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Embattled Gonzales Resigns
Administration officials said yesterday that Gonzales's decision to leave was his own, and that he was not encouraged to do so by the White House. But Dan Bartlett, a longtime Bush advise who left the White House earlier this year, said there was always an understanding within the administration that "we would get to August" and then make a decision about Gonzales. "Everybody came to the conclusion that it was not possible to sustain a positive, proactive agenda at the Department of Justice with all the distractions," he said.
The attorney general broke the news to the president by telephone Friday afternoon, telling Bush that it would "be in the best interests of the department that he resign," said deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel. A senior administration official said: "I think the attorney general's assessment was that all of the investigations were a distraction that was harmful to the department."
The president did not try to talk Gonzales out of stepping down and invited Gonzales and his wife for lunch Sunday at his Texas ranch, where Gonzales formalized his resignation in a one-page letter. "After much thought and consideration, I believe this is the right time for my family and I to begin a new chapter in our lives," Gonzales wrote, adding at the end: "I remain by your side."
Although lawmakers from both parties lauded his decision, key Democrats disagreed over whether they should continue their investigations of his decisions. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said the inquiries should go forward in any event, while Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), one of Gonzales's most outspoken critics, signaled that the probes could end if a suitable successor is named.
"My own view is that the replacement of the attorney general with an objective, credentialed, strong individual is a very good solution" to the political battles, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a key swing vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Administration officials said that no one is "waiting in the wings" to replace Gonzales. They said the White House will weigh potential candidates in the coming days and that Bush could make a selection before he leaves for a six-day visit to Australia on Monday.
Potential candidates mentioned by officials on Capitol Hill or within the administration yesterday include former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson; homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend; Asa Hutchinson, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration; and Larry D. Thompson, who served as deputy attorney general during Bush's first term. Officials largely dismissed speculation about Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff as a possible replacement, noting that such a move could lead to two contentious confirmation hearings -- one for him and one for his replacement.
In January 2005, when Gonzales was confirmed by a GOP-led Senate, he garnered only six votes of support from Democrats. "We want to get the right person," one administration official said.
Gonzales's last day will be Sept. 17. His acting replacement, Clement, is a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who acts as the government's top lawyer at the high court. Since spring, Clement has also been serving as the Justice Department's point person for congressional and Justice investigations of the U.S. attorney firings, because Gonzales recused himself.
Gonzales's departure is part of a wave: Presidential political adviser Karl Rove, also in the sights of congressional investigators for his alleged role in politicizing ordinary governmental functions, will leave the White House on Friday. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, presidential counselor Dan Bartlett, deputy national security advisers J.D. Crouch and Meghan O'Sullivan, and budget director Rob Portman have departed.
The Justice Department has also been hit by an unusually large number of resignations in recent months, including its deputy attorney general, associate attorney general and legislative affairs chief.
Gonzales's troubles began when he characterized the unusual firings of a group of U.S. attorneys last December as routine, performance-based dismissals. Subsequent testimony and documents showed that the firings were part of an effort with the White House to identify and remove prosecutors partly based on their supposed disloyalty to the Bush administration or the GOP.