President Bush on Monday said that the congressional testimony of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales last week, roundly panned by members of both parties, "in a way increased my confidence in his ability to do the job."
Speaking during a short question-and-answer session in the Oval Office, Bush said of Gonzales' performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee: "The attorney general went up and gave a very candid assessment, and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer."
Bush has repeatedly asserted his confidence in Gonzales, a longtime adviser, as criticism has mounted over the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys.
But his statement on Monday was his first about Gonzales since the attorney general appeared before the committee, and it was at considerable odds with an overwhelmingly critical assessment of his testimony by members of both parties. It indicated that Bush, at least for now, has concluded his attorney general can weather the challenge to his leadership at the Justice Department, barring any new evidence of wrongdoing.
That challenge had seemed all the more daunting as of Sunday, when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the committee whom both sides view as a barometer of support for Gonzales, appeared on "Fox News Sunday" and said, "The attorney general's testimony was very, very damaging to his own credibility," and that his continued tenure was "bad for the Department of Justice."
But, asked to comment on Bush's assessment of Gonzales' testimony on Monday, Specter said in a telephone interview, "I'm not going to get involved in evaluating the president's decision to retain the attorney general."
Specter added, "I will continue to work with the attorney general as long as he has that position."
Several other Republican senators who have been critical of Gonzales, including Jeff Sessions of Alabama, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
With many lawmakers working in their home districts, it was unclear whether their unresponsiveness was a result of busy local schedules or a concerted effort to avoid a running, tit-for-tat debate with the White House over Gonzales' future.
One senior Republican congressional aide at work in the Capitol on Monday, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, called Bush's statement that his confidence in Gonzales grew after his testimony "curious." Another senior Republican aide said: "Was he watching the same hearing as everyone else?"
White House officials on Monday were confronted with questions about whether Bush's statements of confidence would ultimately be followed by a resignation, with reporters recalling that Bush had pledged support for former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld shortly before his ouster. "He's staying," the White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said during one such exchange Monday morning.
Later, asked if Bush had seen all the testimony, Perino said he had been traveling but had received updates from aides and had seen some of it on television news reports.