Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says he is not going anywhere.
Never mind that he is caught up in the biggest scandal involving a sitting Attorney General since the sordid days of the 192Os.
Never mind that the scandal that plagues Gonzales involves the same sort of concerns about the politicization of the Department of Justice and the federal bureaucracy that ultimately forced Richard Nixon from office in the 197Os.
Never mind that even Republicans are saying the firing of US attorneys who would not agree to launch pre-election prosecutions of Democrats has created “a crisis with the Justice Department”–to borrow a phrase from conservative Nevada Senator John Ensign–while Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are beginning to echo the assessment of New York Senator Charles Schumer, who says that Gonzales has engaged in an “unprecedented breach of trust and abuse of power.”
Never mind that Schumer well sums of the crisis when he says that Gonzales has “either forgotten the oath he took to uphold the Constitution or doesn’t understand that his duty to uphold the law is greater than his duty to protect the president.”
Never mind that Schumer and a growing number of senators and presidential candidates have called on Gonzales to step down.
Gonzales knows that calls for his resignation are no more consequential than complaints about his disregard for the rule of law when it comes to torture and civil liberties.
While he may in fact have violated his oath of office and placed himself in direct conflict with the Constitution, the Attorney General claims that he is accountable only to his president.
“I work for the American people and serve at the pleasure of the president,” says Gonzales.
Bush, the Attorney General argues, will decide whether he will continue to run the Justice Department.
Gonazales ought to peruse his Constitution a little more closely.
The Attorney General does serve at the pleasure of the president, who nominated him to serve in the position two years ago and who, according to initial White House statements, “has all the confidence in the world” in Gonzales.
But Gonzales occupies the venerable position of Attorney General because the Senate, which is empowered by the Constitution to provide the president with advice and consent regarding Cabinet picks, consented to his becoming the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
The Congress has the power to withdraw that consent via the process of impeachment.
If Gonzales refuses to do the honorable thing and resign of his own accord, and if Bush refuses to cause his appointee to surrender control of the Department of Justice, Congress is fully empowered to force the hand of the Attorney General.
The Constitution is clear on this point. “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” reads Section 4 of Article 2.
Congress has a rich and healthy history of withdrawing its consent and aggressively challenging lawbreaking attorneys general. In 1923, after Republican political fixer Harry Micajah Daugherty turned the Department of Justice into a den of iniquity, the great Montana populist Senator Burton K. Wheeler led progressives in a fight to bring Daugherty down for protecting the oil profiteers involved in the Teapot Dome scandal and a host of other wrongs. The Attorney General and his allies in the Department of Justice fought back by securing an indictment against Wheeler on trumped up charges, but the progressive reformers stood their ground.
Allies in the House launched impeachment initiatives, and Wheeler and his compatriots in both the Democratic and Republican parties made it clear that the Senate was ready to try the Attorney General. In short order, Daugherty was forced to resign.
Two years later, after Harlan Fiske Stone had cleaned up the mess Daugherty created, Republican President Calvin Coolidge nominated corporate lawyer Charles Warren, another conservative political operative, to serve as attorney general. Prodded by Wheeler and his fellow progressives, a Republican-controlled Senate rejected the Warren nomination twice in a week.
Wheeler said his purpose in refusing to allow attorneys general to serve merely at the president’s pleasure was to restore the rule of law and respect for a Constitution “from which we have wandered in recent times.”
In this time when another attorney general has wandered from Constitutional fundamentals, the question is not: “Will Alberto Gonzales, of his own accord, do the right thing?” It has been confirmed, time and again, that he won’t.
Nor is the question: “Will George Bush, of his own accord, do the right thing?” It has been confirmed, time and again, that he won’t.
The question is whether there is a Burton K. Wheeler in this Congress, a member of the House or Senate who is willing to utter the “i” word with regard to Alberto Gonzales and to fight to restore the rule of law and respect for a Constitution “from which we have wandered in recent times.”
John Nichols’ new book is