Gonzales Will Leave Justice in September

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has announced his resignation, months after lawmakers said they had lost confidence in the country's chief law enforcement officer. He will leave office on Sept. 17. Gonzales did not say why he is leaving the Justice Department, referring only generally to the controversies during his term.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales this morning did not say why he is leaving the Justice Department, but he did make this reference to controversies during his term.

Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Department of Justice): I often remind our fellow citizens that we live in the greatest country in the world and that I have lived the American dream. Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days.

INSKEEP: Gonzales' father, Pablo, once picked crops in south Texas. The son went on to become chief justice of Texas, White House counsel, then attorney general, the job he gave up under pressure this morning.

In a moment, we'll report from the Capitol, where Gonzales had many critics in both parties. We'll also report from his home state of Texas.

We're joined first by NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro, who covers the Justice Department regularly. And Ari, what shape is this department in as Gonzales leaves?

ARI SHAPIRO: According to many people in that department, it is in some of the worst shape it has been in the modern history. Morale is terribly low. One of the reasons this is so important is that the Justice Department has incredible power to indict people and accuse them of crimes. And people need to know when they're indicted that it's not because they were a Republican or a Democrat, because they did this thing against that person. With political partisan considerations, that sense of confidence in the Justice Department is very important. And that sense of confidence is what has been so eroded by these scandals in recent months.

INSKEEP: Which explains why people were so concerned, for example, when U.S. attorneys were dismissed, in some cases, allegedly after they did not prosecute Democrats vigorously enough during the last election.

SHAPIRO: Right. But that was just the beginning. As the investigations continued, evidence came out that people who were supposed to be hired on apolitical bases were hired based on partisan considerations. Evidence came out that the attorney general may have made false statements under oath to Congress. These pressures kept mounting. These problems kept building until they finally came to a head today.

INSKEEP: Is this a morale problem that might possibly be affecting the prosecution of crimes or even the prosecution of the war on terror?

SHAPIRO: Alberto Gonzales has argued that it has not. But everybody in the Justice Department will admit that it has been a huge distraction, at least. And there's been a mass exodus, too, of top officials of the Justice Department, and people are reluctant to step up and take those positions once they're vacated. So, in a very real way, that has caused a dramatic impact on the operations at the Justice Department.

INSKEEP: Ari Shapiro, stay with us.

The news again is that Alberto Gonzales has resigned this morning within the last hour, and we're going next to NPR's Brian Naylor. He's at the Capitol, where, as we said, Gonzales had many critics.

And, Brian, how is Congress responding to this news?

BRIAN NAYLOR: Well, Steve, Democrats are saying basically good riddance and don't let the door hit you on the way out. I'll read a statement from Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, one of the most vocal critics of the attorney general: 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 Karl Rove.

And he goes on to say: 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.

INSKEEP: That's what Democrats are saying. But are Republicans any different this morning?

NAYLOR: Well, we haven't heard from a lot - remember, Congress is not yet back into session. They're still out in their districts and in their states. But I think what you're hearing is the defenders of the administration, the defenders of Gonzales indicating that he was railroaded.

John Cornyn, the senator from Texas, was reported to say this morning that Gonzales was hounded out of office. But there are other Republicans who have never been big fans of Gonzales, among them Arlen Specter - the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee - who said back in July that he didn't find Gonzales' testimony credible when it came to the - his involvement in the firings of U.S. attorneys. So Gonzales did not have an awful lot of support from Republicans, and certainly hardly any from Democrats.

INSKEEP: And we should mention, as Ari Shapiro has told us throughout the morning there were other controversies as well over the treatment of detainees, over memos that Gonzales had written, over a wiretapping program, a surveillance program that was done without warrants and Gonzales' role and that, many, many questions, as well as questions about his testimony before Congress, which leads now to this question, Brian Naylor: Now that Gonzales is gone, top aides are gone, will this end the investigations of the Bush administration on those topics?

