WASHINGTON - The White House began floating the names of possible replacements for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Monday 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."
Internal Justice Department documents released Monday night offered more details on the planning that went into the firings, as well as the frantic efforts to contain the political fallout.
"Who will determine whether this requires the President's attention?" Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff at the time, asked in an e-mail to then-White House counsel Harriet Miers and her deputy on Nov. 15, 2006, about three weeks before the dismissals.
"Not sure whether this will be determined to require the boss's attention," Miers replied. It wasn't clear from the documents whether Bush was ever brought into the loop.
The Washington Post reported late Monday that a Justice Department official's early ranking of undistinguished prosecutors included U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago. A March 2005 Justice Department memo from Sampson ranked Fitzgerald, who was responsible for the recent perjury conviction of former I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, with other prosecutors who had "not distinguished themselves." There is no evidence that the administration ever took any action against Fitzgerald.
Congressional investigators worked into the night sorting through the latest batch of Justice Department documents, about 3,000 pages of e-mails, press releases, news stories and other material. The documents didn't appear to help Gonzales in his struggle to keep his job.
The moves toward Gonzales' ouster were first reported by politico.com, the on-line 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, Security and Exchange Commission Chairman Chris 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'd acknowledged.
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, D-Ark., 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 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 Durbin, D-Ill., told his 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 his diminishing support.
Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., 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 from (Attorney) 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, R-Ala., 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 may get a chance to defend himself Thursday at a House of Representatives hearing on the Justice Department's budget.
Although Justice Department officials had said that the White House wasn't involved, internal e-mails indicate that presidential adviser Karl Rove and Miers participated in early discussions about the dismissal plan.
"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 on Tuesday to try to negotiate a compromise on White House testimony and internal documents.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said they'd seek to force Rove's testimony with a subpoena if the White House refuses to make him available.
The administration has said that the prosecutors were fired for unspecified performance issues. White House officials have said that both Rove and Bush expressed concerns that prosecutors weren't aggressive enough in pursuing voter fraud, without mentioning any U.S. attorneys by name.
Rove also cited his concerns about voter fraud in an April 7, 2006, speech to the National Republican Lawyers Association. Some of the states he listed as problem areas later got new U.S. attorneys.