Thursday, April 19, 2007

Specter vs. Gonzales -- Round 1

Less than a minute into his questioning, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) snapped at Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in an exchange that didn't bode well for Gonzales and his much ballyhooed make-or-break testimony in defending his role in the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.

The unexpected attack from the committee's top Republican immediately put Gonzales on the defensive.

Specter told Gonzales his opening statement about his involvement in the controversial firings continued "this same pattern of not being candid," and that it was still unclear whether the attorney general was directly involved in the process or just delegating authority. When Specter derisively noted how much time Gonzales has spent preparing for the hearing during the past two weeks, the attorney general snapped: "I prepare for every hearing."

Sparks then flew.

Specter, who has so far resisted calling for Gonzales's resignation, apparently didn't like being interrupted, and bristled at the tone of the attorney general's voice. So the Pennsylvania Republican began mocking Gonzales's performance at a March 13 press conference in which he said he had not been involved in "discussions" nor seen any "memos" about the firing plan. Those statements have now been clearly rebutted by the thousands of pages of documents the Justice Department has released.

"Were you prepared for that press conference, were you prepared for that press conference?" Specter said. Then, as Gonzales tried to answer, Specter kept interrupting, his voice growing louder. "What I'm asking you is, were you prepared for that press conference?"

Specter cut off Gonzales before he could fully answer, moving on in his questioning with one final dismissive remark: "I don't think you're going to win a debate about your preparation."

And that, in the first two hours of testimony and questions and answers, was the sharpest give-and-take. It's doubtful one small exchange would be determinative in Specter's view of whether Gonzales should retain his post. But in a hearing in which Gonzales is trying desperately to shore up his support among Republicans, and fend off calls for his resignation, it was an ominous start. If Specter sours on him, other Republican senators are likely to follow.

Other early highlights from the first two hours of the hearing:

* Gonzales's strong rebuttal to suggestions from Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) that prosecutors politicized an investigation into a gubernatorial aide in Wisconsin. He accused the Wisconsin senators of attacking well meaning career prosecutors, declaring: "What does that say to that attorney general, to that local prosecutor, to the career prosecutors?" Earlier, he told Kohl:: "This is not about Alberto Gonzales. This is about what's best for the Department of Justice. ... The work of the department continues."

*Gonzales specified for the first time the date - Oct. 11 -- that President Bush told him of concerns about a lack of voter-fraud prosecutions by David C. Iglesias as U.S. attorney in New Mexico. He also said that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) had complained multiple times about Iglesias' prosecution record, but specified that it was about a lack of prosecution of "public corruption cases." Five days after Bush spoke with Gonzales, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) called Iglesias about his handling of a public corruption case in Albuquerque. And less than three weeks after the Bush conversation with Gonzales, Domenici called Iglesias about the Albuquerque case. On Nov. 7, a new firing list emerged for U.S. attorneys and Iglesias' name appeared for the first time.

*Two days after recusing himself from the Ethics Committee's examination of Domenici's role in the Iglesias firing, Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) was given permission by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to sit in on the hearing at the dais. He's not on the committee, but Salazar -- one of two Hispanic Senate Democrats -- has been an ally of Gonzales in the past. He introduced him at the January 2005 confirmation hearing for Gonzales.

By Paul Kane | April 19, 2007; 12:30 PM ET
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