Bolstered by a fresh show of support from President Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sought Monday to move beyond calls for his resignation and lingering questions about his credibility after the firings of federal prosecutors.
Critics reluctantly conceded that Gonzales was likely to weather the political storm. But many scoffed at Bush’s claim of having more confidence in his attorney general after Gonzales’ Senate testimony last week that was filled with memory lapses.
Gonzales, speaking at a news conference about identity theft, said he was staying at the Justice Department. He declined, however, to say for how long.
“As long as I think that I can be effective and the president believes that I should continue to be at the head of the Department of Justice, I’ll continue serving as the attorney general,” Gonzales said.
He added: “Obviously, we’ll be working with Congress to reassure them that we’ve identified that mistakes have been made here and we’re taking steps to address them. But I can’t just be focused on the U.S. attorneys situation.”
His comments came a few hours after Bush described Gonzales as “an honest, honorable man in whom I have confidence.”
Later in the day, Bush issued a statement praising Gonzales and Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Deborah Majoras for their work on combatting identity theft.
Last month, Bush had said Gonzales needed to repair his credibility â€” and the Justice Department’s â€” with Congress as lawmakers investigate whether the firings were politically motivated. In sworn testimony last week, Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee 71 times he could not recall meetings, memos or other details about the firings.
On Monday, Bush said Gonzales “went up and gave a very candid assessment, and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job.”
“And as the investigation, the hearings went forward, it was clear that the attorney general broke no law, did no wrongdoing,” Bush said. “And some senators didn’t like his explanation, but he answered as honestly as he could.”
Senators continued to lambaste Gonzales’ credibility but conceded he was unlikely to leave.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, top Republican on the Judiciary panel, said Gonzales’ continued tenure ultimately hurts the Justice Department, the Bush administration and the GOP.
“As long as he’s the attorney general, I will continue to deal with him,” Specter told reporters in Harrisburg, Pa. “But whatever he has to say I will take with more than a grain of salt.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy called it “painfully obvious that he’s willing to sacrifice the independence of the Department of Justice.”
Leahy, D-Vt., also questioned Bush’s remarks about Gonzales’ testimony. “If that increased his confidence, then he has a very low bar indeed for what he needs for confidence,” Leahy said.
Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, commenting during an interview with The Associated Press, suggested that Gonzales step down.
“The attorney general is clearly creating a major distraction for the president and for the administration and for the Republican Party,” Huckabee said.
Gonzales’ credibility has slowed the flow of litigation as prosecutors appear hard-pressed to make tough calls in close cases, according to defense attorneys who regularly oppose Justice Department lawyers.
Moreover, lawyers may now have additional questions or concerns about the government’s motives in corruption, terrorism or white-collar crime cases that are top priorities for the Justice Department, said defense attorney Neal Sonnett. However, he said, the majority of cases are handled by career prosecutors who aren’t likely to be influenced by any administration’s politics.
“Any good defense lawyer is going to look at all the potential issues that may impact their client’s case,” said Sonnett, who represents convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the government’s corruption case in Miami. “That includes determining whether or not there is an issue raised in the ongoing brouhaha in the firings of U.S. attorneys.”
Still others said the Justice Department is already too sullied for any change at the top to make much of a difference.
“I can’t imagine that his staying can make it much worse,” said Mark Corallo, a former Justice spokesman during Bush’s first term. “I don’t think it matters anymore whether he stays or goes politically.”
Gonzales, at his news conference, smiled at reporters and lightly poked fun at a question that noted this was his first public opportunity to defend himself since his Senate appearance last week. “Wasn’t that enough?” he asked.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino acknowledged Gonzales’ lack of support in Congress but noted the Justice Department has “a huge amount of responsibility outside of any dealings with Capitol Hill.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of Gonzales’ harshest critics, said the continued White House support “is very hard to believe.”
“It seems to be sort of like Iraq, that only the president and his few advisers buried in the bunker believe that we don’t need a change of course here.”
–LARA JAKES JORDAN
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Deb Riechmann and Devlin Barrett in Washington, and Martha Raffaele in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this report.
Copyright Â© 2007 The Associated Press