WASHINGTON -- President Bush, his trip to Latin America disrupted by a firestorm over the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors, said yesterday that he is "not happy" with the Justice Department's public explanation of the firings and added that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has "got work to do" to repair relations with Capitol Hill.
Bush insisted that he had not lost confidence in Gonzales, but his attempt to deflect criticism of the White House's involvement in the firing of the U.S. attorneys last year is likely to increase pressure on the attorney general, who faces calls from leading members of Congress for his resignation.
That pressure was ratcheted up late in the day when Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire became the first congressional Republican to publicly urge Bush to fire Gonzales. "I think the president should replace him," Sununu said in a statement issued yesterday.
The president, who signed off on the Justice Department's dismissal of the federal prosecutors, maintained that he did not get involved in whether to fire individual prosecutors. "U.S. attorneys and others serve at the pleasure of the president," Bush said. "Past administrations have removed U.S. attorneys."
Critics concede that the president does have the right to fire U.S. attorneys. But doing so for political reasons, to aid an ally or because of displeasure with specific investigations - as critics claim the Bush administration did - could be politically volatile. And rarely have eight U.S. attorneys been dismissed at once during the middle of a presidential term, as opposed to when a new administration assumes office.
The clash is likely to escalate, as leading Democrats said yesterday that they plan to summon Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, to testify before Congress. Gonzales is expected to testify also.
Bush, in a news conference in Mexico at the close of a five-day Latin American tour, referred to Gonzales' admission Tuesday that "mistakes were made."
"He's right, mistakes were made," Bush said. "And I'm frankly not happy about it, because there is a lot of confusion over what really has been a customary practice by the presidents." Bush made it clear that while he was upset with the communication about the matter, he stood behind the firings.
In an interview, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said both Gonzales and Rove should be compelled to testify not only about their roles in the dismissals but also about the broader question of the Justice Department's political interference with U.S. attorneys.
"There are two people who need to appear before Congress and very quickly: Attorney General Gonzales and Karl Rove. ... All roads lead to Karl Rove when it comes to the political agenda," said Durbin, a member of the Judiciary Committee. "If Gonzales and Rove will not appear and testify under oath, they should be dismissed, period. ... This goes to the integrity of our Department of Justice."
He added: "We know there was a political agenda for some of these U.S. attorneys, and if they didn't play ball they were dropped from the team. ... But there is a question we don't know. How many U.S. attorneys were playing ball? How many were being contacted by the U.S. Justice Department about making political prosecutions before an election?"
Bush said yesterday that he had heard general complaints about U.S. attorneys from senators but that he never "brought up a specific case" with the Justice Department, which recommended the eight firings to the White House. The White House, in turn, approved the list - maintaining that the president neither added nor deleted any names from the list of prosecutors to be replaced.
Bush said he spoke with Gonzales by phone yesterday morning. "I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales," he said, standing alongside Mexican President Felipe Calderon. "We talked about his need to go up to Capitol Hill and make it very clear to members in both political parties why the Justice Department made the decisions it made, making very clear about the facts."
Gonzales offered a more pointed admission yesterday in an interview on CNN: "I think I did make some mistakes, and we're going to take steps to ensure that that doesn't happen again." Asked about calls for his own resignation, he said: "That is a decision for the president of the United States to make. I'm focused on doing my job."
Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.