March 13, 2007— -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales responded to increasing criticism over last year's firing of eight U.S. attorneys by accepting the blame for his department. "With respect to this whole process," Gonzales said, "like every CEO, I am ultimately accountable and responsible for what happens within the Department."
The embattled attorney general, trading his usual calm for a shaken-up appearance, blamed a communication breakdown, saying "I accept responsibility for what happened here, and I regret the fact that information was not adequately shared with individuals within the Department of Justice, and that consequently, information was shared with the Congress that was incomplete." Gonzales, blasted by several key members of Congress today, still said he believes the Senate does have an important role in the process, "and would in no way support an effort to circumvent that constitutional role."
In a quick volley from the Senate floor after Gonzales' press conference, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) took a shot at the attorney general, saying "He misconceives his role because he still sees himself as counsel to the president, his previous job, where you rubberstamp everything the president does… but when you're attorney general, you swear to the constitution to uphold it and defend it. That's his role."
The situation surrounding the firings heated up today after the release of emails showing White House involvement, and after the Department of Justice confirmed the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' top aide, who sent many of the emails. Schumer stepped up the pressure, saying, "I renew my call that Attorney General Gonzales should step down. Today's resignation by his chief of staff does not take the heat off the attorney general. It raises the temperature."
The emails released today show that then-White House counsel Harriet Miers and Gonzales' now former chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson discussed the possibility of asking for resignations from all 93 chief federal district prosecutors at the start of the 2004 term. In one of the emails, Sampson wrote, "Harriet, you have asked whether President Bush should remove and replace U.S. Attorneys..." The "first step, " he wrote, was " to agree on the target list of U.S. Attorneys." In another email, Sampson warned the White House the firings could cause a political firestorm, saying they should all be prepared "to withstand any political upheaval that might result… if we start caving to complaining U.S. Attorneys and Senators then we shouldn't do it — it'll be more trouble than it is worth."
But Gonzales said he didn't see any memos or participate in conversations about the possible plan, "As we can all imagine, in an organization of 110,000 people, I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls of the Department of Justice, nor am I aware of all decisions."
"He said, 'I was not involved in any memos or discussions of what was going on,'" Schumer shot back. "Mr. President, did the attorney general not know that eight U.S. Attorneys were to be fired? If he didn't know, he shouldn't be attorney general."
Gonzales did say he thought the plan was a "bad idea," and that firing all 93 U.S. Attorneys would be "disruptive."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) indicated in a statement this morning that hearings on the matter are imminent, and noted, "…we will summon whoever we need in our hearings to get to the bottom of this."
The situation between Leahy and Gonzales apparently intensified after the two ran into each other at a conference this morning. Leahy told ABC News he had angrily warned the attorney general he would demand complete information about the firings, and would call Miers, Sampson and others to testify before the committee.
Gonzales' fellow Texan, Republican Senator John Cornyn, is generally considered one of the White House's staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, but he is also "concerned" about the U.S. Attorneys matter. Cornyn said this morning that he has known the attorney general for a long time and wants to let him have the chance to "explain himself."
"In Texas, we have a fair trial and then the hanging," said Cornyn, who, like Gonzales sat on the Texas Supreme Court. He cautioned, "This has to be a fair examination. It should not be partisan. I support Senator Leahy in his efforts to get the facts."
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, Gonzales categorically denied that the firings were politically motivated, saying "I think I would never, ever, make a change in a United States Attorney position for political reasons or if it would in any way jeopardize an ongoing, serious investigation."
But also in his statement, Leahy called that testimony into question, saying "I am outraged that the attorney general was less than forthcoming with the Senate while under oath before the Judiciary Committee." Leahy said it appears the White House hatched a plan which was then "executed in secret with a complicit Department of Justice."
Gonzales said "I believe in the independence of our U.S. Attorneys. They are the face of the Department, they are my representative in the community. I acknowledge their sacrifice, I acknowledge their courage to step into the arena on behalf of the American people."
The U.S. attorneys were allegedly targeted and fired, without being told why. But some of them have suggested they may have been removed because they did not aggressively pursue investigations of Democrats. There are reports that President Bush himself raised questions about some U.S. Attorneys, but Bush advisor Dan Bartlett says at no time did the White House edit, add to, or sign off on the list of US attorneys.
"Federal prosecutors are supposed to be heroic soldiers in the fight against crime and corruption, not hapless casualties of political warfare," said Schumer in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week.
The attorney general has called the controversy an "overblown personnel matter," and ended his appearance this afternoon by noting, "All political appointees can be removed by the president of the United States for any reason. I stand by the decision, and I think it was the right decision."
But Leahy does not agree. "This is not how justice is served, nor is it how our system of checks and balances is designed to work," he said. "It is an abuse of power committed in secret to steer certain outcomes in our justice system, and then to dust over the tracks."
ABC News' Jan Crawford Greenburg, Jake Tapper, Jack Date, Z. Byron Wolf and Justin Rood contributed to this report.