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Gonzales Set to Defend Firing of Prosecutors

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will try to convince Congress that he deserves to keep his job. He'll testify tomorrow at a hearing into the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. We got a sense of how Gonzales would defend himself over the weekend. The Justice Department released the text of his opening comments, and NPR's Ari Shapiro has been reading.

ARI SHAPIRO: In what may be the most obvious recent statement in politics, the attorney general will tell Congress: In hindsight, I would have handled this differently. He's referring, of course, to the way his department fired eight U.S. attorneys and explained it afterwards. His written testimony is part defense and part mea culpa.

He apologizes to the U.S. attorneys for letting their dismissals become, quote, "an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle." He says he should have been more personally involved in the process, and he says, quote, "at times, I have been less than precise with my words when discussing the resignations." Such as when he said he was not involved in any conversations about the firings.

But he also stands by his department's decision to oust the prosecutors. Saying everything was above board, and quote, "I also have no basis to believe that anyone involved in this process sought the removal of a U.S. attorney for an improper reason." Part of that statement was published in the Washington Post yesterday morning, and lawmakers responded with some skepticism.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): What he has a column in the Washington Post, I think he would have been better advised if he would have dealt with some facts.

SHAPIRO: Senator Arlen Specter, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, told ABC it's going to be hard for the attorney general to unscramble these eggs.

Sen. SPECTER: At a minimum, he ought to have a case-by-case analysis and either justify the reasons for replacing them, or concede that he was wrong.

SHAPIRO: In some of the few words of support from any lawmaker yesterday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina talked to FOX News.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): If he can save his job, I can still work with him. But he has got an uphill struggle to reestablish his credibility with the committee, given prior statements, and let's hear him out.

SHAPIRO: Democrats were considerably less friendly.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): His opening statement doesn't move us one till forward in terms of finding out what happened.

SHAPIRO: Senator Charles Schumer has been leading the Senate investigation. He staged a press conference in New York to discuss the testimony.

Sen. SCHUMER: It is not good enough, as he says in his opening statement, well, none were fired because they were pursuing a case. If he doesn't know the details as to why they were fired, then it opens up the question to how good his denial of firing people for pursuing a case or not pursuing a case is.

SHAPIRO: Schumer and many others from both parties have called on Gonzales to resign over the scandal. But the attorney general serves at the pleasure of the president, not Congress. And Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday told CBS, the president has every confidence in Gonzales. That said…

Vice President DICK CHENEY: This took place inside the Justice Department, so the one who needs to answer to that and lay out on the record the specifics of what transpired is the attorney general, and he'll do so.

SHAPIRO: While it did take place inside the Justice Department, documents and testimony show that the White House also had a major role in the firings, specifically political adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. In fact, documents show Gonzales discussed U.S. attorney dismissals while he was still was White House counsel.

The attorney general's opening statement only mentions the White House involvement in passing. He says he told his chief of staff Kyle Sampson to, quote, "make sure the White House was kept informed" as he was deciding who to dismiss. And Gonzales says, quote, "I recall two specific instances when Mr. Sampson mentioned to me that Harriet Miers had asked about the status of the department's evaluation of U.S. attorneys."

Gonzales does not mention Rove in his opening statement at all. But Democrats have promised to ask about the White House political adviser, and Gonzales will have plenty of opportunity to respond during what promises to be hours and hours of questioning tomorrow.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Our preview of the Gonzales hearings continues at npr.org, where you'll find analysis, a timeline, and a who's who of the fired U.S. attorneys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.