WASHINGTON — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Sunday urged Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to resign, saying the "self-created mess" over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year had hampered his ability to do his job.
"I cannot imagine how he is going to be effective for the rest of this administration," Gingrich said on "Fox News Sunday." "They're going to be involved in endless hearings, which is going to take up an immense amount of time and effort.
"I think the country, in fact, would be much better served to have a new team at the Justice Department, across the board," he said.
Gingrich, who is believed to be considering a run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, is the latest prominent Republican to speak out against the attorney general, and Democrats said the remarks were evidence of waning support within Gonzales' party.
"This is another important voice who believes that the attorney general should step down for the good of the country and the good of the department," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Judiciary Committee member who has led the investigation of the dismissals, said in a statement. "We hope both the attorney general and the president heed Speaker Gingrich's message."
Gingrich, who served 11 terms in Congress and is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, defended Bush's right to replace the federal prosecutors, who are presidential appointees. But he said the administration and Gonzales had bungled the explanation of the moves and should be held accountable.
"This is the most mishandled, artificial, self-created mess that I can remember in the years I've been active in public life. And it has to -- you know, the buck has to stop somewhere, and I'm assuming it's the attorney general and his immediate team," Gingrich said.
"How could you have so totally mishandled what was a slam-dunk?" he said.
The ouster of the eight prosecutors has touched off a political firestorm and become a test of Gonzales' ability to manage the sprawling Justice Department and its 110,000 employees.
Democrats are concerned that the department, in concert with the White House, may have targeted individual prosecutors for dismissal with an eye toward affecting corruption cases in a way that would benefit Republicans.
Gonzales has said he was not involved in the details of deciding which prosecutors were to be replaced. His statements have been contradicted in sworn testimony by his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson.
The thousands of pages of e-mails and other documents that the Justice Department has released on the firings do not establish any improper motives. But they have generated questions about a process that often appeared haphazard and that involved a team of decision-makers with little or no prosecutorial experience.
Since the disclosures, three top Justice Department aides have resigned, including Sampson and, on Friday, Monica M. Goodling, Gonzales' senior counsel and the department's liaison with the White House. She has refused to cooperate with congressional investigators, citing her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Gonzales is scheduled to appear next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee in what many view as a make-or-break opportunity to defend his handling of the controversy and try to save his job. The White House has said that Bush still supports Gonzales, who has been a close advisor since the president's years as governor of Texas, but that the president believes Gonzales has to repair his relations with Congress.
Gingrich's decision to openly break ranks with the administration comes as many other Republicans are raising concerns about Gonzales, and as a growing number seem lukewarm about his tenure.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said Sunday that Democrats had failed to make a case that the firings were improper, but he urged Gonzales to defuse the situation.
"I think that the confusion and the ham-handed way that these firings was done certainly undermines the confidence of the Justice Department," Kyl told ABC's "This Week." "And part of his effort to come up and testify before the Hill will be to restore some of that confidence."
Kyl, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Gonzales had to "clear up the conflicts and apparent conflicts in testimony between his chief of staff and some public comments that he's made in the past."
In addition, while "it ought to be the burden of those congressmen who disagree with the president to prove that there was nothing in the firings involving political corruption cases," Kyl said, "it would be nice if [Gonzales] could somehow try to deal with that issue."
Gonzales' judgment was further questioned in a Washington Post article Sunday about the 2004 abortive selection of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Gonzales, then White House counsel, was responsible for vetting the nomination, which was withdrawn after Kerik said he discovered that he had hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. The Post said White House aides tried to raise red flags but the administration went forward with the nomination anyway.
Federal prosecutors recently told Kerik's attorneys they were preparing to charge Kerik with violating federal tax laws as well as with filing false information with the government when Bush nominated him to the Cabinet, the Post reported.
Appearing with Gingrich on "Fox News Sunday," Schumer said the report "is another reason that this attorney general should go."