WASHINGTON – Senators postponed testimony by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in the aftermath of Monday’s deadly Virginia Tech shootings, delaying his chance to defend contradictions about fired federal prosecutors that have taxed his credibility.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said the proceedings, initially set for today, would be inappropriate after the shootings in southwestern Virginia. He delayed Gonzales’ appearance until Thursday.
The Bush administration has pushed for Gonzales to testify as soon as possible, and the long-scheduled hearing is widely viewed as the attorney general’s last chance to quiet a controversy that has prompted calls in both parties for his resignation.
Gonzales has struggled for more than a month to clarify what he described as only a limited involvement in the purge that Democrats believe was politically motivated. A group of conservative activists joined the chorus Monday, urging Gonzales to step down for having “debased honesty as the coin of the realm.”
The White House maintained its support for Gonzales. “I think the attorney general has been perfectly honest,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday. And Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, defended Gonzales from the political backlash by noting, “This is a town of jerks.”
Gonzales accepts responsibility for some of the confusion, acknowledging in written testimony “that at times I have been less than precise with my words when discussing the resignations.”
He also ordered the Justice Department to release more than 5,700 pages of e-mails, schedules, memos and other documents to show that the firings were not improper.
But his prepared remarks conflict with some details already released by the Justice Department and former aides. They include:
•Gonzales’ statement that he became aware of the process to replace U.S. attorneys “shortly after the 2004 election and soon after I became attorney general.” However, a Jan. 9, 2005, e-mail notes a discussion of the topic “a couple of weeks ago” between Gonzales and his former top aide, Kyle Sampson. Gonzales was confirmed as attorney general on Feb. 3, 2005.
•Gonzales’ recollection that he received a few brief updates about the firing plans. “During those updates, to my knowledge, I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign,” he wrote. Sampson, by contrast, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 29 that he remembered discussions with Gonzales regarding “this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign.”
•Gonzales’ claim that he was not involved in selecting who would replace the targeted prosecutors. “I do not recall making any decision, either on or before December 7, 2006, about who should replace the U.S. attorneys who were asked to resign that day,” he wrote. But the Justice documents include a January 2006 list of names compiled by Sampson of possible replacements. Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse has said those suggested replacements were merely proposals, and that none was selected before the prosecutors were told to resign.
•Gonzales’ written statement maintaining he had only an indirect role in the firings but approved the final recommendations “near the end of the process.” On March 13, however, Gonzales said he “was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.” That was contradicted by e-mails showing he attended a Nov. 27, 2006, meeting about the dismissals.
Moreover, the former Justice official tasked with overseeing the prosecutors told congressional investigators that a memo about the firings was released at the Nov. 27 meeting, according to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. That official, Michael Battle, also said he “was not aware of performance problems with respect to several of the U.S. attorneys” when he called to fire them, according to Schumer.