Embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ resignation on Monday has elicited an enthusiastic response from Massachusetts’ all-Democratic Congressional delegation, with the only complaint being that he didn’t step down sooner.
“I think all of us in the delegation are on the record … as urging Mr. Gonzales to step down, so this is something that obviously we think is a good thing,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told the Daily on Monday.
Gonzales leaves amidst allegations that he misled Congress about his role in the firings of several U.S. attorneys and that he tried to manipulate John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, into reauthorizing a domestic surveillance program in 2004 while Ashcroft was in the hospital recovering from gall bladder surgery.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said that given these charges, the Bay State delegation’s reaction to the resignation is well-placed.
“We think it’s good for the Justice Department that this guy who had screwed up this important agency is gone and we think it’s good that this really inappropriate corruption of the Justice Department is penalized,” he told the Daily.
Members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees spearheaded the investigation into Gonzales’ performance, which came to blows during a heated Senate hearing in July.
While most Massachusetts congressmen did not have a direct hand in the inquiries about Gonzales, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) sits on the House Judiciary Committee and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) is a fixture on its Senate counterpart.
On Monday, Kennedy issued a strongly worded statement, calling the resignation “long overdue.”
“Since his confirmation, [Gonzales] has presided over one disastrous policy after another [and] has exhibited a lack of candor with Congress and the American people and a disdain for the rule of law and our constitutional system,” he said.
“Attorney General Gonzales has, on repeated occasions, misled Congress and when all is said and done may very well have lied to Congress intentionally,” he said.
Many of these charges stem from Gonzales’ July testimony, in which he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the initiative he encouraged Ashcroft to renew was not the National Security Administration’s warrantless domestic wiretapping program.
FBI Director Robert Mueller has since refuted Gonzales’ testimony, saying that this was in fact the program in question.
Gonzales’ resignation is effective as of Sept. 17. Solicitor General Paul Clement will fill the post while the Bush administration searches for a replacement.
As of press time, there was speculation that the short list includes Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), former Deputy Attorney General James Comey and former Solicitor General Ted Olsen, according to the Associated Press. Chertoff has been the name most frequently floated by the media.
Frank said that he feels Chertoff would be a poor choice because in his current position, his job is to push for the authorization of some of the very programs that many feel the attorney general should be trying to check.
“His job has been to increase security and to think of new ways to prosecute and get intelligence,” Frank said. “The Justice Department is supposed to be the counterweight to that.”
Any Bush nominee will face intense scrutiny, and a confirmation battle in the Senate is not out of the question.
“Of course the Senate’s going to be very careful about this. They’ve seen the Justice Department degraded and they’re going to be very careful about who gets to step in,” Frank said.
One key requirement that Senators will likely harp on is that the new attorney general be more independent from Bush. Gonzales’ relationship with the president dates back to Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas, and before taking his job at the Justice Department, Gonzales served as White House counsel.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said that the friendship that they forged has had troubling consequences.
“I think [his] record at the Justice Department strongly suggests that he has acted as a docile ‘facilitator’ for White House initiatives rather than as a thoughtful and objective legal advisor,” he told the Daily through his press office.
Even though Gonzales is leaving the administration, he will likely not be free from the limelight, as key congressmen have made it clear that they do not intend to stop investigating after Sept. 17.
McGovern and Frank said they feel that it is appropriate to have continued scrutiny.
“If you have misled Congress and you have broken the law, then resigning does not negate the need to get to the truth,” McGovern said.
“This doesn’t end with him resigning,” Frank said.
At issue during future showdowns between Gonzales and Congress will likely be the scope of executive privilege, which the nascent Congressional majority is attempting to erode.
Its full scope may have to be decided by Judicial Branch, and if it makes it to the courts, Associate Political Science Professor Richard Eichenberg said that Bush is likely to emerge victorious, especially given the partisan nature of the Supreme Court.
“The constitutional advantage the president has is that if he drags it out and lets it go through the courts, he’s probably going to win, and in the process buy time,” he said.