Gonzales Remains, Despite Resignation Rumors

It's been a very rough week for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. His former chief of staff testified on Capitol Hill, contradicting statements the attorney general has made to Congress and the public.

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For the past few weeks, Justice Department staffers have jokingly discussed starting betting pools on how much longer Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will hold on to his job. And after the attorney general's former chief of staff testified on Capitol Hill yesterday, the dead-man-walking comments grew louder.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this story about the attorney general's professional prospects.

ARI SHAPIRO: In Boston this morning, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried yet again to clarify what he did and did not know about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (Department of Justice): I don't recall being involved in deliberations involving the question of whether or not a U.S. attorney should or should not be asked to resign.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales says that's consistent with what he said in the past. David Barron is a Harvard law professor who worked in the Justice Department in the '90s. He says once the attorney general starts dissecting what the word involved means you know things are bad.

Professor DAVID BARRON (Law, Harvard University): President Clinton learned this to some extent in the Monica Lewinsky situation. People tend to be less willing to parse the exact words that you use and more interested in the general impression you created.

SHAPIRO: Barron says Gonzales first created the general impression that he was uninvolved in the firings. Then yesterday, the attorney general's former chief of staff portrayed Gonzales as very involved.

Prof. BARRON: And this has also been a bit of a problem in the attorney general's account, which is on the one hand the attorney general should be involved in the decision of this significance and it would be problematic if he wasn't. On the other hand, the decision itself seems to have been the source of all the controversy. And so there's an obvious sense that maybe it's beneficial to distance himself from it.

SHAPIRO: Not an easy line for anyone to draw. David Rivkin works for Justice Department in previous Republican administrations. He says it doesn't help the attorney general that senators investigating this scandal have a backlog of animosity built up against the attorney general and his boss, from Guantanamo to the Patriot Act to the warrantless surveillance program.

Mr. DAVID RIVKIN (Former Justice Department Official): This is unfortunately how things work in Washington. You're not just attacked for your latest alleged transgression, this is the time to settle scores. And then of course there's an institutional interest - nobody in Congress, Republican or Democrat, likes a situation where they feel they've been misled.

SHAPIRO: There's a small fraternity of people who've managed a major political scandal from inside the White House. Lanny Davis is part of the fraternity. He handled a bunch of crises during the Clinton administration. Senior White House officials have reportedly consulted Davis about how to deal with this scandal. He says if he has any advice for the attorney general, it's this: follow the rule of deep holes.

Mr. LANNY DAVIS (Former Clinton Adviser): Stop digging, turn the lights on, and get all the facts out - good and bad - and get it over with.

SHAPIRO: He says the Justice Department has taken the opposite approach instead, trying to find consistency in statements that appear contradictory.

Mr. DAVIS: Certainly continuing to dig a deep hole violates the rule of deep holes, which is you're never going to get out if you keep digging. So his only hope is to take a chance and say oops, we made a mistake.

SHAPIRO: Not the same as the attorney general's earlier statement - mistakes were made. As to whether Gonzales will stay or go, administration allies say for the time being the White House has decided to let the attorney general clean up his own mess.

According to these sources, the president, his chief of staff Andy Card, and his counsel Fred Fielding all decided it doesn't make sense to put someone else in the position now, when that person will just have to spend the next three months cleaning up what his predecessor left behind.

This morning in Boston, Gonzales seemed eager to clean up his own mess. He said he'd like the opportunity to tell Congress about the firings in greater detail. He's scheduled to testify in mid-April, although some observers say he needs to mend fences with Congress before then if he wants to save his job.

Democrats may have insured that the attorney general will stick around for the time being. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy told reporters the investigation will continue whether Gonzales is attorney general or not. That gives the White House less incentive to get rid of him.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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