Justice Department sources told me on Friday morning that in addition to the two resignations I cited there was a third and quite significant one which might become public before the end of the day. I had no idea at the time that the resignation they were speaking about was the Attorney General’s, but that’s the case. The New York Times is reporting this morning that Alberto Gonzales tendered his resignation to President Bush on Friday to take effect from September 16, and that it will be accepted this morning, with a public statement to follow.
Lies to the Very End
As late as Sunday, Justice Department Brian Roehrkasse (remember, this is the man who continuously tells us that there is no evidence of political prosecutions) was telling reporters in response to queries prompted by the U.S. News piece discussed below, that Gonzales’s departure was not imminent. Salon’s Tom Grieve has some appropriate comments:
It may not be perjury when you send a lie to a reporter, so let’s just say that Alberto Gonzales’ tenure as attorney general is ending in the style to which we’ve become accustomed. As the New York Times reports, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse was asked Sunday about rumors that Gonzales’ resignation was imminent. Roehrkasse said he’d just talked with the attorney general by phone, “And he said it wasn’t true.”
That’s technically correct: Gonzales’ resignation wasn’t “imminent” because he had already submitted it. Gonzales resigned Friday, but the White House decided to delay the announcement until after Bush had lunch with Gonzales over the weekend in Crawford.
Chertoff the Successor?
The focus therefore will immediately turn to Gonzales’s successor. White House sources leaked the name of Michael Chertoff, the current Secretary of Homeland Security, to U.S. News & World Report late on Friday. This is a typical Washington move, designed to draw out potential criticism before a nomination is formally placed in contention. Chertoff has gone through the nominations process repeatedly in the past six years—as chief of the Criminal Division, as a federal appellate judge and then as head of DHS. No doubt White House insiders believe he’s been well-tested and thus can easily achieve confirmation.
But things have changed. Chertoff headed the Criminal Division when a quite striking politicization of the process occurred, and indeed, he had installed his closed protégé in the Division, Noel Hillman, as the manager of the Public Integrity Section which handled these political prosecutions. Chertoff was also deeply enmeshed in discussion of torture memoranda and has been linked, with Alice Fisher, to one memo addressing torture techniques—neither of these documents has yet surfaced. Finally, Chertoff bears principal responsibility for the FEMA catastrophe, including the mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina, which continues up to this point. Chertoff will therefore likely have a very rough time going forward, if his name is up. Stay tuned for updates through the day.
A Challenge and an Opportunity
The Department of Justice under Gonzales reached a moral low-point. It desperately needs new leadership that can begin to pull this institution out of the morass into which it has sunk. This is the time to think back to Gerald Ford and his inspired selection of Edward H. Levi as Attorney General in the dark days following Watergate. That was an appointment that fit the need perfectly; Levi was an unquestioned conservative. But he was also very distant from the rough and tumble of partisan politics and he was a person of unquestioned integrity. If Bush is concerned about the country and about the Justice Department, he will find his own Ed Levi. But at this point there is no reason to anticipate such a nominee. Jack Balkin has his pulse on the realities of this administration:
No one person can cure what ails the Justice Department these days. It will take determined leadership and reform by a large number of individuals. I have no confidence that the current Administration will put the right people in place. We may have to wait for a new Administration, and even then to fix what Alberto Gonzales did to the United States Department of Justice may take many years.