WASHINGTON – President Bush said his confidence in Alberto Gonzales has grown as a result of his testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the administration moved to end speculation that the attorney general would step down following a performance criticized by senators in both parties.
“The attorney general went up and gave a very candid assessment and answered every question he could possibly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job,” Bush told reporters in the Oval Office on Monday. “Some senators didn’t like his explanation, but he answered as honestly as he could.”
Soon after Bush spoke, Gonzales went before reporters and said he has no plans to resign. “I will stay as long as I feel I can be effective,” the attorney general said at a news conference called to discuss identity theft. “And I believe I can be effective.”
Taken together, White House advisers and consultants said, the comments suggested that the president intends to try to ride out the storm over his attorney general despite qualms among Republican lawmakers and even some of his own aides. “He’s staying,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters when asked about Gonzales.
Leading Republicans continued to express doubt Monday that Gonzales is up to the job in light of his contradictory explanations for the firing last year of eight U.S. attorneys. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told reporters in Harrisburg, Pa., that keeping Gonzales will be “harmful to the Justice Department because he has lost his credibility.”
But the White House appears to have concluded that Gonzales has done nothing to merit firing – and that letting him go would only create more political problems for the administration. Bush also seemed to be digging in against the proposition that his appointments can be dictated from Capitol Hill.
“U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president,” the president told reporters during a brief photo opportunity with Gen. David Petraeus. “In other words, we have named them, and I have the right to replace them with somebody else.”
A Gonzales departure could wreak further havoc on the upper ranks of the Justice Department, which has been fractured by the U.S. attorneys controversy. Most of those in line to take over, including Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and acting Associate Attorney General William Mercer, played a role in the firings and have been the target of inquiries by Congress.
Still, short of new damaging information about Gonzales, administration allies said they perceived the White House to be sending a strong signal Monday that the president intends for his longtime ally from Texas to remain attorney general.
“The president does not believe Gonzales has done anything wrong – inartful communication perhaps,” said Charles Black, a political consultant with close ties to the White House. “And therefore he deserves to keep his job – it’s as simple as that.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday that Bush was guilty of being too loyal to his longtime friend Gonzales. “He can show his friendship in other ways that don’t hurt the country,” Schumer said.