President Bush this morning telephoned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, one of the few remaining Texans who came to Washington for Bush’s first term, to try to buck up his friend after word leaked that GOP officials operating at the behest of the White House have begun seeking a possible successor.
The president called Gonzales from the Oval Office at about 7:15 a.m. “They had a good conversation about the status of the U.S. attorney issue,” deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said. “The president also reaffirmed his strong backing and support for the attorney general.”
A Republican source said Tuesday that Bush is “unmoved” and that Gonzales will not be pushed or fired, but instead will depart if he concludes he has lost his effectiveness because of the furor over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
At the same time, the president will be prepared if Gonzales steps aside. Republicans close to the White House continued to discuss potential replacements, including John Danforth, an Episcopal minister and former Republican senator from Missouri. “I think it is going to come down to who is willing to take the job,” said an official close to the process.
Among the names floated Monday by administration officials were Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and White House anti-terrorism coordinator Frances Townsend. Former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson is a White House prospect. So is former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson, but sources were unsure whether he would want the job.
On Monday night, Republican officials said two other figures who are being seriously considered are Securities and Exchange Committee Chairman Chris Cox, who is former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and is popular with conservatives; and former Attorney General William P. Barr, who served under President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993 and is now general counsel of Verizon Communications.
Perino Tuesday denied that the White House is searching for possible successors to Gonzales. “Those rumors are untrue,” she said.
Republican sources also disclosed that it is now a virtual certainty that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, whose incomplete and inaccurate congressional testimony about the prosecutors helped precipitate the crisis, will also resign shortly. Officials were debating whether Gonzales and McNulty should depart at the same time or whether McNulty should go a day or two after Gonzales. Still known as “The Judge” for his service on the Texas Supreme Court.
In a sign of Republican despair, GOP political strategists on Capitol Hill said that it is too late for Gonzales’ departure to head off a full-scale Democratic investigation into the motives and timing behind the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
“Democrats smell blood in the water, and (Gonzales’) resignation won’t stop them,” said a well-connected Republican Senate aide. “And on our side, no one’s going to defend him. All we can do is warn Democrats against overreaching.”
A main reason Gonzales is finding few friends even among Republicans is that he has long been regarded with suspicion by conservatives who have questioned his ideological purity. In the past, these conservatives warned the White House against nominating him for the Supreme Court. Now they’re using the controversy over the firing of eight federal prosecutors to take out their pent-up frustrations with how he has handled his leadership at Justice and how the White House has treated Congress.
Complaints range from his handling of immigration cases to his alleged ceding of power in the department to career officials instead of movement conservatives.
Without embracing Gonzales, Republicans pointed out that presidents are free to replace U.S. attorneys at will. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) noted on MSNBC that some of those who were replaced “haven’t whined or complained about it” and added, “I think that there’s a lot of politics, but I don’t think it’s just on one side.”
But officials on Capitol Hill said that after the Justice Department failed to turn over a batch of e-mails about the prosecutors on Friday as expected, Republican senators became less likely to defend Gonzales or the White House. They feared the delay signaled more damaging information was in the pipeline.
“We have a crisis where there doesn’t need to be one, and now Democrats have an issue where they can open up the subpoena floodgates,” said an exasperated Republican aide. “Once these investigations start, there always ends up being a lot of messy collateral damage.”
Now the White House is girding for a confirmation battle at the same time it is coping with Democrats’ threats to subpoena aides to Bush, including senior adviser Karl Rove.
Among the contenders to replace Gonzales, Chertoff is a former U.S. circuit judge for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia. Before that, he was confirmed by the Senate in 2003 as assistant attorney general for the criminal division.
Under this scenario, Chertoff’s successor at the Department of Homeland Security might be Townsend, who now works in the White House as assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. Townsend held senior Justice Department posts under Attorney General Janet Reno during the Clinton administration and is also a potential nominee for attorney general.
Republican sources said other widely respected Republican lawyers have been considered for attorney general, although some of them may not be interested in taking the job.