WASHINGTON – Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire on Wednesday became the first Republican in Congress to call for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' dismissal, hours after President Bush expressed confidence in his embattled Cabinet officer.
Gonzales has been fending off Democratic demands for his firing in the wake of disclosures surrounding the ousters of eight U.S. attorneys — dismissals Democrats have characterized as a politically motivated purge.
Support from many Republicans had been muted, but there was no outright GOP call for his dismissal until now.
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"I think the president should replace him," Sununu said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I think the attorney general should be fired."
Bush, at a news conference in Mexico, told reporters when asked about the controversy: "Mistakes were made. And I'm frankly not happy about them."
But the president expressed confidence in Gonzales, a longtime friend, and defended the firings. "What Al did and what the Justice Department did was appropriate," he said.
What was "mishandled," Bush said, was the Justice Department's release of some but not all details of how the firings were carried out.
The White House dispatched presidential counsel Fred Fielding to Capitol Hill to negotiate the terms of any testimony by White House aides in an institutional tug of war reminiscent of the Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals.
Sununu said the firings of the prosecutors, together with a report last Friday by the Justice Department's inspector general criticizing the administration's use of secret national security letters to obtain personal records in terrorism probes, shattered his confidence in Gonzales.
"We need to have a strong, credible attorney general that has the confidence of Congress and the American people," said Sununu, who faces a tough re-election campaign next year. "Alberto Gonzales can't fill that role."
A Justice Department spokeswoman refused to comment on Sununu's remarks.
Some of the dismissed prosecutors complained at hearings last week that lawmakers tried to influence political corruption investigations. Several also said there had been Justice Department attempts to intimidate them.
E-mails between the Justice Department and the White House, released Tuesday, contradicted the administration's earlier contention that Bush's aides had only limited involvement in the firings.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., predicted Wednesday 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."
Fielding, the White House counsel negotiating with lawmakers over possible administration testimony, is a veteran of the Nixon and Reagan administrations. He was hired by Bush this year to handle just these kinds of demands by the Democratic-controlled Congress.
It was unclear whether Bush would grant Democratic requests for his own aides to tell their stories under oath.
For his part, Gonzales, in a brief hallway interview with reporters, said he intended to cooperate where his aides are concerned.
"We want Congress to know, to understand what happened here," he said. "We'll work it out."
Republicans weren't immediately piling behind Sununu's call for Gonzales' firing.
"I don't believe the attorney general should resign over this," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. "I don't believe his ability to pursue the terrorist threat has been compromised to the extent that he should resign."
The House and Senate Judiciary committees have invited Rove, Miers and her deputy, William K. Kelley, to testify voluntarily about their roles in the firings. Gonzales has pledged to allow five of his aides involved in the dismissals to testify.
As insurance, the Senate panel is expected to consider subpoenas for the whole group on Thursday.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after the meeting with Fielding that the counsel promised a yes-or-no answer by Friday.
"He said it was his goal to get us both the documents and the witnesses that we seek to question," Schumer said. The White House was expected to issue some conditions, but Fielding "said his intention was not to stonewall," Schumer added.
U.S. attorneys are the federal government's prosecutors and serve at the pleasure of the president. They can be hired or fired for any reason, or none at all.
However, when the White House dismissed eight federal prosecutors without explanation, Democrats accused the administration of trying to make way for political allies under a new Patriot Act provision that permits the attorney general to appoint U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation.
The fired prosecutors are: Carol Lam and Kevin Ryan of California, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, Paul Charlton of Arizona, John McKay of Washington state, Daniel Bogden of Nevada, David Iglesias of New Mexico and Margaret Chiara of Michigan.
Gonzales and the White House denied the charges of a political purge and said they intended to submit the names of the replacements for confirmation.
They initially said the White House had only limited involvement in the firings. But e-mails released by the agency this week made clear that the firings were the result of a two-year campaign to purge the ranks of U.S. attorneys for various reasons, including chafing at the administration's crime-fighting priorities.
The e-mail exchanges between Gonzales' chief of staff and Miers and Kelley made clear the White House was deeply involved in the plan.
Miers, at that time White House counsel, at one point suggested firing all 93 U.S. attorneys. That idea was rebuffed by Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' top aide. Rove is mentioned in several of the e-mails as key to the process. Kelley gave the green light for the firings in another e-mail, saying the White House offices of legislative affairs, political affairs and communications had signed off on it.
Sampson resigned on Tuesday. Mike Battle, who oversaw the U.S. attorneys, announced his resignation last week in a departure the agency said had been long planned.
Bush, and Gonzales a day earlier, used a phrase made famous in previous scandals — "Mistakes were made" — and pledged to set things right with Congress.
Appearing Wednesday on NBC's "Today" show, Gonzales said he had a "general knowledge" of Sampson's conversations with Miers about the prosecutors, but said, "I was obviously not aware of all communications."