Aug. 27, 2007 — -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation Monday after months of growing criticism from Congress.
Lawmakers blasted Gonzales after his department fired at least nine U.S. attorneys last year, and they accused him of misusing terrorist surveillance programs. Most recently Democrats said that Gonzales had repeatedly lied to Congress under oath.
But Gonzales didn't address any of those charges in his statement, instead thanking his employees.
"Let me say that it's been one of my greatest privileges to lead the Department of Justice. I have great admiration and respect for the men and women who work here," Gonzales said during a brief morning news conference at the department.
Officially announcing that he will officially leave his post Sept. 17, Gonzales thanked President Bush, saying that he is "profoundly grateful" for the opportunity to serve as attorney general.
"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, referring to his humble upbringing in Texas. "Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days." Gonzales is the nation's first Hispanic attorney general.
The embattled attorney general did not take any questions from the press.
In a terse statement to the press in Texas, Monday, President Bush praised Gonzales' career and work at the department, calling the attorney general a man of "integrity, decency and principle," noting that he "reluctantly" accepted his resignation.
Though Republicans and Democrats have criticized the attorney general for a variety of missteps, Bush expressed regret over what he called "months of unfair treatment" of Gonzales, saying, "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."
Throughout Gonzales' sometimes rocky tenure, Bush had defended him, accusing his detractors of playing politics. ABC News has confirmed that the attorney general called the president on Friday to offer his resignation. Gonzales and his wife attended lunch at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Sunday, at which time the attorney general submitted his letter of resignation.
There is wide speculation surrounding Gonzales' potential replacement. Justice Department Solicitor General Paul Clement has been chosen to fill the role temporarily, until the Senate confirms a new attorney general. Clement is the highest-ranking official at the department who is not involved in the fired U.S. attorneys controversy.
There are also some initial reports that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff could be named as a successor to Gonzales. Another potential successor could be former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who is currently general counsel for PepsiCo. Thompson would be the first black attorney general.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., issued a statement Monday, saying that under the leadership of Gonzales, the Justice Department has "suffered a severe crisis of leadership that allowed our justice system to be corrupted by political influence."
"It is a shame, and it is the Justice Department, the American people and the dedicated professionals of our law enforcement community who have suffered most from it," Leahy's statement continued.
The chairman also said that the department has become a "political arm of the White House."
Leahy's counterpart in the House of Representatives, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., also chimed in, saying that Congress is still awaiting answers from the Justice Department and the White House regarding the federal prosecutor firings.
"More than accountability, we need answers," Conyers' statement said. "Unfortunately, the continued stonewalling of the White House in the U.S. Attorney scandal has deprived the American people of the truth. If the power of the prosecutor has been misused in the name of partisanship, we deserve a full airing of the facts."
On the other end of the political spectrum, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, praised Gonzales' successes at the department, saying in a statement, "I hope that history will remember Attorney General Gonzales for his honorable service to his country, rather than for the absurd political theater to which some critics have subjected him."
Tension between Gonzales and Congress ratcheted up this spring after details began emerging about last year's federal prosecutor firings. Gonzales' chief of staff and the department's White House liaison, who later admitted to having little prosecutorial experience themselves, were heavily involved in constructing the list of prosecutors to dismiss.
Members of Congress questioned the motives behind the firings, alleging that they were politically motivated. Both of the officials later stepped down.
The attorney firings, which seemed to kick off a campaign seeking the attorney general's resignation, took a back seat to criticism over the Terrorist Surveillance Program and challenges to his sworn statements before Congress.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee July 24, the attorney general dismissed then-Acting Attorney General James Comey's statement that a March 10, 2004, White House briefing with congressional leaders specifically addressed the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which allowed the government to use wiretaps without court authorization. A still-classified program, possibly related to TSP, was set to expire the next day.
Shortly after that briefing Gonzales, serving at the time as White House counsel, went to the hospital with then-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, apparently to ask then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to reauthorize the program, despite having ceded his powers to Comey while he recovered from surgery in the hospital's intensive care unit.
In May of this year, Comey recounted the run-in during dramatic testimony to Congress, saying he raced to the hospital to head off Gonzales and Card.
