Bipartisian detractors demanded resignation over the botched handling of FBI terror investigations
By Matt Apuzzo
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Alberto Gonzales, the nation's first Hispanic attorney general, announced his resignation Monday, ending a wrenching standoff with congressional critics over his honesty and competence at the helm of the Justice Department.
Republicans and Democrats alike had demanded his resignation over the botched handling of FBI terror investigations and the firings of U.S. attorneys, but President Bush had defiantly stood by his Texas friend until accepting his resignation last Friday.
"It has been one of my greatest privileges to lead the Department of Justice," Gonzales said, announcing his resignation effective Sept. 17 in a terse statement. He took no questions and gave no reason for stepping down.
Bush planned to discuss Gonzales' departure later Monday.
Solicitor General Paul Clement will be acting attorney general until a replacement is found, said administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting the announcement.
Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff was among those mentioned as possible successors, though a senior administration official said the matter had not been raised with Chertoff. Bush leaves Washington next Monday for Australia, and Gonzales' replacement might not be named by then, the official said.
"Better late than never," said Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, summing up the response of many to the resignation.
Republicans welcomed the departure of the embattled attorney general, some quietly and others publicly so.
"The attorney general's decision to step down is a positive step forward for the Department of Justice," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
"Attorney General Gonzales' ability to lead the Department of Justice had been undermined by his serious errors in judgment and conflicting statements," she said in a statement.
Gonzales, formerly Bush's White House counsel, served more than two years at the Justice Department In announcing his decision, Gonzales reflected on his up-from-the-bootstraps life story; he's the son of migrant farm workers from Mexico who didn't finish elementary school.
"Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days," Gonzales said.
Bush steadfastly — and at times angrily — refused to give in to critics, even from his own GOP, who argued that Gonzales should go.
Earlier this month at a news conference, the president grew irritated when asked about accountability in his administration and turned the tables on the Democratic Congress.
"Implicit in your questions is that Al Gonzales did something wrong. I haven't seen Congress say he's done anything wrong," Bush said testily. Actually, many in Congress had accused Gonzales of wrongdoing.
Gonzales, 52, called Bush on Friday to inform him of his resignation, according to a senior administration official. The president had Gonzales come to lunch at his ranch on Sunday as a parting gesture.
Gonzales, whom Bush once considered for appointment to the Supreme Court, is the fourth top-ranking administration official to leave since November 2006.
Donald H. Rumsfeld, an architect of the Iraq war, resigned as defense secretary one day after the November elections.
Paul Wolfowitz agreed in May to step down as president of the World Bank after an ethics inquiry.
Bush's top political and policy adviser, Karl Rove, announced earlier this month that he was stepping down.
Reacting to Gonzales' resignation,Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that the Justice Department had "suffered a severe crisis of leadership that allowed our justice system to be corrupted by political influence."
As attorney general and earlier as White House counsel, Gonzales pushed for expanded presidential powers, including the eavesdropping authority. He drafted controversial rules for military war tribunals and sought to limit the legal rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay — prompting lawsuits by civil libertarians who said the government was violating the Constitution in its pursuit of terrorists.
"Alberto Gonzales was never the right man for this job. He lacked independence, he lacked judgment, and he lacked the spine to say no to Karl Rove," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
In a warning to the White House, Reid suggested that investigations into the Justice Department will not end until Congress gets "to the bottom of this mess."
One matter still under investigation is the 2006 dismissal of several federal prosecutors, who serve at the president's pleasure. Lawmakers said the action appeared to be politically motivated, and some of the fired U.S. attorneys said they felt pressured to investigate Democrats before elections.
Gonzales maintained that the dismissals were based the prosecutors' lackluster performance records.
In April, Gonzales answered "I don't know" and "I can't recall" scores of times while questioned by Congress about the firings. Even some Republicans said his testimony was evasive.
Not Bush. The president praised Gonzales' performance and said the attorney general was "honest" and "honorable."
In 2004, Gonzales pressed to reauthorize a secret domestic spying program over the Justice Department's protests. Gonzales was White House counsel at the time and during a dramatic hospital confrontation he and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card sought approval from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was in intensive care recovering from surgery. Ashcroft refused.
Similarly, Gonzales found himself on the defensive in early March for the FBI's improper and, in some cases, illegal prying into Americans' personal information during terror and spy probes.
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AP White House Correspondent Terence Hunt and Associated Press reporters Jennifer Loven and Lara Jakes Jordan contributed to this story..