President Bush isn't rushing to the rescue of his old Texas friend, Alberto Gonzales, after the attorney general's one-time lieutenant undercut his old boss' account of the firings of eight federal prosecutors.
Rather than merely signing off on the firings, as Gonzales has repeatedly stated, his former chief of staff says the attorney general was in the middle of things from the beginning.
'I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate,' Kyle Sampson told a Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry Thursday into whether the dismissals were politically motivated.
'I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign,' Sampson said.
Sampson also told the panel that the White House had a large role in the firings, with one-time presidential counsel Harriet Miers joining Gonzales in approving them. And under questioning from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sampson said that looking back, he should not have advocated the firing of one prosecutor in particular, New Mexico's David Iglesias.
The administration has maintained previously that the firings were appropriate because the prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president.
Asked about Gonzales during a closed-door meeting with House Republicans on Thursday, Bush did not defend his longtime friend, according to one official who attended the session and demanded anonymity because it was private.
Instead, Bush tepidly repeated his public statement: The attorney general would have to go up to Capitol Hill and fix his problem, according to this official.
Publicly, the White House backed away from defending Gonzales even before Sampson had finished testifying.
'I'm going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Even so, Bush 'is confident that the attorney general can overcome these challenges, and he continues to have the president's support,' White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
One of the eight federal prosecutors ousted last year, Bud Cummins told the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service Thursday that the Justice Department suffered from an 'over-enamorization' with the White House.
Cummins, who was U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., acknowledged that he served at the political pleasure of the president, but said Gonzales was remiss for not placing a 'firewall' between politics and the work of the Justice Department.
As political theater, Sampson's appearance on Capitol Hill ranked with some of the most eye-catching hearings of recent years; the witness was faced off against a host of cameras and senators inclined toward lawyer-like interrogations in a cavernous Senate hearing room packed with spectators.
Sampson's account of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys over the past year lent weight to some of the most damaging Democratic criticism about the matter: that Gonzales was at the heart of the firings despite ever-changing Justice Department accounts of how they were planned; that some of the prosecutors were fired for political reasons; and that White House officials - including presidential counselor Karl Rove - played more than a limited role in the firings.
Afterward, one of the two Senate Republicans who are key to Gonzales' professional fate said he found Sampson credible and left the hearing with more questions about the attorney general and the firings than he had to begin with.
'He has many questions to answer,' said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel's ranking Republican. Sampson's conflicting account with Gonzales' pose 'a real question as to whether he's acting in a competent way as attorney general,' Specter said.
Gonzales has said, repeatedly, that he was not closely involved in the firings and largely depended on Sampson to orchestrate them.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that Gonzales has clarified his statements.
'His discussions with Mr. Sampson were focused on ensuring that appropriate people were aware of and involved in the process,' Roehrkasse said. 'He directed Mr. Sampson to lead the evaluation process, was kept aware of some conversations during the process, and that he approved the recommendations to seek the resignations of select U.S. attorneys.'
Sampson resigned March 12. A day later, Gonzales said he 'never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood' in the firings.
Gonzales is not scheduled to appear publicly on Capitol Hill until April 17 in front of the same Senate committee. More and more Democrats and Republicans have called for him to step down, but Roehrkasse said the attorney general has no plans to resign.
The grim-faced Sampson, a longtime and loyal aide to Gonzales, said other senior Justice Department officials helped to plan the firings, which the White House first suggested shortly after Bush won a second term in 2004.
Sampson said he was never aware of any case where prosecutors were told to step down because they refused to help Republicans in local election or corruption investigations. He also said he saw little difference between dismissing prosecutors for political reasons versus performance-related ones.
Sampson said he should have been more careful to prevent Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general, and William Moschella, the principal associate deputy attorney general, from giving incomplete or misleading information to Congress in describing the dismissals.
He said that White House political staffers working for Rove were involved closely in the plans to replace prosecutors - as evidenced by thousands of department e-mails released to Congress.
It was Miers, he said, who initially floated the idea of firing all 93 federal prosecutors and ultimately joined Gonzales in approving those who were turned out.