NAYLOR: Oh, not at all. I think that you're seeing an on-going effort to find out what the Justice Department's involvement was in the firings of the U.S. attorneys, what the legal basis is for the wire - the warrantless wiretapping program that the administration has been involved with. And those investigations are not going to go away just because Gonzales is. There's still a lot of questions out there, and Democrats are not going to drop these probes at all.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Naylor is on Capitol Hill on this morning, when we've learned that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is resigning effective September 17th.

And we're going next to someone who has covered Gonzales and his boss for many years, going back to their time together in Texas. He's Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

Wayne, good morning to you again.

Mr. WAYNE SLATER (Austin Bureau Chief, The Dallas Morning News): Good morning.

INSKEEP: Alberto Gonzales spoke for, I think, a minute and 42 seconds this morning, giving his reasons for resigning. What did you think of that statement?

Mr. SLATER: Well, it was remarkable, a number of reasons. But most importantly to me was his saying I have lived the American dream, and that my worst day as attorney general was better than my father's best day. It was really recalling where he came from, a son of migrant workers who, in his mind - and I think in the mind of the president and others - had been lifted from a position of poverty in Texas to the highest law enforcement officer in the land.

INSKEEP: Ari Shapiro is still listening here. And Ari, of course, you covered Gonzales' department day to day. What struck you about Gonzales' statement?

ARI SHAPIRO: The fact that he didn't give any reason at all for his departure. Often, when we see people resign from high-level positions in Washington, they give some reason, even if it sounds like a totally implausible reason. Even if there's a clear scandal, they'll say something along the lines of I want to go spend time with my family or give someone else an opportunity to serve. Alberto Gonzales didn't give any reason at all. And this is, of course, speculation, but I believe it's because it would have been entirely implausible for him to say something like I'm just leaving because I want to spend time with my family. At the same time, he maintains that he has done nothing wrong, and so he couldn't say I'm leaving because I've been - in John Cornyn's words -hounded out of office.

INSKEEP: Well, let's try to fill in the blank there, gentlemen. Why would Alberto Gonzales leave now, as opposed to next month, last month or next year?

NAYLOR: Well, I would only guess that by leaving now - as opposed to a month or so ago, when Congress was in session and the calls for his resignation were loud - he can say that he wasn't hounded out of office, that he decided to take this step on his own and how he was not responding to congressional pressure. I think, also, if he was to delay the resignation any later, it would make a confirmation of a successor that much more difficult. Time is running out on this administration. And it's going to be a few months, I would imagine, before hearings are scheduled on whomever the president nominates to take Gonzales' place.

Mr. SLATER: And not only that, what Brian said earlier was exactly right. His departure does not end the congressional inquiry into problems at the Justice Department and beyond. And the White House and the president clearly understood that whether Gonzales was in office or not, this was going to happen. It's better that he leave.

INSKEEP: How hard is it going to be for this White House to get anybody confirmed to that job?

SHAPIRO: Well, it depends on the nominee. I mean, one of the names we're seeing floated this morning is Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security. He's someone who is a familiar face in Congress. He's been through the confirmation process before. It's not to say there won't be tough questions. But I think someone like that who has been around Washington is likely to have a less contentious process than someone taken from outside the government.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Naylor is in Capitol Hill. Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News is in Austin, Texas. NPR's Ari Shapiro is with us in the studios. And, Ari, I'll give you the last word, and this is a tough one. But do you think Gonzales weakened this administration, or is it fair to say that perhaps this administration was simply, itself, too weak to support him?

SHAPIRO: This administration spent a lot of political capital standing behind Gonzales and defending somebody who did not have the support of many people in Congress. So I think the big question is, now that Gonzales is leaving, can it regain - can the White House regain any of that confidence that it lost on Capitol Hill? Without a doubt, many Republicans who used to support the White House on a range of issues did so much less with Gonzales staying in office. And now we'll have to see what happens going forward.

INSKEEP: Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro on this morning of the resignation of Alberto Gonzales.

This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.