Bush scolds attorney general over firings

WASHINGTON – The close relationship between President Bush and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales appeared strained Wednesday as Bush, in a rare public scolding, took Gonzales to task for his management of the Justice Department and the firing of U.S. attorneys.

The gentle wood-shedding by the president added a new element to the intensifying debate over the fate of Gonzales, and whether he should step aside, barely two years into his tenure.

Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire on Wednesday became the first Republican to call for Gonzales to step down.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., predicted that Gonzales would soon be out. “I think he is gone. I don’t think he’ll last long,” Reid said in an interview with Nevada reporters. Asked how long, Reid responded: “Days.”

Bush, despite his criticism, said he continued to support Gonzales. But the growing calls for action highlighted a potential dilemma for the president involving a long-standing friend and sturdy ally.

Gonzales began the fight to retain his job Wednesday with a round of appearances on the morning talk shows, and scheduled meetings with lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill.

The White House meanwhile dispatched counsel Fred Fielding to negotiate ground rules with Democratic leaders seeking documents and testimony of administration officials, including chief political strategist Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers. It remained unclear if Rove and Miers would appear before Congress.

The moves followed the release of new and damaging e-mails Tuesday that exposed a two-year effort by officials at the Justice Department and White House to target several U.S. attorneys for dismissal. The disclosures were at odds with versions of events offered by Gonzales and other officials to lawmakers, touching off a political firestorm and accusations that the administration had misled Congress.

Gonzales acknowledged that he was largely unaware of the effort to fire certain prosecutors, and that mistakes had been made. His chief of staff resigned, and others may follow. But he said he could not be expected to be aware of “every bit of information that passed thought the halls” of an organization of 110,000 people.

“I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales,” Bush told reporters in Mexico on Wednesday. “I talked to him this morning, and we talked about his need to go up to Capitol Hill and make it very clear to members in both political parties why the Justice Department made the decisions it made, making very clear about the facts.

“And he’s right, mistakes were made. And I’m, frankly, not happy about it, because there is a lot of confusion over what really has been a customary practice by the presidents” of replacing U.S. attorneys.

While profoundly loyal to Bush, Gonzales is known to be interested in leaving Washington. He has a son who is soon graduating from high school, and he has made no secret about his desire to return to Texas.

Ironically, some associates urged him to consider resigning after the election to avoid the partisan entanglements and taint that he is now wrestling with.

Since his days as governor of Texas, Bush has turned to Gonzales as a reliable source of counsel on issues personal and political. Bush has often heralded Gonzales’ personal journey as symbolizing his view of the American dream.

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