Bush Rebuffs GOP Pressure For Gonzales to Step Down

(Melina Mara/twp - Twp)
By Peter Baker and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 21, 2007

President Bush yesterday stood by his embattled friend, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, defying the broad bipartisan consensus emerging in Washington after this week's Senate hearing that Gonzales has so badly damaged his own credibility that he should resign.

Bush expressed "full confidence" in Gonzales through a spokeswoman and praised his "fantastic" service, in hopes of quashing speculation that the attorney general would be pushed out. But a wide array of Republicans described Gonzales with phrases such as "dead man walking," and even some White House aides privately voiced hope that he will step down on his own.

The continuing erosion of Republican support suggested that Gonzales lost ground during a day of often-hostile questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, rather than repairing the damage caused by the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. Nearly every committee Republican appeared skeptical of Gonzales's handling of the firings and their aftermath. Telephone calls yesterday to dozens of GOP lawmakers, lobbyists, and current and former Bush administration officials found almost no support for the attorney general.

"Congressional confidence in his ability has eroded severely," said Rep. Adam H. Putnam (Fla.), the third-ranking House Republican leader, who yesterday became the latest to call for Gonzales's resignation. "There is widespread concern among my colleagues about the leadership shown by the attorney general. . . . This has now reached the point where it's larger than any one man."

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a Judiciary Committee member, said Gonzales should "have a frank discussion with the White House," adding: "If he and the president decide that he cannot be an effective leader moving forward, then he should resign. As he said during the hearing, 'It's not about Al Gonzales.' The bottom line is that he must do what is in the best interest of the Department of Justice."

Bush traditionally has bristled at pressure to dismiss advisers under fire, particularly those close to him, such as Gonzales, a longtime confidant from Texas. When he has eased out top officials, he has usually dictated the timing so as not to appear to be caving in to critics. Giving in, he has reasoned, would only embolden his foes to seek more scalps.

But in this case, according to Republican strategists, Bush faces the choice of leaving in place a law enforcement chief who has undermined his effectiveness in his department and on Capitol Hill, or reversing gears in the coming days and weeks if the political situation continues to deteriorate.

"Everybody at the White House . . . all think he needs to go, but the president doesn't," said a Republican who consulted the Bush team yesterday. Another White House ally said Bush and Gonzales are ignoring reality: "They're the only two people on the planet Earth who don't see it." A third Republican intimately familiar with sentiment inside the White House said the hope is that Gonzales will leave on his own. "At some point, he'll figure out that it's not a sustainable situation," the Republican said.

Gonzales gave no indication that he sees it that way. After weeks of seclusion to prepare for Thursday's testimony, he tried to return to a normal routine, presiding over an afternoon awards ceremony for National Crime Victims' Rights Week.

"I am humbled when I see people who have suffered so much able to stand up and take action," Gonzales told victims' advocates. "It makes me even more determined to do whatever I can, too."

Gonzales spoke yesterday with about eight GOP lawmakers, including Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and John Cornyn (Tex.), according to a Justice official, who said the "calls went well."

"The attorney general told them that he heard them loud and clear and is committed to building a strong relationship with Congress," said the official, who would discuss internal department issues only on the condition of anonymity.

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