WASHINGTON -- The White House began floating the names of possible replacements for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday as the Justice Department released more internal documents related to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
One prominent Republican, who earlier had predicted that Gonzales would survive the controversy, said he expected both Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty to resign soon. Another well-connected Republican said that White House officials have launched an aggressive search for Gonzales' replacement, though President Bush hadn't decided whether to ask for his resignation.
Support for Gonzales appeared to be collapsing under the weight of questions about his truthfulness and his management ability. White House spokesman Tony Snow offered a tepid defense when asked if Gonzales would stay on the job until the end of Bush's term.
"We hope so," Snow said. "None of us knows what's going to happen to us over the next 21 months."
The moves toward Gonzales' ouster were first reported by politico.com, the online version of The Politico newspaper.
"The sands have been shifting pretty dramatically," one of the Republicans said. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending White House officials.
Possible replacements for Gonzales include Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, White House anti-terrorism adviser Fran Townsend, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson.
Gonzales' hold on his job has been in doubt since he was forced to acknowledge last week that he and his advisers have given Congress incorrect information about the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys.
Internal administration documents collected by congressional investigators contradicted Justice Department assurances that the White House played no role in the firings. The documents also indicated that Gonzales might have known more about the plan for dismissals than he had acknowledged.
Newly released e-mails show that Justice Department officials wanted to quickly get the firings behind them after Republican losses in the midterm elections and sought a "green light" from the White House to go ahead with them.
"Not sure whether this will be determined to require the boss's attention," then-White House counsel Harriet Miers wrote in an e-mail response to Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson.
Documents released last night show that Gonzales was unhappy with how Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty explained the firings to the Senate Judiciary Committee early last month.
"The Attorney General is extremely upset with the stories on the US Attys this morning," Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, who was traveling with Gonzales in South America at the time, wrote in a Feb. 7 e-mail. "He also thought some of the DAG's statements were inaccurate."
In a statement last night, Roehrkasse said he was referring to Gonzales' concerns over the firing of Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark., who he believed was dismissed because of performance issues. At the hearing, McNulty indicated Cummins was being replaced by a political ally.
The new e-mails spell out some of the reasons behind the ousters and the heavy-handed manner in which they were carried out.
At one point, McNulty questioned the dismissal of U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden in Nevada. "I'm a little skittish about Bogden," McNulty wrote in a Dec. 7 e-mail to Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, two days before the firings. "He has been with DOJ since 1990 and, at age 50, has never had a job outside government."
Still, McNulty concluded: "I'll admit have not looked at his district's performance. Sorry to be raising this again/now; it was just on my mind last night and this morning."
One document shows that U.S. Attorney Margaret Chiara in Grand Rapids, Mich., the last of eight prosecutors to announce their resignations, learned from McNulty's top aide four days before the Nov. 7 election that the White House would be asking her to leave after the election.
"I ask that you tell me why my resignation may be requested," Chiara wrote McNulty in an Election Day e-mail. "I need to know the truth to live in peace with the aftermath."
Some 3,000 pages of e-mails and other documents were delivered late Wednesday night to the House and Senate judiciary committees. The House panel posted many of them on its Web site, in addition to those released publicly by the Justice Department.
Congressional Democrats said they're increasingly convinced that at least some of the ousted prosecutors were fired because they either investigated Republicans or declined to prosecute Democrats. Administration officials have repeatedly denied that politics played any role in the firings.
"We've seen the e-mails now. They're damning," said Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat who called for Gonzales to step down. "He has a credibility problem, he has a trust problem and he has a growing national scandal problem. ... It's time that we restore justice at the Justice Department."
Senators sparred over the firings while debating legislation that would revoke the president's power to name replacement U.S. attorneys without Senate approval. Bush got the power to bypass the Senate confirmation process in a little-noticed amendment that was added to the USA Patriot Act last year.
Democrats said previous documents released by the Justice Department indicate that the amendment was part of a broader administration effort to politicize the Justice Department.
"U.S. attorneys who did not play ball with the political agenda of this White House were dropped from the team," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told Senate colleagues. "How many other U.S. attorneys were approached by the White House, asked to play ball and did play ball?"
While Democrats lined up to bash the administration, most Republicans skipped the debate, another indication of Gonzales' diminishing support.
Rep. Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican, said he'd back a decision by Bush to oust the attorney general.
"I've been disappointed in the Justice Department. We've had trouble getting answers form General Gonzales from the start," Feeney said. "No prudent congressman wants to be too far out there defending a group that doesn't want to answer questions directly."
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, one of the few Republicans to defend the administration, said the controversy over the firings was overblown. He noted that all presidents have the power to remove U.S. attorneys for any reason.
"There's nothing wrong with that," Sessions said.
Gonzales had hoped to meet privately with key lawmakers last Friday, but Democrats insisted that he appear under oath at a public hearing. He might get a chance to defend himself Thursday at a House hearing on the Justice Department's budget.
"We need to have Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and other top administration officials testify under oath about their role in these firings," Durbin said. "We need to hear the truth - and all of it."
The White House has resisted demands for testimony from Rove, one of the president's closest advisers and his chief political strategist. White House counsel Fred Fielding plans to meet privately with lawmakers today to try to negotiate a compromise on White House testimony and internal documents.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Here are five names that have been floated as possible replacements for Attorney General Alberto Conzales: HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY MICHAEL CHERTOFF
SECURITIES & EXCHANGE COMMITTEE CHAIR CHRISTOPHER COX
FORMER DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL LARRY THOMPSON
HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER FRAN TOWNSEND
FORMER U.S. SOLICITOR GENERAL THEODORE B. OLSON