"I was angry," Comey said. "I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general."
In a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee July 26, FBI director Robert Mueller backed Comey's account.
In his first public comments about the now-infamous visit, Mueller confirmed to the panel that he and Comey scrambled to post agents outside Ashcroft's hospital room.
Mueller, in his usual crisp, blunt style, said, "I don't dispute what Mr. Comey said."
But Gonzales downplayed interpretations of the visit to Ashcroft.
Describing why he and Card urgently needed to talk to Ashcroft, Gonzales testified July 24 that the attorney general could have reclaimed his powers. "And he could always reclaim that. There are no rules" against it, he said.
Gonzales indicated that Ashcroft had previously authorized the program, saying, "From the inception, we believed that we had the approval of the attorney general of the United States for these activities."
He also noted that the White House briefing involved "other intelligence activities."
Two senators on the Senate Judiciary panel, Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., both also members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, jumped on that assertion, which has been contradicted by two participants in the March 10, 2004, briefing — Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., and Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.
A letter from then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. also confirms that the March 10 meeting addressed the TSP.
On July 26, four Senate Democrats, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., joined by Feingold and Whitehouse, called for the Justice Department to assign a special prosecutor to investigate the apparent discrepancies.
"I believe it's perjury," Feingold said of Gonzales' July 24 testimony. "Not just misleading — perjury."
The Senate Judiciary Committee's senior Republican, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, has publicly called for the attorney general's resignation. He also alluded to the possibility that the panel would examine whether Gonzales had lied to Congress, telling Gonzales at the July 24 hearing, "My suggestion to you is that you review your testimony very carefully."
"The chairman's already said that the committee's going to review your testimony very carefully to see if your credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable," Specter continued.
But Specter did not join in on his colleagues' latest move, the call for a special prosecutor.
"Do I support Sen. Schumer's request for a special prosecutor? No," Specter said. "I think Sen. Schumer has made a practice of politicizing this matter."
Specter has been very critical of Gonzales, but he called Schumer's request "precipitous" and says it's "highly significant" that Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is not a signatory on Schumer's letter.
"We have a little bit of Don Quixote here. Everybody is riding off in different directions trying to get on a front page," Specter said.
Specter's comments echoed the White House's stance.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow defended Gonzales' statements in a July 27 press briefing, saying, "I understand it's difficult to parse because what you have involved here are matters of classification — attempts to discuss those in an open congressional setting."
"Sometimes it's going to lead people to talk very carefully and there's going to be plenty room for interpretation or conclusion," he continued.
Snow also added that Mueller's statements to the House Judiciary Committee did not stand at odds with Gonzales' words.
After the group of senators called for a perjury investigation, Democrats in the House of Representatives applied their own pressure to the attorney general.
On July 31, a group of seven Democrats, lead by Washington Rep. Jay Inslee, called for the House Judiciary Committee to consider an impeachment resolution. The move, viewed by many on Capitol Hill as a largely symbolic measure, which faced several hurdles.
First, the House Judiciary Committee would have needed to advance the process to the full House for a vote. If a majority of the House would have approved it, the next step would be a Senate trial. At the completion of that trial, the Senate would have had to approve the impeachment by a two-thirds majority.
Gonzales replaced Ashcroft as attorney general Feb. 3, 2005, after a 60-36 Senate confirmation vote.
Democrats had raised concerns about his standing on terror policy, based on a memo he wrote while working as White House counsel.
"As White House counsel, Judge Gonzales was at the center of discussions on the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the legality of detention and interrogation methods that have been seen as tantamount to torture," said Leahy, at the January 2005 confirmation hearing.
"He oversaw the formulation of this administration's extreme views of unfettered executive power and unprecedented government secrecy. I hope that things will be different if you are confirmed, Judge Gonzales," Leahy continued.
Throughout Gonzales' tenure, the White House stood behind its top law official, who has had a long history serving the president.
Gonzales joined then-Governor George Bush's staff in 1994 as general counsel. He became Texas secretary of state in 1997, a position he held until Bush appointed him to the state's Supreme Court in 1999. Gonzales left Texas' high court to take a position as White House counsel at the beginning of Bush's first presidential term in January 2001.