WASHINGTON – The White House and a key Republican senator reaffirmed support for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales even as more Democrats called for his resignation over the botched firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
"I believe he should step down," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on "FOX News Sunday." "I don't like saying this. This is not my natural personality at all. The nation is not well served by this."
Feinstein said that she had held off on calling for Gonzales' resignation even as many leading Democrats did so along with some Republicans, but concluded that he was not telling the truth.
Feinstein said she was particularly concerned over the dismissal of former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam in San Diego who was fired while prosecuting a corruption case stemming from the conviction of jailed ex-Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
Meanwhile, two Republican senators sharply questioned Gonzales' truthfulness. Sen. Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department, said he would wait until Gonzales' scheduled testimony next month to the committee on the dismissals before deciding whether he could continue to support the attorney general. The Pennsylvania senator called it a "make or break" appearance.
"We have to have an attorney general who is candid and truthful. And if we find out he's not been candid and truthful, that's a very compelling reason for him not to stay on," Specter said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Gonzales has been "wounded" by the firings. "He has said some things that just don't add up," said Graham, who also is on the Senate Judiciary panel. And Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said the Justice Department has continually changed its story about the dismissals.
"You cannot have the nation's chief law enforcement officer with a cloud hanging over his credibility," Hagel said.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida also said Gonzales should step down.
"The nation is not well served by this," said Feinstein, whose state had two U.S. attorneys fired in the purge — in San Diego and San Francisco. Nelson said Gonzales should resign because he has "lost his credibility" but added: "I think we ought to go through the procedures and hear what he says."
At a March 13 news conference, trying to stem the furor over the firings, Gonzales said, "I never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood."
But his Nov. 27 schedule, included in a batch of memos sent to Capitol Hill late Friday, showed he attended an hour-long meeting at which, aides said, he approved a detailed plan for executing the purge.
The White House continued to back Gonzales, a fellow Texan and longtime friend of Bush. "The president supports the attorney general," White House spokeswoman Nicole Guillemard said Sunday. She said the White House does not believe Gonzales' statements were inconsistent with what his calendar showed.
Since the schedule's release, Justice aides have said Gonzales meant he was not involved in selecting the prosecutors when he said he didn't participate in discussions about their firings. "He didn't say he wasn't involved," former Republican chairman Ed Gillespie said Sunday.
Also, Republican Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah reaffirmed their earlier support for Gonzales. Hatch called Gonzales "an honest man" but added: "But let's be honest about it, the Justice Department has bungled this attorney thing."
Gonzales has said he relied heavily on his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, to orchestrate the dismissals. E-mails show Sampson, who resigned under fire March 12, considering whether prosecutors were "loyal Bushies" as one factor in demanding their resignations.
Sampson is scheduled to appear Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating the dismissals. Chairman Patrick Leahy said he is concerned Sampson has become "the fall guy."
"And yet we find so many e-mails that contradict what the attorney general has said, contradict what the deputy attorney general has said, contradict what the White House has said," said Leahy, D-Vt.
Leahy's committee has authorized subpoenas for presidential political adviser Karl Rove and other top White House staff linked to the firings. Bush wants his aides to be interviewed in private sessions and without being placed under oath.
Specter and Hagel have joined Democrats in rejecting the president's offer, while Graham and Lott said lawmakers should take it. "If you start subpoenaing the advisers to the president ... you're going to go to court," Graham said.
Three of the ousted U.S. attorneys Sunday said they have concluded their firings were politically motivated.
Former prosecutors John McKay in Seattle and David Iglesias in New Mexico both said they were rebuked in private conversations for not pursuing Democrats in their states more aggressively in election-year investigations. "It is troubling, connecting those political dots," Iglesias said.
Bud Cummins, who was replaced as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., by a Rove protegee, acknowledged political appointees can be fired for no reason.
"But in this case it looks like that authority was delegated down through (former White House counsel) Harriet Miers, Karl Rove, Judge Gonzales and all the way down to a bunch of 35-year-old kids who got in a room together and tried to decide who was most loyal to the president," Cummins said.
Specter, McKay and Iglesias appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," Feinstein spoke on "FOX News Sunday," Hagel was on "This Week" on ABC, Leahy, Graham and Cummins appeared on "Face the Nation" on CBS, and Hatch and Gillespie was on a cable news channel.