Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday said he will leave office next month, after several months of battling calls for his resignation from many in Congress over the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year.
Mr. Gonzales made a short statement announcing he will step down Sept. 17 but giving no reason for his departure, instead alluding to his roots in a working-class Mexican family, the son of a construction worker.
“I have traveled a remarkable journey,” Mr. Gonzales said, his voice breaking when he mentioned family. “I have lived the American dream. Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father’s best days.”
President Bush, who first hired Mr. Gonzales in 1995 as counsel after he was elected governor of Texas, reacted bitterly to the news, telling reporters that Mr. Gonzales, his “close friend,” had suffered “months of unfair treatment” and had “his good name dragged through the mud.”
The attorney general has come under fire from Democrats and some Republicans for his handling of the U.S. attorney firings and other matters such as the handling of captured terror suspects.
“Al Gonzales is a man of integrity, decency and principle, and I have reluctantly accepted his resignation, with great appreciation for the service that he has provided for our country,” Mr. Bush said in Crawford, Texas.
“It’s sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons,” the president said.
Mr. Gonzales called Mr. Bush on Friday afternoon and flew to his Crawford ranch Sunday to discuss his departure in person. A White House spokesman said Mr. Bush did not try to talk Mr. Gonzales out of leaving, but invited the attorney general and his wife to Texas “so they could talk as friends over lunch.”
Solicitor General Paul D. Clement will serve as acting attorney general until a replacement is named, Mr. Bush said.
Democrats were jubilant yesterday, but warned that Gonzales’ resignation will not end their probe of the attorney firings or their skepticism of the administration’s terrorist surveillance program.
“Alberto Gonzales was never the right man for this job. He lacked independence, he lacked judgment, and he lacked the spine to say no to [top political adviser] Karl Rove. This resignation is not the end of the story. Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
Several names are reportedly being considered to replace Mr. Gonzales: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff; former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson; Frances F. Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism; and Mr. Clement.
A Chertoff spokesman declined to comment on whether he is being considered for the nomination. Mr. Olson, reached by e-mail, also declined to comment.
Mr. Clement could remain as acting attorney general for 210 days before a replacement would have to be named, which could then lead to months of political fighting. If that nominee were rejected, the White House would get another 210 days. But there have been no indications that the White House intends to try and run out the clock until 2009.
Mr. Gonzales is the latest long-serving, high-profile Bush ally to leave office. Two weeks ago yesterday, Mr. Rove announced his resignation, and Dan Bartlett, the president’s counselor, left in July. The departures of Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Rove remove two of the Democrats’ favorite political targets. Now, key spots at the White House are filled by aides who are on good terms with Congress — such as White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and Counselor Ed Gillespie.
Congress returns next week, after a monthlong vacation, and the White House is preparing for fights with Congress over the Iraq war and subpoenas issued by Democrats, along with intelligence-gathering reforms.
But Mr. Gonzales had provided an easy target for Democrats. In August, for example, Democrats couched much of their opposition to updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in terms of giving Mr. Gonzales more power. They could have continued to call him up to Capitol Hill for embarrassing testimony, dragging down the White House agenda.
In addition to the U.S. attorney firings, Mr. Gonzales was under fire for his role in the government’s anti-terrorism activities. Most recently, Senate Democrats had asked the inspector general to investigate whether Mr. Gonzales lied or misled them about disagreement within the Bush administration over a domestic surveillance program.
Many Democrats and civil liberties advocates accused him of authorizing torture of prisoners and enemy combatants by U.S. military and intelligence investigators, though the Bush administration has stated flatly that it does not allow torture.
Republicans on Capitol Hill were resigned to the departure, with Sen. Pete V. Domenici calling it “inevitable.
“His situation was a distraction to the Department of Justice and its attempt to carry out its important duties,” he said.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said that “even after all the scrutiny, it doesn’t appear that Attorney General Gonzales committed any crimes, but he did make management missteps and didn’t handle the spotlight well when they were exposed.”
Republicans challenged Democrats not to “politicize the process” of finding a new attorney general.
Still, the attorney general’s resignation was a surprise even for Justice Department personnel.
“People are in shock,” one former Justice Department official said. “Even his closest aides didn’t know.”
c Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.