With Republican support for Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales eroding, President Bush offered renewed confidence in his longtime friend Monday and said the attacks on him were “pure political theater.”
But the president did not respond directly when asked whether he expected Gonzales to serve until Bush’s term ends on Jan. 20, 2009.
Senate Democrats last week called for a vote of no confidence in the attorney general, while more Republicans joined in suggesting his resignation. The heat on Gonzales stems from an investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year and his testimony about it to Congress. Democrats and some of the fired prosecutors have said they suspect the dismissals were done not for performance reasons, as Gonzales has stated, but for political reasons, such as trying to influence elections.
Turning his anger on Congress, without mentioning individuals or even parties, Bush said that lawmakers should be focusing more on approving bills and less on what he presented as political role playing. And with no signs that the attorney general’s problems in Washington are abating -- indeed, he faced new challenges over the weekend -- Bush jumped at the opportunity to defend him.
Speaking at an abbreviated news conference outside the one-story stone office at his Prairie Chapel Ranch, Bush insisted, as he has since Gonzales found himself at the center of the controversy, that the attorney general had “done nothing wrong.”
Bush added that Gonzales was up against the sort of theatrical behavior that had “caused the American people to lose confidence in how Washington operates.”
“I stand by Al Gonzales and I would hope that people would be more sober in how they address these important issues,” Bush said. “And they ought to get the job done of passing legislation, as opposed to figuring out how to be actors on the political theater stage.”
While breaking no new ground in his defense of Gonzales -- who served as his first White House counsel and, before that, as a Texas Supreme Court justice and a Bush legal advisor in Texas -- the president’s response offered a new sign of support.
Gonzales appeared to have weathered the worst of the U.S. attorneys affair when some House Republicans came to his support in a hearing this month.
But then last week former Deputy Atty. Gen. James B. Comey testified before a Senate panel that Gonzales, when he was White House counsel in 2004, tried to push through a secret national security order over the objections of the Justice Department, which believed it was illegal. Comey’s testimony led to the call for a no-confidence vote.
On Sunday, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said he believed Gonzales would resign even before the Senate goes on record with its vote. “I have a sense that before the vote is taken, that Atty. Gen. Gonzales may step down,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Gonzales’ tenure as attorney general will draw more scrutiny this week when his former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, testifies on Capitol Hill on Wednesday about her role in the firings.
Senate Democrats indicated they would press ahead with the no-confidence vote, but said the immigration debate could delay the vote until after the Memorial Day recess.
“The president should understand that, while he has confidence in Atty. Gen. Gonzales, very few others do,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday. “Congress has a right -- and even an obligation -- to express its views when things are this serious.”
On Monday, Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and Artur Davis (D-Ala.), both former federal prosecutors, introduced a House resolution of no confidence in Gonzales. A vote will probably not occur until early June. Schiff, who was an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles for six years, said he thought the resolution would pass.
The delay, he said, should “give the attorney general a chance to step down on his own. Artur Davis and I brought this resolution reluctantly. We are heartsick about what has happened in the department under Gonzales.”
Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.