Gonzales pins list of fired US Attorneys on outgoing deputy
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was heckled by protesters and challenged by reporters on the firing of United States Attorneys as he worked to promote the Justice Department's crime fighting strategy in a Tuesday address at Washington, DC's National Press Club. He took the opportunity to say that the responsibility for firing the US Attorneys came primarily from Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who made known his intention to resign this summer on Monday.
As the embattled Attorney General began delivering an address on crime, hoping to promote an image of 'business as usual' at the Justice Department, protesters disrupted the proceedings.
"Resign! Please! You've dishonored your country! You've destroyed the Constitution! You've dishonored your country!" the unnamed protester, listed in a transcript as a 'heckler' said.
While Gonzales finished the address without further incident, reporters didn't concentrate on his crime-fighting plans for long, turning the discussion rapidly to the sudden decision of his number two, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, to step down this summer.
Gonzales appeared to suggest that McNulty was the key player in deciding which US Attorneys were fired, an assertion he repeated on several occasions.
"In this particular case, Mr. McNulty was a former colleague of all of these United States attorneys, and so he would probably know better than anyone else about the performance and the qualifications of these -- of our United States attorney community," he said. "My understanding was was that Mr. Sampson's recommendations reflected a consensus view of the senior leadership of the department, in particular the deputy attorney general."
Gonzales also continued to work to insulate the White House from any involvement in the firings.
"I believe the White House has publicly stated that, that they were not involved in adding names or deleting names from the list," he said.
The Attorney General defended the prerogative of the President to hire and fire US Attorneys on the basis of politics, and based less on performance, too.
"If you have a more formal process and a U.S. attorney gets a great evaluation, politically it may be more difficult for the president to make a change simply because he wants to make a change. A president should be able to do that," he argued.
Gonzales attempted early in the press conference to tell reporters to focus on questions of law enforcement strategy, and steer clear of the US Attorneys controversy.
"I think the American people really are concerned is the country safe...so while, of course, I'm focused on ensuring that the Congress has the information that it needs to do its job, I'm also -- remain very, very focused, as are members of the department of Justice, remain very focused on doing the work for the American people," he said.
He also sounded a defiant tone on the prospect of Congressional scrutiny later in his remarks.
"I'm not going to be bashful. I'm not going to be timid in going to Congress and pursuing what I think is absolutely necessary and right for the American people," he said.
At the very end of the press conference, Gonzales was asked what the advantages were of being an Attorney General who is very close to the president.
He joked that the question was a softball.
"Did my staff write this question?" he wrote, to laughter.
He then answered that he was a more effective Attorney General because of his close relationship with President Bush.
"I think to be able to walk into the Oval Office and tell the president 'no' and not worry about it -- how it's going to affect your future or your job -- is a good thing," he explained. "When I hear back, when Rachel Brand comes to me and says, 'Well, the White House has a problem with that policy,' my first question always my question I ask, 'Well, who at the White House is it?,' because sometimes it may be some low-level staffer who's maybe never even met the president."