Bush Nominates His Top Counsel for Justice Post
By DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC LICHTBLAU
Published: November 11, 2004
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 10 - President Bush on Wednesday nominated Alberto R.
Gonzales, the White House counsel and a longtime political loyalist, to
be his next attorney general.
The speed with which Mr. Bush acted, only a day after making public the
resignation of John Ashcroft, indicated that the president wants to get
his new appointees in place before the start of his second term, 10
weeks from now. The nomination of Mr. Gonzales would also put one of his
most trusted aides in a post where past presidents have wanted to have a
confidant, as well as someone who can help defend the White House, much
as John F. Kennedy chose his brother Robert, or Ronald Reagan chose
Edwin Meese III.
Mr. Bush said of Mr. Gonzales in a brief announcement in the Roosevelt
Room of the White House: "His sharp intellect and sound judgment have
helped shape our policies on the war on terror, policies designed to
protect the security of all Americans while protecting the rights of all
Americans. He is a calm and steady voice at times of crisis."
If confirmed, Mr. Gonzales will be the first Hispanic ever to serve as
the nation's most senior law enforcement officer.
The choice was immediately embraced by Senate Republicans, who promised
speedy action on the nominee. But Senate Democrats appear eager to
question Mr. Gonzales, who is considered more conservative than several
other leading candidates for the attorney general's job. Issues almost
certain to come up in his confirmation hearings include his stances on
terrorism and civil liberties; the treatment of detainees in Iraq and
Guantánamo Bay; the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act,
passed in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks; abortion; the death
penalty; and other potentially contentious issues.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a leading Democrat on law
enforcement and judicial issues, said he was "concerned about aspects of
his record as White House counsel that raise doubts about his commitment
to the rule of law."
Even before the announcement, civil liberties and human rights groups
began recirculating copies of drafts of memorandums Mr. Gonzales or his
aides wrote, including one from January 2002, advising Mr. Bush that the
"nature of the new war" on terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict
limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of
Many civil rights groups on Wednesday were quick to attack Mr. Gonzales
for what they saw as legal policies and opinions that opened the door to
the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Critics of Mr.
Gonzales argue that such logic put military and intelligence officials
on the path to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, even though the White House had
previously insisted that the Geneva conventions applied to detainees.
Mr. Gonzales has denied a link between those memorandums and the abuses.
Yet the issue seems bound to be explored, and Anthony Romero, head of
the American Civil Liberties Union, said the 2002 memorandum "will be
the single toughest issue for him, because there's actually a paper
Mr. Bush spoke emotionally of Mr. Gonzales's background as the son of
migrant workers, and of his confidence in an old friend who has been at
his side since 1995, when Mr. Gonzales came to the Texas state house to
help the newly elected governor as his top legal counselor. At the White
House, the nominee is known as "Judge Gonzales" in the White House
because of his post on the Texas Supreme Court before coming to
Washington with Mr. Bush four years ago.
While the selection of Mr. Gonzales as attorney general may create a
public fight, some Senate Democrats said they might want to save their
heavy ammunition for what is expected to be a battle over possible
Supreme Court nominees rather than expending it on what is likely to be
a losing cause for attorney general.
For months, there has been speculation in Washington that Mr. Gonzales
would be selected to fill any vacancy on the Supreme Court. White House
officials said he preferred the attorney general's job, and Republicans
close to the White House said there was no reason he might not be
nominated to the court later in Mr. Bush's term.
A court appointment, senior Republicans said, could have prompted a more
intense confirmation fight, especially because some conservatives regard
Mr. Gonzales as too moderate on the question of abortion and not
sufficiently hardline in opposing affirmative action.
Then again, Mr. Bush's nomination of Mr. Ashcroft for attorney general
in 2000 was also expected to gain confirmation relatively smoothly, but
the 58-to-42 vote was the closest for the position in decades.
Some reaction to the nomination suggested that the shadow of Mr.
Ashcroft, whose resignation was announced Tuesday after a four-year term
that won him admirers as well as enemies, could work to the advantage of
"I think he's a pretty solid guy," Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat
of Delaware, said of Mr. Gonzales. "If you had said to me six months ago
I can have Gonzales or Ashcroft, it wouldn't have been a hard choice."
Republicans and Democrats said there was little reason to think that Mr.
Gonzales, as a longtime insider at the White House, would take the
Justice Department on a path dramatically different from that of Mr.
Ashcroft on issues like terrorism, white-collar crime, gun enforcement,
judicial nominees or civil rights.
"There's a feeling that Gonzales is less confrontational that John
Ashcroft and he at least tries to reach out," Senator Charles E.
Schumer, Democrat of New York, said in an interview. "His style is not
to throw down the gauntlet. So the White House has taken a step back
from the red-hot confrontation that Ashcroft embodied, but we don't know
how big a step back."
Mr. Ashcroft had a sometimes tense and distant relationship with the
White House, in contrast to Mr. Gonzales's place as a close confidant to
As White House counsel, Mr. Gonzales took on much broader powers than
many of his predecessors in formulating legal policy and tactics, a role
that supporters said should position him well to act as the nation's top
law enforcement official.
Some legal analysts said Mr. Gonzales's relationship with Mr. Bush
reminded them of the Justice Department reigns of Robert Kennedy, who
served as attorney general under his brother, John F. Kennedy, and of
Mr. Meese, who was a White House counselor and close adviser to Ronald
Every attorney general ultimately answers to the president, but
historically, some have seen themselves largely as extensions of the
White House, while others were more willing to try and insulate
themselves from political pressures. Most famously, Elliot Richardson
resigned in 1973 after refusing to fire the Watergate special
prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
"A quasi-independence is something that historically has been valued at
the Justice Department," said Elliott Mincberg, legal director for
People for the American Way, a liberal group that raised concerns about
Mr. Gonzales's nomination. "With Gonzales at the Justice Department, it
raises the question of his willingness and ability to be independent and
to shift to a very different role than he had at the White House."
Republican leaders described Mr. Gonzales as an able steward for the
administration's legal policies. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader,
said he had "lived the American Dream - from humble roots as the son of
migrant workers who never finished elementary school to be nominated by
the president of the United States as the first Hispanic American
Mr. Bush also met Wednesday with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who
is rumored to be looking to leave the administration, though perhaps not
for several months. The president ducked a question about Mr. Powell's
future, telling reporters in the Oval Office today, "I'm proud of my
secretary of state - he's done a heck of a good job."
But he said nothing about Mr. Powell's future, just as he has been
studiously silent about what may happen to another of his closest
advisers, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. Ms. Rice and
John Danforth, the ambassador to the United Nations, are considered two
of the leading candidates to replace Mr. Powell if he departs, but in
the past Ms. Rice has suggested that she would be impatient with the
diplomatic formalities and constant travel of the job.
Asked on Wednesday about the speculation about Mr. Powell's future,
Richard Boucher, the state department spokesman, said, "The only voices
that matter are the president and the secretary, and they don't have
anything to say or speculate right now."