WASHINGTON – The White House stood by Alberto Gonzales on Monday, even as support for the embattled attorney general erodes on Capitol Hill amid new questions about his honesty.
Three key Republican senators sharply questioned his truthfulness over the firings last fall of eight federal prosecutors. Two more Democrats on Sunday joined the list of lawmakers calling for Gonzales' ouster.
Several Republicans also urged President Bush to allow sworn testimony from his top aides about their role in dismissing the U.S. attorneys — a standoff threatening to result in Capitol Hill subpoenas of White House officials.
"We are not negotiating," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "We are where we are, which is where we were last week. ... I can understand why people would think we have not made the right decision, but we think we have."'
The White House also continued to back Gonzales, a fellow Texan and longtime friend of Bush. Perino said the president supports the attorney general and that Gonzales' statements about his involvement are not inconsistent with e-mails released later.
However, the White House was placing the onus on Gonzales to explain himself to lawmakers. The attorney general is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17. "The attorney general, as the president said, needs to get up to Capitol Hill and to continue to talk about this issue," Perino said.
Gonzales faces the toughest test of his two-year tenure at the Justice Department with the release of documents suggesting he was more involved with the firings than he indicated earlier.
Democrats have accused the Justice Department and the White House of purging the prosecutors for political reasons. The Bush administration maintains the firings were not improper because U.S. attorneys are political appointees.
Stopping short of demanding Gonzales' resignation, Sen. Arlen Specter cited a Nov. 27 calendar entry placing the attorney general at a Justice Department meeting to discuss the dismissals. Those documents "appear to contradict" Gonzales' earlier statements that he never participated in such conversations, said Specter, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees the Justice Department.
"We have to have an attorney general who is candid, truthful. And if we find out he has not been candid and truthful, that's a very compelling reason for him not to stay on," said Specter, R-Pa.
Specter said he would wait until Gonzales' testimony before deciding whether he could continue to support the attorney general.
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.
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.
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."
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 Karl 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, Graham and Cummins appeared on "Face the Nation" on CBS, and Nelson, Hatch and Gillespie were on CNN's "Late Edition."