The GOP: Waiting for Gonzales to Walk

The pressure on Alberto Gonzales to resign intensified last week following his daylong grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The embattled attorney general was repeatedly unable to recall virtually anything about last year's firings of eight U.S. attorneys. GOP senators—hoping for a strong performance—were visibly pained when Gonzales couldn't remember a crucial Nov. 27, 2006, meeting (noted on his calendar), when he was briefed by his chief of staff about the firing plan. "Senator, I have searched my memory. I have no recollection of the meeting," Gonzales told GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions. The A.G. was even unable to recall a meeting where President Bush passed along complaints about the three U.S. attorneys—a talk that Bush himself has publicly recalled. (Gonzales said he now "understands" he had such a conversation.)

With that performance, Gonzales lost the Hill. When he spoke with the attorney general on Friday, Sessions urged Gonzales to "take the weekend" to determine whether he can still "be an effective leader," he said later in a statement. Rep. Adam Putnam, chairman of the House Republican Conference, called on Gonzales to step down—echoing a position that a group of top House GOPers privately delivered to Bush earlier in the month. "He's done something I didn't think possible. He's lost the confidence of almost all the Republicans in Congress," said one top GOP strategist who is close to the White House, anonymous when talking about sensitive personnel matters. A big GOP concern: Gonzales's continued presence will make it hard to move measures important to the party's base, like immigration reform, through the judiciary committees, said the strategist.

But Gonzales himself was hanging tough. "We believe the burden is now on the Democrats to prove that something improper occurred here—and they haven't done that," said a top Justice official (who asked not to be ID'd talking about nonpublic matters). Publicly, the White House was standing by its A.G. One White House adviser (who asked not to be ID'ed talking about sensitive issues) said the support reflected Bush's own view that a Gonzales resignation would embolden the Dems to go after other targets—like Karl Rove. "This is about Bush saying, 'Screw you'," said the adviser, conceding that a Gonzales resignation might still be inevitable. The trick, said the adviser, would be to find a graceful exit strategy for Bush's old friend.

The Democrats show no sign of backing down, demanding documents and threatening subpoenas for internal e-mails from the White House and the Republican National Committee (aides working for Rove frequently used RNC BlackBerrys). That's not the only threat. The Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates whistle-blower complaints, recently sent document requests to the White House and the Justice Department relating to the firing of one of the prosecutors, David Iglesias of New Mexico, according to an official familiar with the probe, requesting anonymity to discuss an ongoing case. (The office also is seeking e-mails relating to a complaint that the General Services Administration was used to promote GOP political candidates, a potential violation of the Hatch Act.) The requests ensure that whatever happens to Gonzales, the investigations will continue.