Despite Furor, Gonzales Likely to Stick Around
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales goes before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday to testify again about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys last year at the center of an ongoing scandal on Capitol Hill. As the investigation into those firings expands, many observers are questioning why the embattled attorney general hasn't resigned from his post.
According to his written testimony, Gonzales will once more apologize for the way the firings were handled. But he will also insist again that nothing improper occurred.
During the attorney general's last congressional appearance, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, even Republican members of the panel gave Gonzales a hard time. The top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said Gonzales has permanently damaged his credibility. Another, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, called on him to quit. One of the few people who publicly praised the attorney general's performance was his boss, President Bush.
"The attorney general went up and gave a very candid assessment and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job," the president said.
It was hard to find any prominent member of either party who agreed with that assessment. Some analysts said Gonzales' poor performance has cost the entire Justice Department credibility before judges and juries.
According to Harvard Law School professor David Barron, it's highly unusual to see such widespread loss of confidence in such a high-ranking public official last for so long, without either the official or his boss signaling that an exit is in the works.
"The only conclusion I can reach from that, particularly given the closeness of the two individuals involved, is that the president has reasons for wanting him to stay in office," Barron says.
Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers, who has worked in the White House of earlier Republican administrations, says one can infer what those reasons are by looking at what will happen if Gonzales does resign.
"We'd have to have a Senate confirmation fight. And it would have to address everything from Guantanamo to eavesdropping to U.S. attorneys and how they'll be treated in the future, and on and on it goes."
Rogers says getting rid of Gonzales won't make the scandal go away.
"From Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich to Donald Rumsfeld and how it was handled, I can't think of a time where making somebody walk the plank, having that sacrificial lamb, has really and truly brought any peace," Rogers says.
In fact, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has said he will finish the investigation into the U.S. attorneys scandal before any new attorney general is confirmed.
Harvard Law professor Phillip Heymann was Deputy Attorney General during the Clinton administration. He says as much power as congressional Democrats appear to have now, they'll have even more if the attorney general leaves.
"I think the choice is between the bad and the worse," Heymann says. "And the worse is a confirmation before a Democratic-controlled, suspicious Judiciary Committee who will demand that the person be the opposite of a Bush loyalist."
That means Gonzales stays for now.
Lanny Davis, who was special counsel to President Clinton, says keeping Gonzales on the job is the president's prerogative.
"It's up to the president to decide whether he wants an attorney general who is effective with Congress. It's not up to Congress to decide," Davis says.
Davis says he used the same argument when Republicans called on Attorney General Janet Reno to resign in the 90s.
"The problem with us Democrats, now that we're in the majority, is we're forgetting the same arguments we used against Republican abuses in the '90s," he says. "We're forgetting about those arguments now that the shoe is on the other foot."
Then again, Republican lobbyist Rogers says Democrats might have reasons for wanting Gonzales to stay, too — despite their rhetoric to the contrary.
"He's a talking point," Rogers says. "And he's part of the litany of complaints and illustrations they have against the malfeasance they see within the Bush administration. So he's a good bad guy for them right now."
There's an elegant symmetry to the shape of this scandal, says law professor Barron.
"The irony here is that this scandal began because of the administration's fear of having to confront the specter of a confirmation. That's why they used the unusual Patriot Act procedures for replacing some of these U.S. attorneys," Barron says.
Now the attorney general may be holding onto his job in part because, once again, the White House wants to avoid a brutal confirmation hearing.
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