Facing the prospect of increasingly aggressive congressional inquiries into his politicization of the Department of Justice, as well as an energetic House push for his impeachment, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has announced that he will resign effective September 17.
Gonzales, the former White House counsel who made clear during his two-and-a-half-year tenure as the nation's top cop that he served President Bush rather than the Constitution, announced his exit strategy just days before the Congress returns from a summer break during which senators and representatives had gotten an earful about the need to get rid of Gonzales.
A proposal by Washington Democrat Jay Inslee, a respected former prosecutor, to have the House Judiciary Committee investigate whether Gonzales should be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors, attracted 27 cosponsors during the current recess and would have drawn many more with the return of the House in early September.
The Attorney General was ripe for impeachment -- or, at the very least, the censure proposed by U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin -- because of a rapidly broadening recognition that Gonzales had displayed a blatant disregard for the law since his arrival in Washington in 2001 at the side of his longtime friend and political benefactor George Bush.
"Alberto Gonzales was the 'Enabler General' for the imperial Bush presidency," said People For the American Way President emeritus Ralph G. Neas upon learning of the Attorney General's decision. "He undermined the Constitution, made a mockery of the rule of law, and turned the Justice Department into an arm of the Bush Administration's political operation.
Gonzales, whose signature line was a declaration that he served "at the pleasure of the president," made it his business as White House Counsel and Attorney General to do just that.
As Feingold said this morning, "Attorney General Gonzales' tenure was marked by unprecedented politicization of the Department of Justice, deception of Congress and the American people, and disrespect for the rule of law. He should never have been confirmed and should have resigned long ago. The first loyalty of the next attorney general must be to the law, not the president."
Gonzales reversed the "first loyalty" equation enunciated by Feingold.
As Counsel from 2001 to 2005, Gonzales blocked requests from the General Accounting Office for information about Enron officials meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force. He refused requests from congressional committees for information that the House and Senate had a right -- and a need. He made the legal case for torture, despite the fact that the Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment. He outlined schemes for subverting the judicial system and its rules by making terror suspects eligible for military tribunals. He helped convince Bush to refuse to afford prisoners held at Guantanamo the basic protections afforded prisoner-of-war under treaties the United States had accepted as the law of the land.
As the nation's 80th Attorney General -- a position he took in February, 2005, after the Senate voted 60-36 to confirm his nomination -- Gonzales extended his representation of Bush into should be an independent federal agency. He defended the president's authorization of an illegal warrantless wiretapping program. He accepted the "extraordinary rendition" of suspects from U.S. custody to that of torture regimes. And he turned the Department of Justice into an extension of Karl Rove's White House political shop.
Revelations about the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys who were seen by the administration as insufficiently political in their investigations and prosecutions opened up an investigation that has begun to confirm a broad scheme to politicize the Justice Department's work in the area of voting rights -- a scheme apparently designed by Rove to suppress turnout by minorities and others who might vote Democratic.
The investigation into those machinations has hit the administration hard -- so hard that the president is now jettisoning his oldest and closest aides in order to prevent the inquiry from evolving into a serious examination of his own lawlessness.
Today's exit announcement by Gonzales comes just days after Rove signaled his plan to go.
The important thing now is to make sure that the administration does not succeed in using high-profile departures to shut down -- or, at the very least, to diminish the seriousness and the extent of -- those inquiries.
When Rove announced the he was leaving, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, made it clear that the political aide remained a target of broad inquiries by the judiciary committees of the House and Senate.
"Mr. Rove acted as if he was above the law. That is wrong, Leahy said at the time. "Now that he is leaving the White House while under subpoena, I continue to ask what Mr. Rove and others at the White House are so desperate to hide. Mr. Rove's apparent attempts to manipulate elections and push out prosecutors citing bogus claims of voter fraud shows corruption of federal law enforcement for partisan political purposes, and the Senate Judiciary Committee will continue its investigation into this serious issue."
Referencing the growing sense that the inquiry into wrongdoing in and around the Justice Department could yet be the undoing of the Bush-Cheney administration, Leahy added, "The list of senior White House and Justice Department officials who have resigned during the course of these congressional investigations continues to grow, and today, Mr. Rove added his name to that list. There is a cloud over this White House, and a gathering storm. A similar cloud envelopes Mr. Rove, even as he leaves the White House."
The "list" referenced by Leahy gets longer with the news that Gonzales is going.
But the essential question with regard to Gonzales remains the same as the question that Leahy laid down when Rove said he would go: What are these people so desperate to hide?
The answer is that, just as Gonzales and Rove served Bush rather than the Constitution, they now seek with their resignations to protect Bush -- and Vice President Cheney -- from investigations that are necessary to any serious effort to restore the primacy of the founding document in the affairs of the nation.
Only a continued inquiry into the lawlessness of the soon-to-be-former Attorney General will achieve what is the essential purpose of this Congress: the restoring of the rule of law to a country deeply damaged by petty little men who chose personal loyalties and political expediency over their duty to the Republic.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"