WASHINGTON (AP) – The collapse in confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is all but total among both Democrats and Republicans. Still, President Bush is standing by his longtime friend from Texas.
Bush is known for his loyalty, but his reluctance to act this time is baffling Washington.
Gonzales has shouldered the brunt of congressional criticism over Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program and the Justice Department’s firings of U.S. attorneys last year. He now faces calls for a perjury investigation, and Democrats are clamoring for a special prosecutor.
Rank-and-file Republicans are upset by his faltering performance before congressional panels. Conservatives object to his views on affirmative action and abortion.
Even FBI Director Robert Mueller, a Gonzales subordinate, appeared to contradict Gonzales’ sworn testimony to senators about a 2004 hospital encounter between Gonzales and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
So why is Gonzales still around?
Two personality traits long identified with Bush – stubbornness and loyalty to those loyal to him – are clearly factors. Also, Bush’s advisers are mindful of the fact that it could be next to impossible to win Senate confirmation this late in his term for any possible replacement. Also, Gonzales has long served as an enabler for Bush.
Both as White House counsel and now as attorney general, Gonzales has provided a stream of written justifications for Bush’s anti-terrorism tactics – from maintaining the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay to stern treatment of terror suspects and the administration’s domestic surveillance program.
“The only person he is responsible to is the president, and the president seems to be standing by him,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. “I don’t see much give on either side right now. They seem to be digging in their heels.”
Tobias doubts a definitive judicial ruling can resolve a looming constitutional confrontation between the administration and Congress, given the short time left in Bush’s term and the law’s usual delay.
Gonzales also serves another useful function: as a lightning rod.
“There is a body of thought among Republicans that gives Gonzales great credit for drawing fire and putting up with it so the others in the Bush Cabinet can do their jobs,” said GOP consultant Rich Galen. “Because, if Gonzales is gone, they (Democrats) will just look for a new guy to go after.”
Galen said only Bush and Gonzales know the next act in this drama.
Still, he said, “I suspect there will come a time here, maybe as early as the August (congressional) recess when everybody’s out of town, when the attorney general decides that his best course is to go.”
Bush could then make a so-called “recess appointment’ of a new attorney general. The Constitution gives him that authority. Such appointments, made when Congress is in recess, bypass the Senate confirmation process entirely.
Such an appointee could serve until the next Congress convenes – which coincides with the inauguration of a new president.
But as of now, the administration is standing fast behind Gonzales, and there is zero talk of a replacement.
Democrats who now control Congress “have deliberately had this crusade against him to try to destroy the attorney general. And we are standing by the attorney general for his statements,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Friday.
Furthermore, White House and Justice Department officials insisted that what looked like a contradiction between testimony of Gonzales and FBI Director Mueller was more of a semantical difference, a confusion of terms.
Gonzales is no longer getting much support from Republicans, some of whom have expressed embarrassment by his conduct and sometimes bewildered-appearing demeanor before congressional committees.
“I do not find your testimony credible, candidly,” Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Gonzales earlier this week. Still, Specter told reporters there is no sign that Bush’s support for the attorney general was weakening.
“I think that he and Bush are in a kind of blood pact on this to hang tough,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas who has been a longtime Bush dynasty observer. “And I think that Bush is leaning on him to stay as well as merely making him feel good by keeping him.”
Calls for Gonzales to step down have been in the air for some time. A CBS-New York Times poll earlier this year showed that 48 percent of those surveyed felt he should resign – compared to 28 percent who said he should not. The rest had no opinion.
Rather than resign, Gonzales a week ago told Justice Department employees he planned to stay and “fix the problems.”
Calling himself “a quiet man,” Gonzales said: “No one is more troubled than I am over what this department has gone through in the past six months.”
EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.