WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Tuesday he relied on his resigning deputy more than any other aide to decide which U.S. attorneys should be fired last year.
His comments came a less than a day after Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty announced he would resign at the end of the summer — a decision that people familiar with the plans said was hastened by the controversy over the purge of eight prosecutors.
"You have to remember, at the end of the day, the recommendations reflected the views of the deputy attorney general. He signed off on the names," Gonzales told reporters at a National Press Club forum in Washington. "And he would know better than anyone else, anyone in this room, anyone — again, the deputy attorney general would know best about the qualifications and the experiences of the United States attorneys community, and he signed off on the names."
McNulty, reached in San Antonio after Gonzales' remarks, declined to comment.
McNulty has acknowledged approving the list of prosecutors who were ordered to leave last October, a few weeks before the firings were made official. But documents released by the Justice Department show he was not closely involved in picking all the U.S. attorneys who were put on the list — a job mostly driven by two Gonzales staffers with little prosecutorial experience.
Gonzales ultimately signed off on the list in a process that Congress is investigating to see whether the firings were politically motivated.
Gonzales also called McNulty's pending departure "a loss. ... I'm really going to miss him." But his comments about McNulty's role in the prosecutors' purge seemed designed to distance himself from the deputy who announced his resignation just 18 hours earlier, following a year and a half on the job.
The attorney general, who has resisted calls for his own resignation, said he relied on McNulty's views more than another other adviser. Gonzales said he was reassured by his deputy as recently as March that the firings all were justified.
"The one person I would care about would be the views of the deputy attorney general, because the deputy attorney general is the direct supervisor of the United States attorneys," Gonzales said.
President Bush has steadfastly supported Gonzales, his close friend and adviser, saying the firings were appropriate. He has conceded, however, that the dismissals were poorly handled and Gonzales and the Justice Department did not do a good job in explaining to Congress how and why they were carried out.
Republicans taking part in a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week defended Gonzales, saying that Democrats should back away in their continuing investigation of the firings. That contrasted sharply with calls from some Senate Republicans for Gonzales' resignation earlier this year.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has stopped short of calling on Gonzales to resign. But he made clear Tuesday that he believes the Justice Department suffers with Gonzales leading it.
"I think the resignation of Mr. McNulty is another significant step in evidence that the department really cannot function with the continued leadership or lack of leadership of Attorney General Gonzales," Specter said.
He indicated that Justice may not be able to function properly until Congress wraps up its investigations of the firings. "If we had a new attorney general and concluded this investigation, made our findings public, it would be very important," Specter said.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said McNulty's departure would not impact Gonzales' ability to move forward.
"Paul also served this country very well and we certainly thank him for his service, but it certainly does not change the way in which we view the attorney general," Snow said. "Instead what we do is we thank Paul for his service."