Alberto Gonzales Out as AG: What's Next?

Looking back, the resignation of Alberto Gonzales as U.S. Attorney General had to come. Despite the declarations of the President that AG would stay as AG right up to his last press conference August 9, Gonzo was gone two weeks later. 

The President’s rock-solid loyalty to him notwithstanding, the 52-year-old Gonzales just could not hold on to the ship with holes in the hull and a skeleton crew on deck: the six top-ranked postions in the Justice Department are vacant, not to mention twenty U.S. Attorneys’ offices, and congressional probes into the Administration’s policy of hiring and firing the federal prosecutors showing no sign of abatement.  In addition, Gonzales had the same record as a Texas Supreme Court justice that enhanced conservative opposition to him as a possible Supreme Court appointee. This contributed to the belief that Gonzales was pivotal to Bush pushing for a guest worker program that opponents saw as amnesty for illegal immigration. It meant that the embattled attorney general was not going to find support among conservatives — not in the grass-roots of the Republican Party, and certainly not in Republican ranks on Capitol Hill. 

The feeling among us was that he [Gonzales] should go,”  one Republican senator told me back in March, when the Senate Republican Conference met as the first clouds of controversy began to envelop Gonzales. This sentiment, the senator explained, had little to do with the furor over the U.S. attorneys’ firing; most pundits and pols blamed Gonzales’ failure to build a report with Republican lawmakers and his stand on a guest worker program for the failure of almost any Republican lawmaker to mount the barricades on his behalf, as the cries of "Go, Al, Go" grew louder.

It was no surprise when, at the press gaggle (early morning briefing for White House reporters) in Crawford, Texas today, Acting Press Secretary Scott Stanzel was asked whether the President tried to talk Gonzales out of resigning at their weekend lunch, the spokesman replied without hesitation:  "He did not."

So the question is, who does the President now put on the firing line at the Justice Department for the fifteen months remaining in his Administration?  Or for that matter, who is willing to take the job for the dubious distinction of trying to fill vacancies, testify before Congress, and be called "general" for the rest of his or her life? 

Given that Congress is out of session, Mr. Bush could make a recess appointment as attorney general, which would no doubt infuriate Capitol Hill, and provoke stormy fights in the Senate when he set nominations to be, say, deputy attorney general or assistant attorney general for civil rights.  Or he could simply waive a recess appointment and send a name for confirmation to the Senate when it comes into session after Labor Day.  For now, the next person in the chain of command, Solicitor General Paul Clement, becomes acting attorney general (the first time the chain of command has dropped to the Number Three office in Justice since 1973, when Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than execute President Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox; the job fell to the solicitor general, who was willing to do the firing; his name was Robert Bork.)

"Same Old" or "Outside the Box?"

At this writing, most of the speculation holds that Michael Chertoff might be moved as secretary of homeland security to the top job at Justice.  Chertoff is a former U.S. Attorney and judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, who has already gone through the Senate confirmation process for those positions as well as the Cabinet office.  The move to Justice, it is assumed, would be logical and lateral.

But an old saying applies here:  "Assume nothing!"  Chertoff’s administrative skills–like those of James P. McGranery, another appellate judge who left the bench to become attorney general in Harry Truman’s final days in office — are very likely to come under fire.  Just recently, the Washington Post front page detailed the number of vacancies within the Department of Homeland Security.  In addition, there is the question of bad timing:  this month is the second anniversary of Katrina, arguably the worst moment of the Bush Presidency and guess who was a high-profile player in the response to Katrina?  You got it:  HHS Secretary Mike Chertoff. 

"Putting Chertoff in is just like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic!", exclaimed one conservative activist who served in the Reagan Administration over lunch this afternoon.  "If Bush goes that route, or puts another family friend or Yale fraternity brother in, it will show this Administration really has learned nothing.  They deserve to be lame ducks.  Or they could start thinking outside the box and show they’re serious about the rest of his term."

By thinking outside the box, my friend meant finding an attorney general who was both fresh and immediately recognized and liked by conservatives — not unlike former House Budget Committee Chairman and Iowa Rep. Jim Nussle was when the President named him director of the Office of Management and Budget.  Names that come to mind with that criterion include, say, former U.S. Attorney, Arkansas Rep. and Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Asa Hutchinson, famed as a House manager in the Clinton impeachment; former Virgina Gov. Jim Gilmore, until recently a presidential candidate, who was a former county prosecutor and state attorney general; or former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who spent much of his adult life in law enforcement and was reportedly on the short list to be attorney general in Bush’s first term.

One insider who is nontheless a fresh face and keeps appearing on lists as a prospective AG is Fran Fragos Townsend, White House adviser on homeland security and a popular media fixture for her briefings on terrorism.  "FFT." as she is known, is considered a good spokeswoman and has had stints as an assistant U.S. Attorney under Rudy Giuliani in New York, an FBI official under former Director Louis Freeh, and several slots at the Justice Deparment in the Clinton Administration.

So is what Karl Rove used to call "the Bush Family" — close political friends of the President and his father–going to hold key appointments up to the end or will George W. Bush come up with a Nussle-like outsider to reinvigorate the grass-roots? 

The succession to Alberto Gonzales could indeed be a defining moment in this Administration.

What’s With Sen. Craig?

The bombshell report in Roll Call today that Sen. Larry Craig (R.-Ida.) had been arrested June 11 for “disorderly conduct” in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport has sparked new speculation about his political standing.

According to the Roll Call story, three-termer and stalwart conservative Craig pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct August 8, paid more than $500 in fines and fees, and had a ten-day jail sentence stayed.  Craig was arrested by a plainclothes policeman investigating lewd conduct in a men’s room.

A spokesman for the senator said that the incident was a “he said/he said misunderstanding” and a full statement would follow from Craig’s office later today.  But when I called the office, the answering machine for Press Secretary Dan Whiting said “The message box is full.  Goodbye.”  A similar call by me to the Idaho Republican Party about Craig’s standing in the Gem State GOP — “You’re the first {to call]” I was told-also went unanswered.

A U.S. House Member from 1980-90 and senator since, Craig had been expected to coast to re-election.  But the latest developments have raised new speculation about a strong Democratic effort against him — quite possibly with publisher Jerry Brady, son of a former governor, who was a strong Democratic candidate against then-Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in ’02 and present Republican Gov., Butch Otter last year.