WASHINGTON – Saying he wanted to be “more precise” about what he had done, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales acknowledged Monday that he had a role in approving an aide’s recommendation to dismiss several U.S. attorneys last year, but he denied that he was involved in the process of identifying which prosecutors should be replaced.
His remarks, in an interview with NBC News, were the first by Gonzales seeking to reconcile his public statements about his involvement in the firings with internal e-mails made public by the Justice Department on Friday.
The differences between his public words and the private e-mail traffic have added to concerns about Gonzales among members of Congress, a growing number of whom are losing confidence in his management of the Justice Department and are urging him to resign.
But the White House has said that Gonzales continues to enjoy the backing of the president. Gonzales also has said that Justice Department officials will cooperate with congressional investigators to show that the firings were not politically motivated, as some Democrats have alleged.
The attorney general’s efforts to clear the air were dealt a blow Monday, however, when one of his top aides, Monica Goodling, said that she would assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Goodling, who had been the department’s liaison with the White House, had been involved in briefing Justice Department officials who earlier in March gave what some lawmakers viewed as misleading testimony about the firings.
John Dowd, a Washington lawyer representing Goodling, said Monday that she would not appear because the committee seemed to be prejudiced against her and the department.
“The hostile and questionable environment that has been created by the members of the Judiciary Committee in the present proceedings … is at best ambiguous,” Dowd said. “More accurately, the environment can be described as legally perilous for Ms. Goodling.”
Democrats questioned the decision, which some legal experts viewed as the opening of negotiations by Dowd to obtain immunity for Goodling, who is on leave, in exchange for her testimony.
Gonzales’ former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, has agreed to testify before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Sampson resigned March 12.
In the NBC News interview, Gonzales acknowledged that he was involved in discussions when a recommendation was made to him about whom to fire and about “how to implement” the change.
He also acknowledged that he had contacts on separate occasions with President Bush and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., over the performance of certain prosecutors and said he had periodic discussions with Sampson that “would confirm in my mind that that process (of identifying U.S. attorneys to be dismissed) was ongoing.”
But the attorney general said what he meant by his earlier remarks was that after delegating the job to Sampson, he was not involved in talks about which prosecutors should be replaced.