WASHINGTON — With the resignation Monday of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the Bush administration faces its most daunting task: repairing the reputation of a Justice Department reeling from the controversy over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.
After months of damaging disclosures about his competency and congressional scrutiny of his leadership, Gonzales announced that he'd be leaving Sept. 17 but offered little explanation for the timing.
With no immediate replacement named by the White House, legal experts said the administration needed to select a new attorney general with significant legal experience and an unassailable reputation to end the criticism that had undermined the department since January.
"The Bush administration needs to pick someone from the outside who unquestionably will be seen as independent," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at Duke University.
Among the names floated as permanent replacements are Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Solicitor General Paul Clement, who was tapped as acting attorney general.
But Democrats warned the White House that Congress might not confirm Chertoff, whose tenure was marred by botched recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
Gonzales' departure is another blow to a White House that's struggled to regain its footing in the face of an unpopular war in Iraq and elections last fall that swept Republican majorities out of both houses of Congress.
Gonzales, the first Hispanic to serve as attorney general, was one of President Bush's closest advisers and an enabling force behind the administration's controversial policies on torture, domestic spying and the scope of presidential power.
In a brief statement, Gonzales didn't elaborate on his resignation or respond to questions. He voice quavered as he spoke of his rise from the son of poor Mexican immigrants to the top federal law-enforcement official.
"I have lived the American dream," he said. "Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days."
The timing of his resignation allowed him to leave on perhaps as high a note as the White House could hope for. The congressional investigation into the firings essentially has stalled with Bush's claims of executive privilege, leaving Democrats with the option of a risky court fight. Gonzales also waited until Bush's political adviser Karl Rove, whom Democrats saw as the more enticing target of their inquiry, had announced his own departure, giving Rove what amounted to political cover until the end.
Congressional leaders said that even with Gonzales gone, they had no intention of dropping their investigations into the controversies that ensnared him, from the prosecutors' firings to the administration's controversial and still secretive surveillance of Americans.
For months, the White House had insisted that Gonzales wasn't going anywhere. On Monday, President Bush said he'd reluctantly accepted his attorney general's resignation after "months of unfair treatment."
"It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons," Bush said in an appearance in Waco, Texas.
Several lawmakers and aides from both parties said they had no knowledge of any specific discovery or turn in the investigation that would have prompted the resignation.
Two congressional aides familiar with the probes into the Justice Department, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said Gonzales' departure came as lawmakers were preparing to push for additional information about the administration's wiretapping program, including more of FBI director Robert Mueller's private notes about the controversy.
Lawmakers said Mueller's notes might further contradict Gonzales' sworn testimony or show a fuller picture of the attorney general's role in surveillance programs, both in his past role as White House counsel and as attorney general.
Some analysts said a resignation had almost become inevitable because Gonzales had turned into a major political liability.
"The question wasn't whether he would go but when he would go," said Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College. "As long as he was a target, the entire administration was weakened, and the ongoing controversy could be used to discredit anything that came out of the White House or Justice Department."
White House officials said Gonzales had talked over the decision with his wife over the last several months and concluded it was in the best interest of the department. He called the president Friday and offered his resignation, the officials said.
Almost from the beginning of the war on terrorism, he'd been a magnet for controversy, overseeing nearly every policy criticized for expanding presidential power or minimizing civil liberties.
Gonzales' legal career rose with Bush's political trajectory: as a Texas Supreme Court justice, White House counsel and, since February 2005, the nation's chief law enforcement officer. Bush once eyed his friend as a potential nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.
With Bush making it clear that he wouldn't demand Gonzales' resignation, the attorney general had for months resisted Democratic calls to step down.
A turning point in congressional support came in April with Gonzales' disappointing testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He defended the firings even as he testified that he couldn't recall crucial conversations or meetings that involved Bush, Rove or key Justice colleagues.
Bruce Fein, a former Justice official under Reagan who's been one of Gonzales' harshest critics, said Gonzales' testimony had added pressure on him to go, but that may not have prompted his resignation.
"Whether there was provable perjury or not, the attorney general may have lied," Fein said. "But I don't think that's what finally precipitated it. I had reliable sources in the department saying when he would go visit U.S. attorneys' offices, the lawyers there wouldn't show up. They didn't want to talk to him. They were ashamed."
Democrats called Gonzales' resignation long overdue.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the resignation was "not the end of the story. Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House."
Several Republicans described Gonzales as a victim of politics. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a Judiciary Committee member, called Gonzales "a decent and honorable man" and "another casualty of the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington that does not serve the best interests of the American people."
But other Republicans joined Democrats in applauding Gonzales' departure.
"Our country needs a credible, effective attorney general who can work with Congress on critical issues ranging from immigration to investigating terrorism at home and abroad," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H. "Alberto Gonzales' resignation will finally allow a new attorney general to take on this task."
(Greg Gordon contributed to this story.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007