The return of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the Senate Judiciary Committee is in some ways the story of Democratic failure to drum up enough pressure to force President Bush’s hand.
Not so long ago, Republicans as well as Democrats thought they’d seen Gonzales sit before them for the last time as attorney general. There was no way Gonzales could survive the controversy over the prosecutor firings, nor the exposure of other missteps, they said. Certainly he could not resist the widespread calls for his resignation — one, from a Republican — to his face as the proceedings were broadcast live.
They were wrong. Gonzales was called to testify again Tuesday. A Senate vote of no confidence in Gonzales has failed, and Bush has noted that the U.S. attorneys probe did not uncover any clear wrongdoing. And, armed with the president’s support, Gonzales has made clear that he does not intend to leave office before Bush does.
Democrats say the wrongdoing is Gonzales’ broader failure of leadership that extends to the FBI’s abuse of so-called National Security letters and a withered tradition of independence from the political interests of the White House.
“This attorney general has a severe credibility problem,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in remarks prepared for Tuesday’s hearing. “It is time for the attorney general to fully answer these questions and to acknowledge and begin taking responsibility for the acute crisis of leadership that has gripped the department under his watch.”
Gonzales’ statement to the committee was full of regret for his agency’s troubles and included a commitment to repair the damage. He made no reference to the fired U.S. attorneys. Only briefly, Gonzales mentioned the controversy that has sunk morale at the Justice Department and has called the fairness of its attorneys into question.
“I will not tolerate any improper politicization of this department,” Gonzales said in remarks prepared for his Senate testimony. “I will continue to make efforts to ensure that my staff and others within the department have the appropriate experience and judgment so that previous mistakes will not be repeated.
“I have never been one to quit,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales’ earnestness was unlikely to change any minds on the panel, and his own missteps have given Democrats a wide selection of topics on which to press him.
Atop the list were questions about his former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, who admitted under a grant of immunity that she sometimes considered whether candidates for career positions at Justice contributed to Republican campaigns. She also said she had an “uncomfortable” private meeting with Gonzales just before she left Justice, at which he reiterated his recollection of the leadup to the firings, then asked her opinion of his recollections.
Lawmakers want to know whether Gonzales was trying to coach Goodling at a time when both knew they would be summoned to testify before Congress. Gonzales has said he was trying to comfort Goodling at a difficult time in her life.