justice Department - and the alienation that the firings have caused among many of those prosecutors across the country - could be his undoing.
"Since U.S. attorneys, and the agencies they work with, are the arms through which the department's business gets done, this is indeed a problem," said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at Fordham University's law school in New York.
But others say that as long as Gonzales has the confidence of Bush and feels the need to defend his reputation, he will try to hang in there.
"He has a lot of determination, a lot of pride," said William T. Coleman Jr., the former transportation secretary and civil rights law pioneer, who befriended Gonzales when he came to Washington in 2001. Coleman said he has written to Bush urging him to retain Gonzales.
While lawmakers were impatient to hear Gonzales' side of the story, some observers also felt that time was on his side.
"His testimony is going to be messy, but he probably makes it at the end of the day," predicted Patrick Dorton, another Washington-based crisis communications specialist.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.