WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, told by President Bush to repair relations with Congress over his handling of the U.S. attorneys affair, instead suffered new and withering criticism from senators of both parties Thursday, including questions about his judgment, candor and fitness to serve.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in what one lawmaker called a "reconfirmation hearing," Gonzales apologized for what he described as a flawed process in which a group of young political appointees at the Justice Department led a review that resulted in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
But his credibility took a fresh hit when he tried to downplay his involvement in the dismissals even as documents and testimony from top aides in recent weeks have shown that he played a central role. His inability to recall basic facts at the hearing -- he answered "I don't recall" more than 50 times -- also often baffled and bewildered lawmakers.
"Your characterization of your participation is significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking Republican on the committee.
Gonzales was unable to identify who at the Justice Department and the White House was involved in preparing the final list of prosecutors to be fired.
Several lawmakers said he demonstrated a distressing lack of knowledge about the attorneys' performance before he decided to dismiss them.
Rather, Gonzales testified that he relied on the "consensus recommendation of people that I trusted," admitting that he knew little or nothing about two of seven of the prosecutors who were fired on a single day in December.
He also said he could not remember the date when he finally approved the dismissals.
"Well, how can you be sure you made the decision?" asked Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
Lawmakers also challenged Gonzales on how he could make an informed judgment about firing attorneys when his involvement, by his own admission, was limited.
"Since you apparently knew very little about the performance about the replaced United States attorneys, how can you testify that the judgment ought to stand?" asked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "How can you know that none of them were removed for improper reasons?"
Several lawmakers said the reasons Gonzales offered for the dismissals -- including a lack of energy in the case of one fired prosecutor -- sounded contrived. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the explanations "a stretch."
"It's clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or at the White House and, you know, we made up reasons to fire them," Graham said.
"Sir, I respectfully disagree with that," Gonzales responded. "I really do."
Some of the toughest criticism came from fellow Republicans.
"There are some very serious problems, Mr. Attorney General," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). "Your ability to lead the Department of Justice is in question."
Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) was more blunt. "The best way to put this behind us is your resignation," he told Gonzales, becoming the second Republican member of the Senate to call for the attorney general to quit.
Among the 19 members of the committee, only one -- Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) -- spoke out in defense of Gonzales.
Gonzales sat alone at the witness table in a crowded room that was the site of his confirmation hearing two years ago. Protesters in orange and pink prison garb interrupted the proceedings on several occasions. The words "Arrest Gonzales" were duct-taped to their backs.
The attorney general has been left fighting for his job because he has offered shifting explanations about how closely he was involved in the firings of the prosecutors, who serve as the arms of the Justice Department around the country.
He initially denied at a news conference last month that he was involved in discussions about the purge. He modified his remarks after internal Justice Department documents showed that he had participated in meetings where the prosecutors' fate was discussed.
When Gonzales told the panel that he always prepared for testimony before Congress, Specter shot back: "Do you prepare for your press conferences? And were you prepared when you said you weren't involved in any deliberations?"
At the hearing, Gonzales expressed regret that the dismissals had become an "undignified public spectacle."
"Those eight attorneys deserved better," he told the committee.
He denied, however, that any improper political motives had fueled the dismissals, as Democrats have insinuated, and said that in hindsight he felt the firings were justified.
"It would be improper to remove a U.S. attorney to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for political gain," he said. "I did not do that. I would never do that."