WASHINGTON -- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich urged Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to resign, saying yesterday that the "self-created mess" over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year has hampered Gonzales' ability to do his job.
"I cannot imagine how he is going to be effective for the rest of this administration," Gingrich said on Fox News Sunday. "They're going to be involved in endless hearings, which is going to take up an immense amount of time and effort. I think the country ... would be much better served to have a new team at the Justice Department."
Gingrich, who is believed to be considering a run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, is the latest prominent Republican to speak out against the attorney general, and Democrats said the remarks are evidence of waning support within Gonzales' party.
"This is another important voice who believes that the attorney general should step down for the good of the country and the good of the department," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and Judiciary Committee member who has led the investigation of the dismissals. "We hope both the attorney general and the president heed Speaker Gingrich's message."
Gingrich, who served 11 terms in Congress and is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, defended Bush's right to replace the prosecutors, who are presidential appointees. But he said the administration and Gonzales had bungled the explanation of the moves and should be held accountable.
"This is the most mishandled, artificial, self-created mess that I can remember in the years I've been active in public life. And it has to - you know, the buck has to stop somewhere, and I'm assuming it's the attorney general and his immediate team," Gingrich said. "How could you have so totally mishandled what was a slam dunk?"
The ouster of the prosecutors has touched off a fierce political dispute and become a test of Gonzales' ability to manage the Justice Department.
Democrats are concerned that the department, in concert with the White House, targeted prosecutors for dismissal with an eye toward affecting corruption cases to benefit Republicans.
Gonzales has said he was not involved in the details of deciding which prosecutors were to be replaced, though his statements have been contradicted in sworn testimony by his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson.
The Justice Department has released thousands of pages of documents and e-mails involving the firings that, while failing to establish any improper motives, raise questions about a process that often appeared random and haphazard, and involved a team of decision-makers with little or no prosecutorial experience.
In the wake of the disclosures, three top Justice Department aides have resigned, including Sampson and, on Friday, Monica M. Goodling, Gonzales' senior counsel and the department's liaison with the White House. She has refused to cooperate with congressional investigators, citing her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Gonzales is scheduled to appear April 17 before the Senate Judiciary Committee in what many view as a make-or-break opportunity to defend his handling of the controversy and try to save his job. The White House has said that the president still supports Gonzales, a close adviser since Bush's years as governor of Texas.
Gingrich's decision to break ranks with the administration comes as many other Republicans are raising concerns about Gonzales, and as a growing number seem lukewarm about his tenure.
Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, said yesterday on ABC's This Week that Democrats had failed to make a case that the firings were improper, but he urged Gonzales to defuse the situation quickly.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.