WASHINGTON — The White House began floating the names of possible replacements for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Monday as the Justice Department released more internal documents related to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
One prominent Republican, who earlier had predicted that Gonzales would survive the controversy, said he expected both Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty to resign soon. Another well-connected Republican said that White House officials have launched an aggressive search for Gonzales’ replacement, though President Bush hadn’t decided whether to ask for his resignation.
Support for Gonzales appeared to be collapsing under the weight of questions about his truthfulness and his management ability. White House spokesman Tony Snow offered a tepid defense when asked if Gonzales would stay on the job until the end of Bush’s term.
“We hope so,” Snow said. “None of us knows what’s going to happen to us over the next 21 months.”
Internal Justice Department documents released Monday night offered more details on the planning that went into the firings, as well as the frantic efforts to contain the political fallout.
“Who will determine whether this requires the President’s attention?” Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ chief of staff at the time, asked in an e-mail to then-White House counsel Harriet Miers and her deputy on Nov. 15, 2006, about three weeks before the dismissals.
“Not sure whether this will be determined to require the boss’s attention,” Miers replied. It wasn’t clear from the documents whether Bush was ever brought into the loop.
The Washington Post reported late Monday that a Justice Department official’s early ranking of undistinguished prosecutors included U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago. A March 2005 Justice Department memo from Sampson ranked Fitzgerald, who was responsible for the recent perjury conviction of former I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, with other prosecutors who had “not distinguished themselves.” There is no evidence that the administration ever took any action against Fitzgerald.
Congressional investigators worked into the night sorting through the latest batch of Justice Department documents, about 3,000 pages of e-mails, press releases, news stories and other material. The documents didn’t appear to help Gonzales in his struggle to keep his job.
The moves toward Gonzales’ ouster were first reported by politico.com, the online version of The Politico newspaper.
“The sands have been shifting pretty dramatically,” one of the Republicans said. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending White House officials.
Possible replacements for Gonzales include Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Security and Exchange Commission Chairman Chris Cox, White House anti-terrorism adviser Fran Townsend, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson.
Gonzales’ hold on his job has been in doubt since he was forced to acknowledge last week that he and his advisers have given Congress incorrect information about the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys.
Internal administration documents collected by congressional investigators contradicted Justice Department assurances that the White House played no role in the firings.
Congressional Democrats said they’re increasingly convinced that at least some of the ousted prosecutors were fired because they either investigated Republicans or declined to prosecute Democrats. Administration officials have repeatedly denied that politics played any role in the firings.
“We’ve seen the e-mails now. They’re damning,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who called for Gonzales to step down. “He has a credibility problem, he has a trust problem and he has a growing national scandal problem … . It’s time that we restore justice at the Justice Department.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., one of the few Republicans to defend the administration, said the controversy over the firings was overblown. He noted that all presidents have the power to remove U.S. attorneys for any reason.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Sessions said.