If cabinet members were perishable goods, Alberto Gonzales would have passed his "sell by" date sometime last spring. Since January, when he first faced sharp questioning over the firing of U.S. Attorneys, the Attorney General has earned disastrous reviews for his inconsistent testimony, poor judgment and for appearing to place loyalty to the White House above service to the public. By June it was hard to find a Republican willing to defend him. Now Gonzales' dissembling testimony about a controversial domestic-spying program has raised suspicions about what he is hiding and fueled new calls for him to go. Senate Democrats have called for a special prosecutor to investigate his activities as Attorney General, and a group of moderate House Democrats has called for the House to weigh impeachment proceedings against him.
Yet the embattled Gonzales' grip on his job seems unshakable. Bush tossed Donald Rumsfeld last fall despite support from conservatives for the then Defense Secretary, and the President chucked Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace at the first sign of congressional resistance to his renomination. So why the extraordinary support for Gonzales in the face of a protracted meltdown at the Department of Justice (DOJ)? Here are four reasons why Bush can't afford to let Gonzales go:
1 Gonzales is all that stands between the White House and special prosecutors. As dicey as things are for Bush right now, his advisers know that they could get much worse. In private, Democrats say that if Gonzales did step down, his replacement would be required to agree to an independent investigation of Gonzales' tenure in order to be confirmed by the Senate.
Without Gonzales at the helm, the Justice Department would be more likely to approve requests for investigations into White House activities on everything from misuse of prewar Iraq intelligence to allegations of political interference in tobacco litigation. And the DOJ could be less likely to block contempt charges against former White House aides who have refused to testify before Congress. "Bush needs someone at Justice who's going to watch the White House's back," says a Senate Democratic Judiciary Committee staffer. If Gonzales steps down, Bush would lose his most reliable shield.
2 A post-Gonzales DOJ would be in the hands of a nonpartisan, tough prosecutor, not a political hand. Newly appointed Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford is in line to take over until a new Attorney General could be confirmed. Morford, a 20-year veteran of the department, was brought in to investigate the botched trial of the first major federal antiterrorism case after 9/11. He is in the mold of James Comey, the former Deputy Attorney General who stood up to the White House over its domestic-eavesdropping program. Even New York Senator Charles Schumer, one of Gonzales' harshest critics, called Morford's appointment a positive step. Over the past six months, more than half a dozen top political appointees have left the department amid scandal. The unprecedented coziness that once existed between the Justice Department and the White House now remains solely in the person of Gonzales.
3 If Gonzales goes, the White House fears that other losses will follow. Top Bush advisers argue that Democrats are after scalps and would not stop at Gonzales. Congressional judiciary committees have already subpoenaed Harriet Miers and Karl Rove in the firings of U.S. Attorneys last year. Republicans are loath to hand Democrats some high-profile casualties to use in the 2008 campaign. Stonewalling, they believe, is their best way to avoid another election focused on corruption issues.
4 Nobody at the White House wants the legal bills and headaches that come with being a target of investigations. In backing Gonzales, Bush is influenced by advisers whose future depends on the survival of their political bodyguard. Gonzales remains the last line of defense protecting Bush, Rove and other top White House officials from the personal consequences of litigation. A high-profile probe would hobble the White House politically, and could mean sky-high legal bills and turmoil for Bush's closest aides.
Keeping Gonzales isn't cost-free. But for now, Bush seems to have decided that the importance of running out the clock on investigations by keeping his loyal Attorney General in place is worth any amount of criticism.