Digging In On Gonzales

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Who's winning in the fight over the U.S. attorneys?

The White House certainly seems to think it is. The Administration has lately been chuckling to itself, pleased that in spite of all the resolute prognostication of pundits and experts and what most observers viewed as Gonzales' less than stellar performance on Capitol Hill last week, Bush has managed to keep his Attorney General in office. Even as more Republican Senators, most notably John McCain, join the call for Gonzales to resign, many — some stunned, some frustrated, some simply resigned — say they think the White House has weathered the storm. "There's only two people who can make the decision," to remove Gonzales, says Texas Senator John Cornyn: Gonzales himself, and Bush.

That may well be true, but there are lots of people who can prolong the controversy, and that's exactly what the Democrats intend to do. First, they plan to expand the investigation beyond the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired. Judiciary staffers say the Senate committee will look at other U.S. attorney offices around the country for signs of Justice or White House politicization, including districts in Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Jersey. They intend to hold more hearings targeting Gonzales' involvement in the firings and raising further questions about his truthfulness in testifying. "The longer the microscope is out," says one staffer, "The more germs you're going to find."

On Tuesday, the Senate and House judiciary staffs interviewed William Moschella, the former Justice liaison to the Hill who pushed through changes in the Patriot Act to allow the interim appointment of prosecutors by the Attorney General. This Friday they will interview Bill McNulty, Gonzales' deputy, who was looped in on all key decision-making. Next week, according to the blog Talking Points Memo, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey is expected to testify before the House committee about his role in an earlier plan to fire certain attorneys, many of whom were not ultimately dismissed by Gonzales.

Earlier this week the House Judiciary committee granted immunity to Monica Goodling, a top liaison between Justice and the White House on the firings, who took the Fifth when she was subpoenaed early this year. And Alberto Gonzales himself is due to make a return appearance on the Hill May 10, this time in front of the House judiciary committee, where he can expect an even rougher ride than he got from Senators last week. The Senate Judiciary Committee has also written to Gonzales asking him to supplement his testimony "with answers to those questions for which you responded that you could not recall or did not know." The Committee chairman Patrick Leahy yesterday sent Gonzales a separate letter asking specifically for any e-mails Justice has that were written by senior White House adviser Karl Rove.

If it's not totally clear who's winning, it's easy enough to see who's losing: the U.S Justice Department, which is in a fair state of disarray as a result of Gonzales' continued presence. "There's a vacuum of leadership at the top of the department," says one senior Justice official. Privately, even top Gonzales aides admit that the impression in the department is that the Attorney General was, at best, out to lunch during the U.S. Attorney firings — his lack of recall during hearings only further underscored that impression. And the subject of the scandal has the ability to undermine morale there as well: nothing saps enthusiasm among prosecutors like the politicization of their work.

But morale at the Justice Department may not be the priority for the White House. They list the prosecution of the war on terror and resisting what they call political posturing by Democrats as the top reasons for keeping the AG. The Democrats, for their part, intend to make them pay for it.