WASHINGTON – Alberto Gonzales, the nation’s first Hispanic attorney general, announced his resignation Monday, driven from office after a wrenching standoff with congressional critics over his honesty and competence.
Republicans and Democrats alike had demanded his departure 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 for months until accepting his resignation last Friday.
“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,” Bush said from Texas, where he is vacationing.
Solicitor General Paul Clement will be acting attorney general until a replacement is found and confirmed by the Senate, Bush said.
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.
“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 said the attorney general’s “good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.” Though some Republicans echoed the president’s veiled slap at Democrats, Gonzales had few defenders left in Washington.
Many Republicans actually welcomed his departure, some quietly and others publicly so.
Congressional aides and lawmakers agreed that any nomination of a new attorney general was almost certain to be acrimonious.
The easiest prospects, some said, might be a current or former colleague of senators charged with the confirmation. Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told reporters Monday that he would not accept the job, if offered.
But, he said, another current or former senator “might be just the ticket.”
“If you have a former senator or a present senator or somebody who is well known to the Senate or the committee…that’s always a big help if you know the person,” Specter told reporters in a telephone call as he traveled from Warsaw to Paris.
Asked, too, about whether Chertoff might be a good candidate, Specter replied:
“I think he’s a first-rate prospect.”
Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards applauded Gonzales’ resignation, saying it was “better late than never.”
The announcement came as a surprise to many in the administration.
Gonzales was tight-lipped about his thinking before going on vacation more than a week ago and aides were planning events for the next several months.
After spending time with his family in Texas, however, and facing the prospect of returning to Washington for months of continued fights with Congress, he called the president on Friday.
The White House has asked anyone staying past Labor Day to stay the remainder of the president’s term.
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.