WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales vowed Friday to remain on the job, digging in even as lawmakers questioned whether he could effectively run the Justice Department with no letup in the controversy over the firings of prosecutors
Gonzales sought to explain weeks of inconsistencies about how closely involved he had been in decisions to dismiss the eight U.S. attorneys. He said he had been aware his staff was drawing up plans for the firings but did not recall taking part in discussions over which people would actually be told to go.
"I believe in truth and accountability, and every step that I've taken is consistent with that principle," Gonzales said when questioned at a Boston event about preventing child sex abuse. "At the end of the day, I know what I did. And I know that the motivations for the decisions that I made were not based upon improper reasons."
Asked why he had not resigned, as some Democrats and Republicans have demanded, he said: "I am fighting for the truth."
Gonzales' credibility took a fresh hit this week with the Senate testimony of his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who said the attorney general was regularly briefed about plans to fire the prosecutors and was involved with discussions about "this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign."
Lawmakers impatient to hear Gonzales' side of the story said the embattled attorney general needed to explain himself quickly - or risk more damage to his department.
"The quicker that can happen the better it will be," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., adding that he would wait until hearing from Gonzales to decide whether the attorney general should resign. Gonzales is to testify on Capitol Hill on April 17, more than two weeks from now.
If lawmakers don't fully believe Gonzales' explanation, his ability to run the department "would be very difficult," Isakson said.
One senior Justice aide who helped plan the firings, Michael Elston, spent Friday in a closed-door session explaining his role to House and Senate investigators.
The White House said it continued to back Gonzales "100 percent."
President Bush "has confidence that the attorney general can overcome these challenges," spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "And I think that you can have full confidence in somebody and believe that they still have work to do, and believe that they're going to get that work done."
Support for Gonzales on Capitol Hill appears lukewarm at best, said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., noting that no one offered a strong defense for him when House Republicans met this week with Bush.
"I just haven't seen a big rallying cry to support him," Kingston said.
The controversy also showed up on the presidential campaign trail Friday. "I believe in an attorney general who is actually the people's lawyer, not the president's lawyer," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said at a fundraiser in Tallahassee, Fla. Even before the firings furor erupted, Gonzales was facing heavy criticism over the FBI's improper and, in some cases, illegal use of the USA Patriot Act to secretly obtain personal information about people in the United States. Bush has said that he is unhappy with the way the firings were handled and explained to Congress, and that he expects Gonzales to fix the problem. On Friday, a day after the White House suggested the April 17 hearing date was too far away, Justice aides said they expect Gonzales to begin private meetings with lawmakers a week before his hearing. The attorney general has not been to the Capitol since the controversy hit a high pitch three weeks ago. Justice aides said he has spoken to lawmakers in a few meetings and phone calls. As for White House backing, Bush also maintained he fully supported Donald H. Rumsfeld until shortly before the defense secretary was forced out of his job after the 2006 midterm elections that gave Democrats control of the House and Senate. Asked about any similarities, Perino said: "What I can tell you is I spoke to the president this morning, and the attorney general has the president's full confidence." The longer the furor drags out, the more it hurts the Bush administration and Republicans seeking election in 2008, said Rich Bond, a longtime loyalist to the president's family. "To the degree of which the Gonzales issue provides distraction that allows the Democrats to keep the Republicans off balance, that's a negative," said Bond, a former top aide to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and chair of the Republican National Committee. "He'll have his day in court," Bond said. "But Washington is all about watching stars fall from the sky." The controversy has also taken a toll on the Justice Department, which fiercely protects its independent image in pursuing crime. From senior department officials to the building guards, Justice employees privately grumble that Gonzales is hurting their mission and question why he hasn't resigned. Still, Gonzales will stay until he is told otherwise, government officials say. Whether he stays or goes is up "to his boss and troops," said John Barrett, a former Justice Department attorney who now teaches legal ethics at St. John's University in New York. "The boss ultimately decides, but if his troops also erode away from him, that's a grave problem," Barrett said. "The staff prosecutors' confidence in the attorney general's leadership is part of what makes the Department of Justice functional. And in times when it's damaged or missing, the Department of Justice is damaged." --- Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie in Boston and Laurie Kellman and Ben Evans in Washington contributed to this report. AP-CS-03-30-07 1745EDT