Gonzales' Tough Week

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
I was going to write this morning about Atlanta Falcons' quarterback Michael Vick and the Kobe-like arraignment he endured Thursday—news flash: his lawyer says he's innocent—but when I trawled through the papers online this morning it became clear that the most profound legal story around still involves the drama surrounding the increasingly embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

It's been a tough week for President George W. Bush's old pal; a tough week that is part of his self-made annus horribilus. First, he dubiously declared that he was part of the solution, not the problem, at Justice, where morale has plummeted as a result of the U.S. Attorney scandal and its aftermath. Then, Gonzales once again appeared before Congress and once again offered a pathetic performance that actually would have been funny if it weren't so sad.

Gonzales' appearance "was devastating," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But so was the hearing before that, and so was the hearing before that." You can easily imagine what the Democrats on the Committee had to say. Actually you don't have to imagine. Four of them are so convinced that the Attorney General is a lying hack that they have asked Solicitor General Paul D. Clement to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Gonzales' statements before Congress.

But even that development was a prelude to Thursday's big news on this front. FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, in sworn testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, directly contradicted the Attorney General's sworn account of a major conflict within the Justice Department a few years ago over the White House's controversial warrantless domestic spy program. Although I am sure they will try, it will be quite hard Gonzales' tribunes and their masters at the White House to spin Mueller as a liberal, partisan kook.

Mueller's testimony supports the testimony offered a few months ago by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey. Both men say that there was a big dispute inside the executive branch over whether the Justice Department should sign off on a renewal of the President's spy program, so much so that then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales was forced to go to the hospital to try to cajole an ailing John Ashcroft, then Attorney General, into signing off on the plan. It is that visit- what preceded it, why and how it occurred, and what role Gonzales played in it—that has become the focal point of the Congressional inquiry.

Gonzales says the dispute was over a whole different super-secret spy program. He says that Comey and Company have got it all wrong. And he argues that his late-night visit to Ashcroft's bedside was merely an act of caution and care rather than a creepy attempt to take advantage of an ailing and sedated man. But few people seem to believe him, including especially the members of Congress who have had to deal with his consistent obfuscations over the past few months. There is a reason that several member of the Judiciary Committee Tuesday called out Gonzales to his face; they are tired of getting half-answers to legitimate questions.

President Bush keeps saying that he continues to have confidence in his buddy Gonzales. But it's hard to imagine how this ends well if the Attorney General lingers on in office, without any credibility or confidence from the very lawmakers he must work closely with in generating legislation and otherwise enforcing the laws of our land. Gonzales keeps telling anyone who is still willing to listen to him that he is telling the truth and has done nothing wrong. But the weight of the evidence continues to mass against him.

Either Comey and Mueller are both lying about that spy program or Gonzales is. I believe Comey and Mueller. So do more and more members of Congress. Whom do you believe? And, more importantly, whom do you think the President ought to believe as the controversy swirls, the morale at Justice ebbs, and the country goes another month, another week, another day, without a remotely effective Attorney General?