Alberto Gonzales, the controversial U.S. attorney general whose competency and honesty was questioned by Republicans and Democrats alike, has announced he will resign his position as the United States' top law enforcement official.
Gonzales is a longtime friend and political ally of U.S. President George W. Bush, who defended him to the end. "His good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons," Bush told reporters.
But Gonzales' announcement Monday drew expressions of relief from Republicans who saw him as a further embarrassment to a beleaguered administration burdened by the unpopular Iraq war. Democrats pledged to press ahead with their investigation into whether Gonzales improperly fired federal prosecutors in collaboration with the White House and for political reasons.
Bush is losing, effective Sept. 17, perhaps his most loyal Cabinet member, whose public career has been closely linked to Bush's. At the end, Bush was having to respond to the demands of both Republicans and Democrats that Gonzales resign over the botched handling of FBI terror investigations and the prosecutors' dismissals.
Bush had stood defiantly by his friend and told reporters Monday that he accepted Gonzales' resignation reluctantly.
"After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to submit his resignation, and I have accepted his decision."
Bush named Paul Clement, the top government lawyer as solicitor general, as a temporary replacement. With less than 18 months remaining in office, there was no indication when he would name a permanent replacement or how quickly the Senate might confirm one.
Speculation about a successor began immediately, and included Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff; Asa Hutchinson, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration; former solicitor general Ted Olson; and Larry Thompson, who was the second-ranking official at the Justice Department in Bush's first term.
Apart from the president, there were few Republican expressions of regret after the departure of Gonzales, the nation's first Hispanic attorney general, a man once hailed as the embodiment of the American Dream.
"Our country needs a credible, effective attorney general who can work with Congress on critical issues," said Republican Sen. John Sununu, who last March became the first lawmaker from Bush's party to appeal to Gonzales to step down.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, another Republican, added, "Even after all the scrutiny, it doesn't appear that Attorney General Gonzales committed any crimes, but he did make management missteps and didn't handle the spotlight well when they were exposed."
Democrats were considerably less charitable.
Under Gonzales and Bush, "the Department of Justice suffered a severe crisis of leadership that allowed our justice system to be corrupted by political influence," alleged Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has presided over the investigation into the firings of eight prosecutors who Democrats say were axed for political reasons.
Sen. Harry Reid, leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate, said the investigation would not end with Gonzales' departure.
"Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House," Reid said.
Gonzales also has struggled in recent months to explain his involvement in a 2004 meeting at the bedside of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had refused to certify the legality of Bush's no-warrant wiretapping program. Ashcroft was hospitalized in intensive care at the time.
More broadly, the attorney general's personal credibility has been a casualty of the multiple controversies. So much so that Sen. Arlen Specter, senior Republican on Leahy's Judiciary Committee, told him at a hearing into the dismissed federal prosecutors that his testimony was "significantly if not totally at variance with the facts."
Gonzales made a brief appearance before reporters at the Justice Department to announce his resignation. Despite his tribulations, said Gonzales, the son of illiterate migrants, "Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days."
Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee as recently as July 24 that he had decided to stay in his post despite numerous calls for his resignation.
Several officials said the attorney general called Bush at his ranch Friday to offer his resignation. Bush did not attempt to dissuade him, accepting with reluctance, they said. The president then invited Gonzales and his wife to Sunday lunch.
Gonzales was among the longest-serving members of a group of Texans who came to Washington with Bush more than six years ago at the dawn of a new administration.
Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, announced his resignation last week. Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel who was forced to withdraw her nomination for the Supreme Court, left earlier in the year.
Gonzales, too, was once considered for the nation's highest court but conservatives never warmed to the idea and he was passed over.
His appointment as attorney general more than three years ago marked the latest in a series of increasingly high-profile positions that Bush has entrusted Gonzales with.
A Harvard-educated lawyer, Gonzales signed on with Bush in the mid 1990s. He served as general counsel and secretary of state when his patron was governor of Texas, then was assigned a seat on the state Supreme Court.
Gonzales was White House counsel during the president's first term, then replaced Ashcroft as attorney general soon after the beginning of his second.
Both jobs gave him vital responsibilities in what Bush considers a worldwide war on terror that he proclaimed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In a legal memo in 2002, Gonzales contended that Bush had the right to waive anti-torture laws and international treaties that protected prisoners of war. The memo said some of the prisoner of war protections contained in the Geneva Convention were "quaint" and that in any event, the treaty did not apply to terrorist enemy combatants.
Human rights groups later claimed his memo led directly to the abuses exposed in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.
Of greater political concern was the Democratic majority that took office in Congress in January. Leahy soon began investigating the firing of eight federal prosecutors, who Democrats said had lost their jobs due to political considerations.
Testifying on April 19 before the Judiciary Committee, Gonzales answered "I don't know" and "I can't recall" scores of times when asked about events surrounding the firings.
His support among Republicans in Congress, already weak, eroded markedly, then suffered further with word of the bedside meeting in the intensive care unit of George Washington University Hospital three years earlier.
Former deputy Attorney General James Comey testified that with Ashcroft ill, he had refused to reauthorize the wiretapping program. Appearing before the Judiciary Committee, he described a confrontation in which Gonzales, White House counsel at the time, and then White House Chief of Staff Andy Card had appealed to Ashcroft to overrule his deputy. Ashcroft refused, saying he had transferred power to Comey.
Comey described the events as "an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general."
Gonzales subsequently denied that the dispute was about the terrorist surveillance program, but his credibility was undercut when FBI Director Robert S. Mueller contradicted him.
Several Democrats called for a perjury investigation, but no further action has been taken.