By Dan Eggen and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, one of President Bush's closest confidants and a key architect of his controversial counterterrorism policies, announced yesterday that he is quitting after seven months of bitter confrontation with Congress over his honesty and his competence to run the Justice Department.
His resignation, submitted Sunday to President Bush and disclosed yesterday, removes one of the nation's most controversial attorneys general since the Watergate era. He will leave behind a Justice Department battered by allegations that partisan politics has infected its law enforcement mission.
Gonzales had long been a lightning rod for critics of the administration's harsh interrogation policies, its secret overseas prisons and its expanded domestic surveillance -- all supported by legal analyses conducted under his supervision or with his concurrence. But his political undoing stemmed from his tangled account of having approved the dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 while denying detailed knowledge of the circumstances or reasons.
The events that led to his resignation began with a Democratic-led inquiry into those firings, and they included accusations that Gonzales had lied to lawmakers. Most of his senior aides have already departed, and Congress is now locked in conflict with the White House over its access to documents related to Gonzales's decision-making.
Gonzales will be replaced temporarily by Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, and Bush could name a permanent nominee for the job by the end of this week, White House officials said. Lawmakers began floating names of possible replacements yesterday, but administration officials insisted that no candidate has been tagged.
With unwavering support from Bush, his longtime mentor, Gonzales long defied demands from lawmakers of both parties that he step aside. But within the past week, Justice aides and other officials said, Gonzales concluded that his credibility with Congress, his employees and the public was so shattered that he could not promise to remain through the end of Bush's term, as the White House chief of staff had demanded of Cabinet officers.
Gonzales, a son of migrant workers and the nation's first Hispanic attorney general, gave no reason for his departure during a brief news appearance in Washington, emphasizing his "remarkable journey" from a poor childhood in Texas to the height of power in Washington.
"I often remind our fellow citizens that we live in the greatest country in the world and that I have lived the American dream," Gonzales said, his voice cracking slightly. "Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days."
Bush told reporters yesterday that he accepted Gonzales's resignation reluctantly, casting his friend as the victim of "months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department." He added: "It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."
The FBI director and others undercut Gonzales's standing in recent months by providing accounts of events surrounding the government's warrantless surveillance program and the prosecutor firings that were at odds with Gonzales's account. Justice investigators have said they are examining whether Gonzales purposely misled Congress or attempted to improperly influence a witness in his employ.
Gonzales also repeatedly angered lawmakers by saying that he could not recall key episodes and details related to the U.S. attorneys' dismissals, testifying nearly 70 times at one hearing alone that he could not remember specific events. Some Democrats called for a special prosecutor to conduct a perjury probe, while a handful of Republicans said the department would be improved by his departure.
White House officials said that Gonzales and his wife, Rebecca, had discussed the possibility of his leaving the post for months. One Justice official said the decision was hastened by White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten's directive that senior administration officials should leave by September if they did not plan to stay until the president's term ends, in January 2009.
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.
It was a decision that might have attracted less attention if Congress was still held by a Republican majority, but the newly empowered Democrats quickly seized on it as a lever to pry loose information about the influence of politics in the department. The White House responded by refusing to turn over documents or to allow Rove and other officials to testify about the firings.
Lawmakers also questioned Gonzales's truthfulness in testifying that a National Security Agency surveillance program had not provoked any serious dissent among Justice lawyers. Testimony and documents showed that half a dozen senior Justice and FBI officials were prepared to resign in early 2004 because they had concluded that the program was illegal and required changes.
Gonzales's public image also took a hit when a former deputy attorney general and the FBI director both said that he had tried to pressure then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft into certifying that the program was legal, while Ashcroft was ill and in the hospital recovering from surgery. Gonzales eventually clarified his remarks on the NSA program and said he did not intend to mislead Congress.
Republicans expressed hope yesterday that Gonzales's resignation would deflate some of the partisan tension on Capitol Hill. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who for months has called on Gonzales to step down, said that the impending departure is "a major, helpful turn of events." Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) was one of only a few in Congress to publicly defend Gonzales, saying that his only mistake "was underestimating the ferocity of relentless partisan attacks."
But some Senate Republican aides complained yesterday about the administration's handling of the Gonzales issue, saying that his refusal to quit stretched out the controversy and maximized the political damage. And Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), a Judiciary Committee member, said that damage done by Gonzales may be irreparable and that the Justice Department may remain in a "demoralized" state under Bush.
"I have to modify what the president said, that he didn't do anything wrong," Grassley said, referring to Bush's defense of Gonzales. "He may have been drawn through the mud. But on the other hand, he did handle a pretty easy situation pretty stupidly."
Staff writers Jonathan Weisman in Washington and Michael Abramowitz, traveling with the president, and washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane in Washington contributed to this report.