Gonzales Facing Lawmakers on Thurs.

Posted April 16, 2007 at 6:48pm

When the Senate Judiciary Committee meets on Thursday to hear Attorney General Alberto Gonzales explain the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, Gonzales is likely to get little help from the Republicans sitting at the dais, who have made it clear that it is up to the attorney general to talk himself out of a mess that they contend is largely of his own making.

Because of the shootings at Virginia Tech on Monday, Democrats postponed until Thursday the long-awaited hearing on the firing of the U.S. attorneys.

Republican staffers say there has been no effort among the panel’s minority members to generate a coordinated defense of the attorney general or the administration, and Gonzales is likely to find himself without a defender even on the Republican side.

Even regular administration defenders such as Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has perhaps the closest relationship with both Gonzales and President Bush, are likely to let Gonzales fend for himself during the hearing, staffers said.

“The feeling is, he is on his own here,” one Republican staffer said. While several Republicans on the panel do not believe there is any evidence that the firings were in any way illegal, they also have “been very critical of the way he handled it.”

A Republican leadership aide said there have been “no talking points and no cohesive effort to mount some kind of defense campaign” in the Senate, largely because “the individuals who created most of this mess were Gonzales and his team [and] we don’t know what they are going to say and how they are going to say it.”

Gonzales is scheduled to testify on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, a normally routine process that has turned into a full-blown scandal. In his prepared testimony and in an opinion piece printed in The Washington Post on Sunday, Gonzales maintained that none of the prosecutors was removed for any “improper reason.” But he also admitted that he was more actively involved in the decisions than his earlier statements had implied.

On March 13, Gonzales told reporters that he was “not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.” In his prepared testimony, the attorney general clarified his role: “Mr. Sampson periodically updated me on the review. As I recall, his updates were brief, relatively few in number, and focused primarily on the review process itself. During these updates, to my knowledge, I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign.”

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said there has been no outreach from the administration to Republican Senators on the committee to seek support for Gonzales.

“There aren’t any credible allegations that anything improper happened here,” Fratto said, so there is no need for the administration to generate a defense. “The attorney general is going to go in there and he’s going to tell the truth … that’s the most anyone should be able to expect.” But Fratto said he suspects that Democrats “are going to try to ask [Gonzales] lots of questions that he wouldn’t be expected to know the answer to.”

Democrats are likely to use the hearing to paint a broad picture of an administration mired in political misdeeds. Talking points circulated by Democrats on Monday said the firing of the U.S. attorneys comes down to this: “The Bush administration manipulated the criminal justice system for its own political gain. It ruined the careers of good prosecutors, interfered in the criminal justice process and then tried to cover it up when they got caught.”

Democrats also are likely to raise the issue of whether White House officials — including Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove — may have conducted official business using Republican National Committee e-mail accounts, and then deleted the messages. This issue has come up in several investigations, including the ongoing probe of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s contacts with Members of Congress and the administration.

Congressional and administration sources say both sides are trying to reach a deal to hire a contractor to recover deleted RNC e-mails that might have been relevant to the firing of the U.S. attorneys. But meanwhile, it provides an opening for Democrats to link a host of other investigations — Abramoff, the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name to the press, allegations of political interference with other federal agencies — to the firing of the U.S. attorneys.

Democratic leadership aides argued that while they have begun ramping up their messaging efforts on the U.S. attorneys over the past two weeks, the controversy has taken on enough life of its own to move forward without significant prodding. “A lot of this has been driving itself,” a senior leadership aide explained, adding that it has made it much easier for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats to avoid charges of partisanship.

“Every opportunity they’ve had to do something they’ve made it worse, so we haven’t had to do a lot,” this aide said.

John Stanton contributed to this report.