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Bush digging in heels for Gonzales

Bush Honor and Integrity
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the U.S. Capitol in Washington Thursday, April 19, 2007 about the controversial dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.Susan Walsh / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has fewer and fewer supporters in Washington, but he's got the one who counts. The question is: Why does President Bush back him so strongly when so many other Republicans think Gonzales should quit?

Bush's loyalty to certain aides and associates, particularly ones he brought from Texas, runs deep. It has been seen before in his strong defenses of former White House counsel Harriet Miers, whom Bush tried to seat on the Supreme Court despite her lack of judicial experience, and in political adviser Karl Rove, the target of many Democratic-run investigations.

Beyond loyalty, there's another Bush personality trait at play that most people now recognize: stubbornness. After all, polls show as many as two-thirds of people oppose the war in Iraq, but that hasn't stopped Bush from aggressively pursuing it and putting himself into a veto battle with the Democratic-controlled Congress.

He clearly doesn't like to back down.

Protecting the administration
Bush's loyalty has extended to some non-Texans as well, including his dogged support - for a time - for Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. And for World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, one of the original architects of the Iraq war and now the center of a controversy over a pay-and-promotion package Wolfowitz crafted for his girlfriend, a fellow bank employee.

Bush has also strongly backed Vice President Dick Cheney against vigorous criticism.

The president is sticking with Gonzales, in defiance of rising Republican calls for his resignation, "to reward him for a form of loyal service," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist and longtime Bush watcher.

"What Gonzales is now doing is protecting the administration by essentially taking the heat for being the person that's forgotten everything and can't get his story straight," Buchanan said.

As awkward as that may seem, it also helps insulate Rove, Buchanan suggested.

If Rove is the one who orchestrated the firing of eight U.S. prosecutors - bungled steps that led to the current criticism of Gonzales - then the attorney general's halting testimony last week to the Senate Judiciary Committee helped to blur any direct links between Rove and the firings.

Subpoening Rove
The committee is investigating whether the U.S. attorneys were dumped primarily for political reasons, to be replaced by more compliant successors. The prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president but traditionally have been given wide latitude in administering justice without political interference.

Rove could be subpoenaed, but that could trigger a lengthy legal battle extending beyond the end of Bush's term in early 2009.

At the contentious Judiciary Committee hearing, Gonzales claimed dozens of times that he couldn't recall key details about the firings or about a meeting that records show he attended.

But while Gonzales' performance drew poor reviews, even from Republicans, Bush gave him a rave notice. telling reporters on Monday that the former Texas Supreme Court jurist's testimony only increased his confidence in his longtime friend. "This is an honest, honorable man," Bush said.

It turned out later that Bush hadn't watched any of Gonzales' more than seven hours of testimony. "He got regular updates from us, and I think he saw some news coverage of it later that day," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Weighing Gonzales' liability
But clearly, there are limits to Bush's loyalty. After all, Miers and Rumsfeld eventually were cut loose when they became too-big liabilities. Two of the most loyal Bush appointees - former Chief of Staff Andy Card and former press secretary Scott McClellan, a Texan who had been on Bush's gubernatorial staff - were jettisoned.

"I think Gonzales will go, and that Bush figures he will go when Republican senators travel to see him and tell him he's hurting the president," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "By not calling for Gonzales' resignation, Bush doesn't have to acknowledge having made an error in judgment in nominating him."

Republican angst grows. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., a stalwart Bush supporter, on Tuesday called Gonzales' congressional testimony weak and wondered "how long Alberto Gonzales can survive as attorney general. ... I am watching with care to see."

Earlier, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, cited a "very substantial decrease in morale" at Justice under Gonzales.

To Bush's vote of confidence for Gonzales' testimony, Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., said, "If that increased his confidence, then he has a very low bar indeed for what he needs for confidence."

Robert Raben, an assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration, said that Gonzales was staying on the job "because there's no Plan B."

"Gonzales testified just as you imagine Bush would have: `I made the decisions but I can't tell you any of the facts; I didn't spend a lot of time on the details; I'm sorry people feel bad,'" said Raben.

Gonzales acknowledges morale problems at his agency but says he is trying to overcome that in private talks with the 93 U.S. attorneys now on the job. "We're going to correct the mistakes that have been made. I have accepted responsibility," he told reporters.