By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
President Bush said his confidence in Alberto R. Gonzales has grown as a result of the attorney general's testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the administration moved to end speculation that Gonzales would step down after a performance criticized by senators in both parties.
"The attorney general went up and gave a very candid assessment and answered every question he could possibly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office yesterday. "Some senators didn't like his explanation, but he answered as honestly as he could."
Soon after Bush spoke, Gonzales said he has no plans to resign. "I will stay as long as I feel I can be effective," the attorney general said at a news conference called to discuss identity theft. "And I believe I can be effective."
Taken together, White House advisers and consultants said, the comments suggested that the president intends to ride out the storm despite qualms among Republican lawmakers and even some of his own aides. "He's staying," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters when asked about Gonzales. Perino later added that Bush did not watch the testimony but received updates from aides.
Leading Republicans continued to express doubt yesterday that Gonzales is up to the job, in light of his contradictory explanations for the firing last year of eight U.S. attorneys. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told reporters in Harrisburg, Pa., that keeping Gonzales as attorney general would be "harmful to the Justice Department because he has lost his credibility."
But the White House appears to have concluded that Gonzales has done nothing to merit firing -- and that letting him go would only create more political problems for the administration. Bush also seems to be digging in against the proposition that his appointments can be dictated from Capitol Hill.
"U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president," Bush told reporters during a brief photo opportunity with Gen. David H. Petraeus. "In other words, we have named them, and I have the right to replace them with somebody else. And as the investigation, the hearings went forward, it was clear that the attorney general broke no law, did no wrongdoing."
If Gonzales were to leave, his departure could also wreak further havoc on the upper ranks of the Justice Department, which has been fractured by the U.S. attorneys controversy. Most of those in line to take over, including Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and acting Associate Attorney General William W. Mercer, played a role in the firings and have been the target of inquiries by Congress. Many Justice officials worry that rank-and-file lawyers and staff members would be further demoralized if a caretaker attorney general were put in charge for an extended period.
But some Justice officials also worry privately that the department will not be able to move past the firings scandal until Gonzales is gone.
Still, short of new damaging information about Gonzales, administration allies on the Hill and on K Street said, the White House was sending a strong signal yesterday that the president intends for his longtime ally from Texas to remain attorney general.
"The president does not believe Gonzales has done anything wrong -- inartful communication perhaps," said Charles R. Black Jr., a political consultant with close ties to the White House. "And therefore he deserves to keep his job -- it's as simple as that. He sees it as a matter of right and wrong, and he's not going to change his mind."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday that Bush is being too loyal to his friend. "He can show his friendship in other ways that don't hurt the country," Schumer said.
Even before Gonzales's appearance last week, Republicans were concerned about the prospect of the tortuous process of replacing him. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said on the eve of the hearing that the best-case scenario for a new nominee would be confirmation by early August, allowing time for a search for candidates, background checks and confirmation hearings. Grassley said that would leave a little more than a year for the replacement to serve as attorney general, and instant lame-duck status.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate Judiciary committees are moving ahead with their investigations of the firings, with key interviews planned with senior Justice aides this week. The House panel is also likely to approve an immunity agreement for a former top aide to Gonzales, Monica M. Goodling.
Staff writer Dan Eggen and washington
post.com staffer Paul Kane contributed to this report.