The Embattled Attorney General
Gonzales still has the president's support, for now
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stood behind a crimson-draped table inside a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill last week, right hand raised, swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It was the sort of political theater that Washington specializes in, and there were supporting actors and bit players galore. Senators of both parties, angered by Gonzales's firing of eight U.S. attorneys, prepared to deliver a tongue-lashing. Protesters garbed in orange and pink lined the hearing room, while two dozen photographers clicked away in unison. In the midst of the throng was Gonzales, reinforced by a battalion of staffers armed with fact-filled binders, but nevertheless looking like the loneliest man in Washington.
Perception is reality here, at least to a point. Gonzales, who followed his mentor, President George W. Bush from Texas, has been an outsider throughout his tenure in Washington, both as White House counsel and attorney general; he has little political capital at the Capitol, perhaps less now than ever. Indeed, he has generated enormous criticism for his role in crafting Bush's "war on terror" policies. But at Thursday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, despite blistering criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike, it seemed Gonzales might just survive, at least for a few more days, for one reason alone: In this high-stakes game of political poker, Gonzales holds the most powerful card of all, his boss, who-at least on paper-continued to provide what one White House official described as "unwavering" support. "That says to me that the president's loyalty," says former Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo, "is the single most important factor here."
But for how long? Gonzales had gone to the hearing, hat in hand, with a mission impossible: to assuage angry senators who feel hoodwinked by the many shifting explanations for the mass prosecutor firings and Gonzales's seeming inability to get a grip on the facts. But in this all-important performance, Gonzales didn't garner any rave reviews.
Instead, the AG settled on a shopworn mea culpa, acknowledging that the prosecutors "deserved better," and saying he regretted how they were treated. He stood by his decision to fire them, maintaining that he "firmly" believes "nothing improper occurred," though conceding that he had acted in a most unlawyerly fashion by failing to check internal E-mails, memos, and documents, or even his own calendar, before rushing to provide answers to Congress, the press, and the public.
Lapses. Even more troubling was Gonzales's cloudy memory. As the hearing lurched on, he grew increasingly enmeshed in endless loop-the-loops of "I don't recall," "I can't recall," and "I seem to recall" that made the follicle-challenged senators want to tear out what was left of their bipartisan hair. Seventy-one times in all, the attorney general fell back on a misfiring memory. Had Gonzales discussed the firings with the president in advance? asked Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee. "I now understand," intoned Gonzales, "there was a conversation with myself and the president." Leahy also wanted to know when New Mexico prosecutor David Iglesias was added to the list of those to be fired. "Senator," Gonzales said, "I have no recollection of knowing when that occurred."