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Gonzales gets rare rebuke from Bush

The president's criticism of a trusted ally adds to debate over whether the attorney general should resign.

March 15, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush publicly scolded Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales on Wednesday, saying he was "not happy" about the way the firing of several U.S. attorneys was handled by the Justice Department.

The rare rebuke of one of Bush's closest advisors added to the intensifying debate over whether Gonzales should step aside just two years into his tenure.

Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) on Wednesday became the first Republican to call for the attorney general to step down.

And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted Gonzales would have to resign.

"I don't think he'll last long," Reid said in an interview with Nevada reporters. Asked how long, Reid responded: "Days."

The growing criticism from lawmakers highlighted a potential dilemma for the president involving a long-standing friend and sturdy ally, one who has worked for Bush since his days as Texas governor.

Despite his criticism, the president said he continued to support Gonzales.

"I do have confidence in Atty. Gen. Al Gonzales," Bush told reporters in Mexico. "I talked to him this morning, and we talked about his need to go up to Capitol Hill and make it very clear ... why the Justice Department made the decisions it made....

"And he's right: Mistakes were made. And I'm frankly not happy about it, because there is a lot of confusion over what really has been a customary practice by the presidents" of replacing U.S. attorneys.

Fighting to retain his job, Gonzales appeared on morning talk shows and scheduled meetings with lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill.

The White House, meanwhile, dispatched Counsel Fred F. Fielding to negotiate ground rules with Democratic leaders seeking documents and testimony from administration officials -- including chief political strategist Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers. It remained unclear whether Rove and Miers would appear before Congress.

Damaging documents

The moves followed the release Tuesday of e-mails detailing a two-year effort by Justice Department and White House officials to target several U.S. attorneys for dismissal. The disclosures -- which are at odds with versions of events Gonzales and other officials have offered to lawmakers -- touched off accusations that the administration had misled Congress.

Gonzales acknowledged that mistakes had been made but said he was largely unaware of efforts to fire certain prosecutors. He said he could not be expected to know "every bit of information that passes through the halls" of an organization of 110,000 people.

His chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, who was heavily involved in the firing plans, has resigned.

Though loyal to Bush, Gonzales is known to be interested in leaving Washington. He has a son who is graduating from high school soon, and the attorney general has made no secret of his desire to return to Texas.

Some associates had urged him to consider resigning after last year's midterm election to avoid the partisan taint they expected to emerge after the Democrats took control of Congress.

"I think he probably is just torn up," said a friend who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing congressional inquiry into the firings. "He is completely loyal to the president. He believes the president made him what he is."

Personal and political ally

Since his days as governor, Bush has turned to Gonzales for reliable counsel on issues personal and political. He has often heralded Gonzales' personal journey as symbolizing his own view of the American dream.

Any other Cabinet member who became the focal point of criticism like that now raining down on the administration might well be in dire straits. But Gonzales' history with the president makes his status harder to gauge.

The White House is standing behind Gonzales despite the political pressure, and some close to the administration believe Bush will fight to keep him on his team. If Bush accedes to largely partisan demands to fire his friends, the thinking goes, where would the housecleaning end?

"If he sacked Gonzales, the blood would be in the water, and they would go after everyone else," said a prominent Republican with close ties to the Justice Department.

"The bottom line is that Gonzales is vulnerable because the president is vulnerable," said a former administration official who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "When you are a weak president, they think they can get away with it. They will beat up on your people. If you start firing them, you are dead meat."

Houston lawyer Roland Garcia, a longtime friend of the attorney general's, said: "Those who know Al Gonzales personally know he is a person of utmost integrity."

But Gonzales also has seemed out of touch on some issues, or at least misunderstood. He left law professors scratching their heads when he told senators at a recent hearing that the Constitution does not specifically grant individuals the right to habeas corpus. He later clarified that he believed Americans do have the right.

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