The Gonzales Affair: Blowing Up or Blowing Over?

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announcing the President's Identity Theft Task Force plan.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announcing the President's Identity Theft Task Force plan as Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras looks on during a Monday press conference. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Much of official Washington woke up this week flabbergasted to find Alberto Gonzales still attorney general of the United States. Most people thought his appearance at a Senate hearing last week was a "make or break" test, and that he failed that test miserably.

Gonzales replied to literally scores of questions about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys by saying he could not remember what happened or that he did not know the answer. He said he was not sure whether he had attended meetings that took place five months earlier.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were so embarrassed that several hinted (or even urged) that Gonzales resign. It was scarcely an original idea, as Democrats had been demanding Gonzales' head for months.

Yet President Bush immediately said he was pleased with the performance. Over the weekend, Gonzales was much in evidence at the White House Correspondents Association black-tie dinner, working the room and grinning for pictures. He said he had no intention of stepping down. And this week, the president weighed in again, saying that the hearing had "increased his confidence" in Gonzales' ability to do the job.

One had to wonder what job the president was referring to. It did not seem to be the job of running the Justice Department. But maybe Mr. Bush and his longtime lawyer and pal know something the rest of us don't.

Why did Gonzalez spend the month of April in preparation for this hearing and then have so little to say? Why did he need "murder boards" to rehearse his klieg-light ordeal if his strategy was going to be a lawyer's version of rope-a-dope?

Perhaps all those prep sessions were intended to produce exactly the kind of content-free testimony that Gonzales offered last week. Perhaps the White House was prepared for hostility from its erstwhile allies among the panel's Republicans.

This whole course of events, painful as it was for Gonzales, may still be preferable to having him reveal what he actually knows about the attorneys' dismissal.

What has been at issue from the start in this affair is not the president's right to fire prosecutors in the Justice Department. Neither has it been the maladroit manner in which the firing was handled. These points are not in dispute.

What's at issue is the role of the White House in seeking the dismissals, and the motivations behind that role. Initially, the official line was that the White House wasn't involved. Then it became clear the White House had been involved, and that certain members of Congress had weighed in against some of the attorneys who were removed.

That raised many questions. Were these prosecutors dismissed for failing to bring voter fraud cases against Democrats? Were they too zealous about prosecuting public corruption cases that may have included Republican officials or defense contractors?

And what about some of the other U.S. attorneys who were not dismissed? What pressures might have been brought to bear on them?

Beyond these questions about Justice lies the even larger allegation that the White House had been politicizing various departments of the executive branch, such as Interior or Defense, for years.

To ask such questions is not to prove wrongdoing, as the president himself has noted. Still, what are we to make of the refusal to answer them? Or even to appear before congressional committees?

Committees in both chambers of Congress are now seeking sworn testimony from officials in Justice (one of whom is claiming protection under the Fifth Amendment) and in the White House, where the president says he will make his staff available only for private interviews without oath or transcript. Yet another showdown is looming over the availability of White House e-mails relevant to this case.

So when Judiciary Committee senators from both parties posed questions of Gonzales that might have led to these larger questions, the first priority may have been for Gonzales to block them. It can hardly be disputed that he did so, even at the price of denigrating his own performance in office — indeed, depicting himself as incompetent.

As a result, the White House can at least hope that news from Virginia Tech and Iraq and the presidential campaign will shoulder the Gonzales story off the front page. Polls show roughly half the country doesn't know whether it wants Gonzales to stay or go.

Conversely, the clouds over Gonzales may not dissipate, but darken. Each round in this confrontation has raised public awareness of the case, and with it, the percentage of people who believe the attorney general should resign.

Had the resignation come weeks ago, when Gonzales' denials of involvement were first contradicted by his closest aides, it might have taken the steam out of the entire controversy. Now, instead, the steam in the boiler is building.

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