There’s another reason — besides adolescent stubbornness — that President Bush does not want Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to leave office. Aside from the fact that he’s afraid to be seen as caving into the Democrats (as well as a bunch of Republicans), according to former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the House Judiciary Committee that impeached Richard Nixon, the last thing the White House wants to go through is a confirmation hearing for the next AG.
Already, the Senate is outlining conditions for confirming a Gonzales successor. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has said that his panel would not hold confirmation hearings unless Karl Rove and other White House aides testify about the firing of U.S. attorneys to clarify whether “the White House has interfered with prosecution.”
All this is reminiscent of the Watergate scandal. In 1973, as the coverup was unraveling, the Senate imposed a condition on the confirmation of President Nixon’s nominee for attorney general, Elliot Richardson. Richardson’s predecessor had resigned because of Watergate troubles. Concerned that the Justice Department would not get at the truth, the Senate insisted that Richardson would name a special prosecutor to investigate Watergate. Richardson duly appointed Archibald Cox.
The rest is history. Cox’s aggressive investigations led to the prosecution of top administration officials and the naming of Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator in the coverup. When Cox sought White House tapes of Nixon’s conversations with his staff, the president had him fired, unleashing a firestorm of protests. Americans demanded that a previously reluctant Congress start impeachment proceedings against Nixon. Congress complied; the House Judiciary Committee, of which I was a member, voted for impeachment, and Nixon resigned.
Aspects of this history could easily repeat themselves. The Senate could demand, as it did in 1973, that a new attorney general appoint a special prosecutor, and this could again have dire consequences for the White House.
A new special prosecutor would have many questions to investigate.
Rather than face such scrutiny, the White House may prefer keeping a drastically weakened Gonzales in place. But doing so exacts a high price for the Justice Department and the nation. It damages department morale and credibility, undermines its ability to recruit and could affect perceptions of federal prosecutors, jeopardizing important cases. By retaining Gonzales to preempt Senate action, the president has signaled that this is a price he is willing to make the nation pay.
So, what’s more important to the Bush administration? Doing the public’s business, or keeping themselves out of trouble and possibly jail?
Or is that a dumb question?