Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why Gonzales Finally Caved

Why Gonzales Finally Caved
By Massimo Calabresi

The Administration line on Alberto Gonzales's resignation is that he made the decision on his own, after weeks of consideration. On Friday, at the end of a two-week vacation in Texas, the Attorney General called President Bush and told him "that he felt it would be in the best interest of the [Justice] department," if he stepped down, according to a senior Administration official. The President "reluctantly accepted that decision," the official says, and later asked Gonzales and his wife, Becky, to come down to Crawford, Texas, where Bush has been on vacation. Arriving for an informal lunch with the President and First Lady there on Sunday, Gonzales handed over his resignation in writing and told the President that he'd be able to stay in the job only for another three weeks.

That timing fit with Josh Bolten's deadline for resignations: Bush's chief of staff has asked anyone in the Administration who is planning to leave before the end of Bush's presidency to let him know before Labor Day this year. And the departure also comes conveniently at the tail end of the August doldrums, with Washington still on summer recess and much of the country on vacation. Better to make the move now, the White House figured, than wait for Congress to return and perhaps renew its campaign to oust Gonzales. "You're not going to make a decision with the tip of a bayonet in your face," says a former senior official.

Some White House watchers are pointing to another factor in Gonzales's departure: the resignation earlier this month of Bush's longtime adviser, Karl Rove. Rove had argued that letting Gonzales go would only make matters worse for Bush in the final months of his presidency. "Karl has concerns about a confirmation process where Democrats will try to exploit unfairly that process," says the former senior Administration official. But that official and others say Rove's departure had nothing to do with Bush's decision to accept Gonzales' resignation.

Rove's concerns are not unfounded: Both camps on Capitol Hill saw Gonzaels's departure as an opportunity to dial up the spin to please their respective bases. Texas Senator John Cornyn lamented that the departure would "lead to more posturing and more controversy" in Congress as the Senate debates whomever Bush nominates as a successor. And hints that Gonzales's tenure at Justice may be at the center of a confirmation battle have already emerged in statements from key Democrats. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said, "I hope the Attorney General's decision will be a step toward getting to the truth about the level of political influence this White House wields over the Department of Justice." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Gonzales replacement must commit "to cooperate with ongoing congressional oversight into the conduct of the White House in the politicization of federal law enforcement."

Nevertheless, key players in the Administration felt that Gonzales's continued presence in the cabinet was a drag on the department and the White House during a key period of vulnerability for the President, eating up what little political capital the President has to spend on the Hill. For his part, Gonzales was growing increasingly frustrated that issues he cared about, such as stopping gang violence and combating child pornography, have been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding him. "This is not the first time the Attorney General has thought about leaving," says the senior Administration official.

With reporting by Brian Bennett/Washington