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Inside Politics

GOP senator calls for Gonzales' head

Story Highlights

NEW: Judiciary chairman says he may subpoena White House staffers
• New Hampshire's Sununu urges dismissal of attorney general
• Bush "not happy" about mistakes surrounding attorney firings
• Attorney general admits errors, says he's not resigning, is focused on job
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The focus in the controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys is turning increasingly to Alberto Gonzales' future as attorney general.

Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire on Wednesday became the first Republican lawmaker to call for Gonzales' resignation.

"The president should fire the attorney general and replace him as soon as possible with someone who can provide strong, aggressive leadership," Sununu said in a statement released by his office. (Watch Gonzales navigate a minefield of questions Video)

Sununu told CNN that Gonzales has lost all credibility because of the firings, controversy over renewal of the Patriot Act, and a report last week that the FBI had underreported its use of national security letters to snoop on Americans.

"These failures have created a deep, widespread lack of confidence in the ability of the attorney general to effectively serve the president at a very important time," Sununu said.

Several Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, have called for Gonzales to resign or be fired.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said President Bush was "disappointed, obviously" with Sununu's stance.

One White House official told CNN that Sununu "has been a vociferous critic of the Justice Department in the past. Just look at his record. It's been that way for quite a while."

Bush said Wednesday he is "not happy" about mistakes surrounding the decision to fire the eight attorneys, but his faith in his attorney general is unwavering.

"I do have confidence in AG Al Gonzales," Bush said during a joint news conference with President Felipe Calderon in Merida, Mexico. "I talked to him this morning, and we talked about his need to go up to Capitol Hill and make it very clear to members in both political parties why the Justice Department made the decision it made."

He further said the decision to fire the eight attorneys was "entirely appropriate" and that the mistakes involved how the firings were explained to Congress. Past administrations have removed U.S. attorneys, and it's their right to do so, Bush said. (Watch Bush defend Gonzales but express displeasure Video)

"[Gonzales is] right; mistakes were made, and I'm frankly not happy about them because there is a lot of confusion over what really has been a customary practice by the president," Bush said.

U.S. attorneys are political appointees who are routinely replaced when a new president takes office, but their removal in the middle of a presidential administration is rare -- and some say unprecedented. (Watch a Republican strategist defend the firings Video)

CNN political analyst Bill Bennett, a former Cabinet member under Republican presidents, said Gonzales' job will be in danger if Bush's confidence in him falters.

"There's one rule: Do not hurt the president, do not embarrass the president. He doesn't have any more shots," Bennett said.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Gonzales and other top officials had provided misleading information to Congress about the shakeup, and he said he was willing to subpoena top White House aides -- including Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove -- to get correct answers.

"We're finding more and more e-mail traffic with the White House, more and more evidence of political manipulation of prosecutors," Sen. Pat Leahy said Wednesday. "I told the attorney general yesterday I was furious about it." (Watch Leahy insist on testimony under oath Video)

White House counsel Fred Fielding held a half-hour meeting with leaders of the House and Senate judiciary committees to discuss lawmakers' requests for testimony about the firings. (Read letter)

The White House has said Rove wasn't involved in the actual firings, and Snow said Wednesday it was unlikely Bush would allow current or former staff members to testify.

"We'll subpoena the people we want," Leahy, D-Vermont, told CNN. "If they want to defy the subpoena, then you get into a stonewall situation I suspect they don't want to have."

Gonzales admits making mistakes

Gonzales conceded Wednesday that he "absolutely" should have been more involved in the process that saw eight U.S. attorneys fired.

The attorney general added that he respected all U.S. attorneys and that the firing of the eight had nothing to do with political retribution as the dismissed prosecutors allege.

"I value their independence, their professionalism, what they do in the community, and these decisions were not based on political reasons," Gonzales said. "The decisions were not based in any way on retaliation."

Gonzales said he charged his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, with determining "where we could do better" after then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers suggested canning all 93 U.S. attorneys, an idea Gonzales says he opposed.

"I had confidence in my chief of staff to drive that process forward, to vet names throughout the department," Gonzales said.

Sampson came back with the list of names of eight U.S. attorneys, he said. The firing of the eight has sparked a furor among those who believe it was a political move rather than being related to job performance as the Justice Department claimed.

Sampson quit Monday as Gonzales' chief of staff. Asked if he would heed calls to step down, Gonzales replied, "That is a decision for the president of the United States to make. I'm focused on doing my job."

E-mail trail

Democrats are examining e-mails between White House and Justice Department officials related to the firings. (Full story)

One e-mail from Sampson to Miers dated January 1, 2006, read, "You have asked whether President Bush should remove and replace U.S. Attorneys whose four-year terms have expired. I recommend that the Department of Justice and the Office of the Counsel to the President work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. attorneys."

On September 13, 2006, Sampson e-mailed Miers lists of federal attorneys "In the Process of Being Pushed Out" and those "We Now Should Consider Pushing Out."

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux, Dana Bash, Ed Henry and Terry Frieden contributed to this report.


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