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White House insiders: Gonzales hurt himself before panel

Story Highlights

• White House aides say Gonzales hurt himself during testimony
Specter says Gonzales' "credibility has been impaired"
• Republican Sen. Coburn urges Gonzales to resign
• Gonzales: Alleging partisanship is an attack on career Justice Dept. employees
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- White House insiders tell CNN that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales hurt himself during testimony before a Senate committee Thursday on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

The sources, involved in administration discussions about Gonzales, told White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux that two senior level White House aides who heard the testimony described Gonzales as "going down in flames," "not doing himself any favors," and "predictable."

"Everyone's putting their best public face on," one source said, "but everyone is discouraged. Everyone is disappointed." (Watch a recap of the testy hearing Video)

But these sources acknowledge that no one knows what the president will do. No one is looking for a replacement yet, sources said, and the White House is waiting to see how this plays out with the public and members of Congress over the next couple of days.

Another White House insider said it's up to the President to save him. (Strategy Session: Should Gonzales go? Video)

"He and Al have to work this out ..." he said. "There is no indication that Gonzales thinks he needs to leave."

During his testimony, Gonzales apologized for the manner in which the attorneys were fired, but added that, "nothing improper occurred."

The fired prosecutors "deserve better from me and the Department of Justice which they served for many years." (Watch Gonzales' opening statement Video)

In response to questioning by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin, Gonzales said he thinks he can continue to be an effective leader of the Justice Department.

"The moment I believe I can no longer be effective, I will resign as attorney general," he said. (Watch Sen. Kohl ask Gonzales if he should resign Video)

Asked what he would have done differently, Gonzales said he would have prevented his then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, from allowing the dismissal process to take two years, and he would have arranged a face-to-face meeting with each lawyer, with time allotted for them to respond to concerns.

Publicly, White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said Gonzales has the full backing of the president:

"President Bush was pleased with the Attorney General's testimony today. After hours of testimony in which he answered all of the senators' questions and provided thousands of pages of documents, he again showed that nothing improper occurred. He admitted the matter could have been handled much better, and he apologized for the disruption to the lives of the U.S. attorneys involved, as well as for the lack of clarity in his initial responses," Perino said.

The Justice Department said in a statement Gonzales "has taken steps to leave the Department in a stronger and better place from the lessons learned from this matter."

But sources involved in discussions with White House officials say,"People are a bit shocked. He didn't win over Democrats and he may have lost a few Republicans. No one privately is saying it's a homerun. No one is saying he did what he needed to do. There's faint praise like he didn't get killed. We understand he's on shaky ground."

GOP senators also critical of Gonzales

Leading Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee also were critical of Gonzales, including one who called for his resignation.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, said Gonzales should resign.

"The communication was atrocious. It was inconsistent -- it's generous to say that there was misstatements; it's a generous statement. And I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered," Coburn said, adding, "I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation." (Watch Coburn tell Gonzales he must "suffer the consequences" Video)

Coburn is the first Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee to call for Gonzales' resignation.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, told reporters that Gonzales' "credibility has been impaired" and that the case has put career attorneys in a precarious position. (Watch Specter and Gonzales spar over preparation Video)

Specter said he would not recommend Gonzales resign because that decision was for the president and the attorney general.

Criticism of Gonzales also came from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is usually viewed as a supporter of the Bush administration.

"I believe you are a good and decent man," Cornyn told Gonzales. "But I have to tell you that the way this process has been handled is really deplorable."

One White House insider points to the comments by Republican senators as a troubling sign for Gonzales. The problem with the testimony, according the insider, was that "every senator except for Orrin Hatch was not helpful, even senator John Cornyn was frustrated. That's not good."

"His [Gonzales'] tactic was inexplicable. He keeps saying I know why I made the decision, but I don't know anything else," one source said.

Thursday's session was delayed for two days because of this week's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.

CNN's Ted Barrett, Kevin Bohn and Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.


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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales apologized to eight fired U.S. attorneys before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

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