The resignation of Atty. Gen Alberto R. Gonzales on Monday removes a lightning rod of criticism for the Bush administration, which began looking for a credible replacement who could restore the effectiveness and reputation of the Justice Department -- and win confirmation without more partisan battles.
Gonzales announced his departure at a brief news conference, and declined to take questions. He acknowledged his gratitude to President Bush, who had stood by him for months while he endured repeated calls to resign amid the inquiry over fired U.S. attorneys.
Speculation on possible replacements began immediately, with the focus on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, a former Justice Department official. Also mentioned were Washington lawyer Theodore B. Olson, the former solicitor general, and Larry D. Thompson, general counsel of PepsiCo Inc. and formerly Justice's No. 2 official. Both men served under former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft in Bush's first term.
The White House seemed likely, but not certain, to turn to a Justice Department insider who could quickly make the transition and be effective in the 16 months left in the Bush presidency. Other observers speculated that Bush might select a current or former member of Congress in an effort to mend relations between the department and Capitol Hill.
Gonzales' announcement, though it came as a surprise Monday morning, had been long expected. He has battled accusations that he hired and fired prosecutors for political reasons, and misled Congress on a variety of subjects, including a warrantless electronic surveillance program launched after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The resignation is effective Sept. 17. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement will serve as acting attorney general until a successor is confirmed.
Gonzales told Bush in a phone call Friday night that he intended to resign. At Bush's request, he then flew to Texas with his wife to meet with the president on Sunday at his Crawford ranch.
The departure of Gonzales, a friend and confidant of Bush for more than a decade, marks the end of an era in which the president relied on a small circle of advisors who date back to his days as Texas governor.
In a statement tinged with bitterness and regret, Bush said Monday that he accepted the resignation reluctantly, while also appearing to bend to the political reality that the department had become dysfunctional under Gonzales' leadership.
"After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position, and I accept his decision," Bush said. "It's sad that. . . his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."
The abruptness of the decision surprised even Gonzales' top aides, who were informed of the plan late Sunday, and triggered conjecture about the timing of the announcement.
A source familiar with Gonzales' thinking said he had grown concerned in recent weeks about the effect the attacks were having on his family, and he thought that he had achieved progress in overhauling department hiring practices that had been the target of much criticism.
Other observers said administration officials had become increasingly concerned that Gonzales had become an ineffective voice for the administration on Capitol Hill. One major issue -- a permanent overhaul of the domestic wiretapping law -- is expected to be a priority for Democrats when Congress returns from its summer recess after Labor Day.
Democrats, having called on Gonzales to resign months ago, welcomed the decision. They pledged to continue a series of investigations into his tenure, including his involvement in the firing last year of nine U.S. attorneys, which Democrats have alleged was devised in conjunction with the White House to ensure that federal prosecutors helped advance the interests of the Republican Party.
They also raised the prospect of a fierce confirmation fight, depending on the nominee Bush chooses to succeed Gonzales.
"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," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, referring to the White House advisor who is also stepping down, effective Friday. "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."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said that Bush's nominee to succeed Gonzales must pledge "to cooperate with ongoing congressional oversight into the conduct of the White House in the politicization of federal law enforcement."
A leading Gonzales critic, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), said it was time for Bush to choose a replacement who was "a professional, not a partisan, not a pal."
Bush gave no hint on when he might nominate a successor.
At the same time, even some Democrats acknowledged that without Gonzales in office, some of the steam would be taken out of their investigative zeal. His departure also eliminates for Democratic presidential hopefuls a popular campaign issue: Gonzales bashing. Most of them put out statements declaring his decision to leave long overdue.
Republicans said that the attorney general was a victim of partisan attacks from Congress' Democratic majority. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called Gonzales' resignation "another casualty of the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington."
Gonzales' mistake, Cornyn said, was "underestimating the ferocity of relentless partisan attacks and not preparing more to address them."
The resignation marks a stunning fall from grace. Gonzales, 52, had once been on Bush's short list of nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court. He made history as the first Latino to hold the post of attorney general.
But he seemed ill-suited to manage a far-flung department of more than 100,000 people; in testimony to Congress he sometimes appeared detached and uninformed about many operational details he was questioned about. He also granted unprecedented authority to a circle of inexperienced young aides and did little to hold them accountable for their actions. The lax oversight prompted a Justice Department inspector general investigation into whether career prosecutors and immigration judges were chosen based on their political leanings. That investigation continues.
Mostly, he was unable to shake the impression that he was a political arm of Bush masquerading as the country's top law enforcement officer.
In his parting remarks, Gonzales, the son of migrant workers, sought to downplay the controversy surrounding his tenure. "Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days," he told reporters.
In a resignation letter, dated Sunday, he told Bush that he believed "this is the right time for my family and I to begin a new chapter in our lives."
"I remain by your side."
Times staff writers Richard Simon and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.