WASHINGTON – President Bush is standing firmly behind his embattled attorney general despite Justice Department documents that show Alberto Gonzales was more involved in the decisions to fire U.S. attorneys than he previously indicated.
Gonzales said last week he was not involved in any discussions about the impending dismissals of federal prosecutors. On Friday night, however, the department disclosed Gonzales' participation in a Nov. 27 meeting where such plans were discussed.
That e-mail only added to the calls for Gonzales' ouster.
Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, said Saturday that Bush continues to support Gonzales despite the latest disclosures.
Bartlett also said he was not aware of any negotiations under way between the White House and congressional Democrats over how current and former Bush aides could provide information about the firings to lawmakers.
At the Nov. 27 meeting, the attorney general and at least five top department officials discussed a five-step plan for carrying out the firings, Gonzales' aides said late Friday.
At that session, Gonzales signed off on the plan, drafted by his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson. Sampson resigned last week.
A Justice aide closely involved in the dismissals, White House liaison Monica Goodling, also has taken a leave of absence, two officials said.
The plan approved by Gonzales involved notifying Republican home-state senators of the impending dismissals, preparing for potential political upheaval, naming replacements and submitting them to the Senate for confirmation.
Six of the eight prosecutors who were ordered to resign are named in the plan.
The department released more than 280 documents, including e-mails, calendar pages and memos to try to satisfy Congress' demands for details on how the firings were handled — and whether they were politically motivated. There are no other meetings on the calendar pages released between that Nov. 27 and Dec. 7, when the prosecutors were fired, to indicate Gonzales participated in other discussions on the matter, department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said.
Scolinos said it was not immediately clear whether Gonzales gave his final approval to begin the firings at that meeting. Scolinos said Gonzales was not involved in the process of selecting which prosecutors would be asked to resign.
Gonzales told reporters on March 13 that he was aware some of the dismissals were being discussed but was not involved in them.
"I knew my chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers — where were the districts around the country where we could do better for the people in that district, and that's what I knew," Gonzales said. "But that is in essence what I knew about the process; was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."
Later, he added: "I accept responsibility for everything that happens here within this department. But when you have 110,000 people working in the department, obviously there are going to be decisions that I'm not aware of in real time. Many decisions are delegated."
The documents' release came hours after Sampson agreed to testify at a Senate inquiry this coming week into the prosecutors' firings.
Asked to explain the difference between Gonzales' comments and his schedule, Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the attorney general had relied on Sampson to draw up the plans on the firings.
"The attorney general has made clear that he charged Mr. Sampson with directing a plan to replace U.S. attorneys where for one reason or another the department believed that we could do better," Roehrkasse said. "He was not, however, involved at the levels of selecting the particular U.S. attorneys who would be replaced."
Gonzales has directed the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate the circumstances of the firings, officials said. The department's inspector general will participate in that investigation.
Democrats pounced on the latest revelations.
"Clearly the attorney general was not telling the whole truth, but what is he trying to hide?" said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who is heading the Senate's investigation into the firings, said, "If the facts bear out that Attorney General Gonzales knew much more about the plan than he has previously admitted, then he can no longer serve as attorney general."
Added House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich.:
"This puts the attorney general front and center in these matters, contrary to information that had previously been provided to the public and Congress."
Earlier Friday, a staunch White House ally, Sen. John Cornyn, summoned presidential counsel Fred Fielding to Capitol Hill and told him he wanted "no surprises."
"I told him, 'Everything you can release, please release. We need to know what the facts are,"' Cornyn said.
The latest e-mails indicate that some of Gonzales' most trusted advisers were kept out of the loop in the firings. Scolinos apparently learned last Nov. 17 about the plans to dismiss the prosecutors; that was nearly two years after Sampson and the White House first began talking about replacing them.
Democrats question whether the eight were selected because they were not seen as, in Sampson's words, "loyal Bushies."