After more than two years of bitter calls for his resignation over the handling of everything from domestic wiretapping to the firing of U.S. attorneys, embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced Monday (August 27) that he will step down.
Though President Bush was loyal to his longtime friend and confidant until the end, and Gonzales long refused calls for his resignation, the move came as Bush continues to search for new blood to invigorate an administration that is all but stalled out with 17 months left to go. The resignation came just two weeks after another longtime Bush loyalist, chief strategist Karl Rove, announced that he was stepping down from his post.
“I entered public service to make a positive difference in the lives of others,” Gonzales said in a very brief public appearance Monday morning. “And during this time, I have traveled a remarkable journey from my home state of Texas to Washington, D.C. … Yesterday I met with President Bush and informed him of my decision to conclude my government service as attorney general of the United States, effective as of September 17.”
According to reports, Gonzales called Bush on Friday to announce his resignation, after which the president invited Gonzales and his wife to his Texas ranch to discuss the move. Despite word that the resignation was imminent, both Gonzales’ spokesperson and White House spokespeople denied the news over the weekend. A replacement has not yet been named, but one is expected soon. CNN has reported that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s name is at the top of the list.
Gonzales, 51, began working for Bush when he was the governor of Texas in the 1990s and then took a position as a White House lawyer during Bush’s first presidential term. He was sworn in as the first Hispanic attorney general — the top law-enforcement official in the country — in February 2005. The son of migrant workers, Gonzales attended the Air Force Academy and studied law at Harvard University. After getting the second-highest number of “no” votes ever for an attorney general nominee, he became the highest-ranking Hispanic official in White House history.
Gonzales’ tenure has been marked from the beginning by a series of scandals, from a memo he wrote in 2002 that said that only the most severe types of torture were not permissible under U.S. and international agreements (a document that was later rewritten) to a statement that same year in which he opined that some of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions for the treatment of prisoners of war were “quaint” and portions of the document “obsolete.”
Most recently he’s been embroiled in a flap over what some have termed a politically motivated firing of eight federal prosecutors in December 2006 (see “What Is Executive Privilege And Why Is Bush Threatening To Use It?” ). Earlier this year, Gonzales asserted more than 70 times that he either didn’t recall or couldn’t say for sure what precipitated the ouster of the prosecutors, statements some members of Congress have suggested were tantamount to perjury.
The suggestions were heightened by testimony and e-mails from Gonzales’ former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, which made it appear as if Gonzales had made contradictory remarks during his testimony, which Gonzales later explained by saying, “incomplete information was communicated or may have been communicated to Congress.” Despite Gonzales’ claims that he was never involved in discussions about the removal of lawyers who were not loyal to the Bush administration, e-mails provided evidence that he was notified about the firings and had given final approval for them.
Gonzales also faced harsh criticism for his handling of the government’s domestic eavesdropping program, most recently after the disclosure of a secret meeting he held in March 2004 with an extremely ill Attorney General John Ashcroft. According to the testimony of former Deputy Attorney General James Comey (the acting attorney general during Ashcroft’s hospitalization), Gonzales and then Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card attempted to circumvent his authority and instead have the ill, disoriented Ashcroft reauthorize the secret wiretapping program. Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee a different story, which some senators on the panel called misleading and untruthful.
Later, memos and comments from former administration officials also seemed to contradict Gonzales’ account of events. Last month, a group of senators proposed that an independent counsel be appointed to investigate whether Gonzales had perjured himself in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 25 about the administration’s internal disputes over the reauthorization of the domestic wiretapping program (see “Judge Declares Government’s Wiretapping Program Illegal; Justice Department Appealing” ).
President Bush commented on the announcement late Monday morning, lauding the accomplishments of the man he called his “close friend” and taking a sharp stab at Gonzales’ detractors in the process. “Al Gonzales is a man of integrity, decency and principle and I have reluctantly accepted his resignation with great appreciation for the service that he has provided for our country,” Bush said from the tarmac of a Texas airfield on his way to a Republican fundraiser in New Mexico.
“As attorney general and before that as White House Counsel, Al Gonzales has played a critical role in shaping our policies in the war on terror and has worked tirelessly to make this country safer. … After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position and I accept his decision. It’s sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Al Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.” Bush announced that Solicitor General Paul Clement will serve as acting AG until a nominee is chosen.
Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer, who sits on the committee that has long been calling for Gonzales’ resignation, told The New York Times that the announcement was welcome news. “It has been a long and difficult struggle, but at last the attorney general has done the right thing and stepped down,” he said. “For the previous six months, the Justice Department has been virtually nonfunctional and desperately needs new leadership.”
Gonzales concluded his statements by thanking the staff at the Justice Department. “It is through their continued work that our country and our communities remain safe,” he said. “That the rights and civil liberties of our citizens are protected, and the hopes and dreams of all of our children are secured. I often remind our fellow citizens that we live in the greatest country in the world and that I have lived the American dream. Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father’s best days.”