The harshest criticism for U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in an April 19 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee over the firings of eight U.S. Attorneys didn’t come from Democrats on the committee, but rather Republicans frustrated with Gonzales’s poor handling of the controversy.
The brunt of Republican complaints about the firings revolved around Gonzales’s handling of press inquiries in the early stages of what Democrats have successfully parlayed into a full-blown scandal.
In his opening statement Sen. Jeff Sessions, (R.-Ala.), who served as a U.S. Attorney for twelve years, told Gonzales that he had “incorrectly minimized your involvement in this matter.”
In a March 13 press conference Gonzales told reporters that he had not been involved in firings. This was later refuted by many pages of documents released by the Department of Justice.
At the hearing Gonzales admitted he “should have been more precise when discussing this matter” and that the process for managing the resignations was “flawed.” He assured the committee, however, that “nothing improper occurred.”
"There is nothing improper in making a change for poor management, policy difference, or questionable judgment, or simply to have another qualified individual serve” Gonzales explained.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa) said the question was not whether the Administration had the right to fire U.S. Attorneys who serve at the pleasure of the President.
But, “Once the Administration started to make representations to Congress and the American people about how and why the firings came about, those representations had to be accurate and complete. Yet the documents produced by the Justice Department are inconsistent with public statements and congressional testimony of the Justice Department officials, and we just don’t have a straight story on what transpired or whether the motivations for what happened were pure.”
Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.), who is Ranking Minority Member of the Judiciary Committee, caused Gonzales to be more flustered than almost any other questioner. Specter said it was imperative for Gonzales to reestablish his credibility with the Senate. Specter characterized the hearing as Gonzales’ “reconfirmation” to the position of Attorney General.
In his question and answer period Specter prodded Gonzales by saying, “I know you’re familiar with the record because you’ve been preparing for this hearing.”
Gonzales smiled and replied, “I prepare for every hearing, senator.”
“Did you prepare for your press conferences?” Specter retorted. “I’m asking you if you were prepared.”
“Were you prepared when you said you weren’t involved in any deliberations?” Specter reiterated.
Gonzales said, “I’ve already conceded I misspoke at the press conference.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) said that the reason why Gonzales needed to testify before Congress was because he had “injected a performance rationale” that later proved to be false.
Gonzales said the issue of performance was “sort of a talking point.” He said “We struggled, this was an endeavor…where we made a mistake clearly is where we said performance we should have defined that because to me it means appropriate leadership” but “there are lots of things that fall into that category.”
He said initial mistakes were made “because I hadn’t gone back and looked at the documents, I hadn’t gone back and looked at the calendar,” he said. “Maybe I got out there too quickly…The reason why my initial statements were incorrect because I had not gone back and looked at the record.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) told Gonzales he believed the firings were a result of personality conflicts, not poor performance. He asked Gonzales “Is this really performance based or did they run a foul personality in the office and we wanted to make up reasons to get rid of them? Most of this a stretch. Some of these people just have had personality conflicts with people in your office.”
Near the end of the more than three-hour hearing, Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) told Gonzales he should resign from his position.
Coburn asked Gonzales, "Why should you not be judged by the same standards that you judged these U.S. Attorneys?"
Gonzales told Coburn that "We all make mistakes," but Coburn said that wasn’t good enough."
"I believe there are consequences" Coburn said. "And I believe this has been handled in a very incompetent manner."
He characterized Gonzales performance as "atrocious."
"I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered," Coburn said. "And I believe the best way to put this behind us is with your resignation."