WASHINGTON – President Bush reaffirmed his support for embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Saturday amid growing pressure for Gonzales’ resignation.

The attorney general faces a difficult week after internal Justice Department e-mails released late Friday indicated that he was more involved than he has acknowledged in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

Gonzales has insisted that he was essentially in the dark about the dismissals, but the e-mails showed that he participated in an hourlong meeting about the firings 10 days before they were carried out. The disclosure increased pressure for Gonzales’ resignation.

Congressional investigators will get a chance to learn more about Gonzales’ role in the dismissals on Thursday, when Kyle Sampson, the attorney general’s former chief of staff, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Panel members want to know whether any of the prosecutors were fired because they failed to go after Democrats or were considered too tough on Republicans.

While Senate Democrats prepared their attack lines for the Sunday morning TV talk shows, Bush defended the firings and the attorney general in his Saturday radio address. Congressional investigators continued to examine e-mails and other documents that were delivered to Congress by the Justice Department Friday night.

Bush said the prosecutors were pushed out because “the Justice Department determined that new leadership in several of these positions would better serve the country.”

“I strongly support the attorney general in this decision. I also appreciate the hard work and service of the U.S. attorneys who resigned,” he added. “And I regret that their resignations have turned into a public spectacle.”

All of the ousted prosecutors were Bush appointees.

Bush taped the radio address on Friday, before the latest document release, but a White House spokeswoman said the internal e-mails did not shake the president’s support. Bush and Gonzales have a mutual loyalty that goes back more than a decade, when Bush was governor of Texas and Gonzales was his lawyer.

“The president continues to have confidence in the AG,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Saturday. She said the latest e-mails were “not inconsistent” with Gonzales assertion that he left the details of the firings to Sampson and other Justice Department officials.

At a March 13 press conference, Gonzales said he was head of a giant bureaucracy and wasn’t aware of all that went on inside it. Regarding the dismissal of the eight prosecutors, Gonzales said: “I was not involved in seeing any memos, and I was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.”

One e-mail released Friday night showed that Gonzales in fact met with senior aides for an hour on Nov. 27 to discuss the firings.

White House officials began discussing possible replacements for the attorney general last week, but put that effort on hold when Bush declared his support for Gonzales. Lawmakers in both parties say Gonzales’ credibility has been badly damaged by his handling of the controversial firings.

A handful of congressional Republicans have joined the call for Gonzales’ ouster. Others have pointedly refused to come to his defense, but Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Saturday that he thinks Gonzales should keep his job.

“He has always been straightforward and honest with me. So, unless there is clear evidence that the attorney general deliberately lied or misled Congress, I see no reason to call for his resignation,” said Hatch, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers in both parties agreed that Gonzales’ resignation would not resolve the core dispute over whether federal prosecutors were subjected to improper political pressure.

While newly elected presidents typically fire holdover U.S. attorneys from the previous administration, their own appointed prosecutors are usually allowed to keep their jobs as long as the president remains in office. The tradition of job security is designed to insulate prosecutors from political pressure.

Most of the eight ousted U.S. attorneys were ready to resign quietly until administration officials sought to justify the firings by questioning their job performance. At least four of the eight have suggested that politics played a role in the dismissals.

Three former prosecutors, H.E. “Bud” Cummins of Arkansas, John McKay of western Washington and David Iglesias of New Mexico will get a chance to air their grievances on the Sunday talk shows.

(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-03-24-07 1555EDT

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