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Republican Senator Urges Gonzales to Resign

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Senator John Sununu has become the first Republican to join some of his Democratic colleagues in calling for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign. And today the Senate Judiciary Committee meets to discuss who from the White House and Justice Department should be subpoenaed to testify about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. The scandal has become one of the biggest crises of the attorney general's career.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on how Alberto Gonzales has survived previous controversies, and why this one may be different.

ARI SHAPIRO: This is hardly the first time Alberto Gonzales has been the target of congressional ire. Two years ago, when he was on the stand to become Attorney General, he calmly deflected questions from senators who wanted to know about a memo he wrote as White House counsel that narrowly defined torture.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Attorney General): First of all, sir, the president has said we're not going to engage in torture under any circumstances. And so you're asking me to answer a hypothetical that is never going to occur.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales was confirmed by a vote of 60 to 36. Almost exactly a year later, Gonzales became the top defender of a program to tap Americans' phone calls without a judge's order.

Mr. GONZALES: I do not think that we are thumbing our nose at the Congress or at the courts with respect to the terrorist surveillance program.

SHAPIRO: On each of those scandals the administration eventually retreated, disavowing the torture memos and putting the surveillance program under court oversight. But none of those controversies ever reached a point where President Bush had to personally come to his friend's defense, as he did yesterday in the controversy over eight fired U.S. attorneys.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales.

SHAPIRO: And even that was tepid.

President BUSH: He's right, mistakes were made. And I'm frankly not happy about them.

SHAPIRO: So what makes this scandal different from all other scandals? Harvard law professor David Barron has a hypothesis.

Professor DAVID BARRON (Harvard): There was a sense that those were not like Nixon-like scandals in the sense they were substantive positions that the government had which you might have thought were odious or you might have thought were attractive, but you didn't think were partisan.

SHAPIRO: In contrast, Barron says this issue has gotten more attention because the Justice Department is accused of truly playing politics with the U.S. attorney dismissals.

And there is another major difference between this scandal and others. Georgetown law professor David Cole notes that this controversy emerged with a Congress that's controlled by Democrats.

Professor DAVID COLE (Georgetown University): Which means that they decide whether subpoenas are issued for documents; they decide whether investigations are undertaken. And the fact of the matter was that for the previous six years, with the committees in Republican hands, there were virtually no subpoenas issued.

SHAPIRO: It was only after Congress demanded internal Justice Department documents that Gonzales acknowledged his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was incomplete.

Throughout his career, one of Gonzales's assets has been his close friendship with President Bush. When Gonzales was White House counsel, that friendship was a clear plus. But Pepperdine law professor Doug Kmiec believes when Gonzales became head of the Justice Department, he may have encountered a common problem in the attorney general's office.

Professor DOUG KMIEC (Pepperdine University): Namely, the responsibility to separate your obligation to be a member of the president's cabinet from your obligation to represent the interests of the law and the Department of Justice.

SHAPIRO: That has become one focus of the Democrats' attacks on Gonzales. They accuse him of pursuing the president's political goals instead of pursuing justice. So in a twist of fortune, if Gonzales wants to ensure his continued service to the president, he may have to distance himself from him.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can follow the trail of events that led up to the firings of the U.S. attorneys and read internal Justice Department e-mails at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.