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Republican senator says fire Gonzales

New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu
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WASHINGTON – Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire on Wednesday became the first Republican in Congress to call for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ dismissal, hours after President Bush expressed confidence in his embattled Cabinet officer.

“I think the president should replace him,” Sununu said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Gonzales has been fending off Democratic calls for his firing in the wake of disclosures surrounding the ousters of eight U.S. attorneys.

Bush, at a news conference in Mexico, told reporters when asked about the controversy: “Mistakes were made. And I’m frankly not happy about them.”

But the president expressed confidence in Gonzales, a longtime friend, and defended the firings. “What Al did and what the Justice Department did was appropriate,” he said.

What was “mishandled,” Bush said, was the Justice Department’s release of some but not all details of how the firings were carried out.

Sununu said the firings, together with a report last Friday by the Justice Department’s inspector general criticizing the administration’s use of secret national security letters to obtain personal records in terrorism probes, shattered his confidence in Gonzales.

“We need to have a strong, credible attorney general that has the confidence of Congress and the American people,” said Sununu, who faces a tough re-election campaign next year. “Alberto Gonzales can’t fill that role.”

“I think the attorney general should be fired,” Sununu said.

For days, Republican have issued only lukewarm statements of support for Gonzales after some of the fired prosecutors complained at hearings last week that lawmakers tried to influence political corruption investigations. Several dismissed prosecutors also said there had been Justice Department attempts to intimidate them.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., predicted Wednesday that Gonzales would lose his job.

“I think he is gone. I don’t think he’ll last long,” Reid said in an interview with Nevada reporters. Asked how long, Reid responded: “Days.”

The developments unfolded as presidential aides labored to protect White House political director Karl Rove and former counsel Harriet Miers from congressional subpoenas.

The White House dispatched presidential counsel Fred Fielding to Capitol Hill to negotiate the terms of any testimony by White House aides in an institutional tug-o-war reminiscent of the Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals.

Fielding is a veteran of the Nixon and Reagan White Houses, hired by Bush this year to handle just these kinds of demands by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

It was unclear whether Bush would grant Democratic demands for his own aides to tell their stories under oath.

The House and Senate Judiciary Committees have invited Rove, Miers and her deputy, William K. Kelley, to testify voluntarily about their roles in the firings. Gonzales has pledged to allow five of his aides involved in the dismissals to testify.

As insurance, the Senate panel is expected to consider subpoenas for the whole group on Thursday.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after the meeting with Fielding that the counsel promised a yes-or-no answer by Friday.

“He said it was his goal to get us both the documents and the witnesses that we seek to question,” Schumer said. The White House was expected to issue some conditions, but Fielding “said his intention was not to stonewall,” Schumer added.

U.S. attorneys are the federal government’s prosecutors and serve at the pleasure of the president. They can be hired or fired for any reason, or none at all.

However, when the White House dismissed eight federal prosecutors without explanation, Democrats accused the administration of trying to make way for political allies under a new Patriot Act provision that permits the attorney general to appoint U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation.

Gonzales and the White House denied the charges of a political purge and said they intended to submit the names of the replacements for confirmation.

They initially said the White House had only limited involvement in the firings. But e-mails released by the agency this week made clear that the firings were the result of a two-year campaign to purge the ranks of U.S. attorneys for various reasons, including chafing at the administration’s crimefighting priorities.

The e-mail exchanges between Gonzales’ chief of staff and Miers and Kelley made clear the White House was deeply involved in the plan.

Miers, at that time White House counsel, at one point suggested firing all 93 U.S. attorneys. That idea was rebuffed by Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ top aide. Rove is mentioned in several of the e-mails as key to the process. Kelley gave the green light for the firings in another e-mail, saying explicitly that the White House offices of legislative affairs, political affairs and communications had signed off on it.

Sampson resigned on Tuesday. Mike Battle, who oversaw the U.S. attorneys, announced his resignation last week in a departure the agency said had been long planned.

Bush, and Gonzales a day earlier, used a phrase made famous in previous scandals ” “mistakes were made”” and pledged to set things right with Congress.

Appearing Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show, Gonzales said he had a “general knowledge” of Sampson’s conversations with Miers about the prosecutors, but said “I was obviously not aware of all communications.”

“We are going to work with Congress to make sure they know what happened,” Gonzales said. “We want to ensure that they have a complete and accurate picture of what happened here.”

Enforcing subpoenas could get messy. Should either or both of the committees decide to take the matter to court, it would have to ask Gonzales to appoint a U.S. attorney to handle the case, according to Bruce Fein, a Reagan administration lawyer.


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