By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' resignation Monday after months of draining controversy drew expressions of relief from Republicans and a vow from Democrats to pursue their investigation into fired federal prosecutors.
President Bush, Gonzales' most dogged defender, told reporters he had accepted the resignation reluctantly. "His good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons," Bush said.
The president named Paul Clement, the solicitor general, as a temporary replacement. With less than 18 months remaining in office, there was no indication when Bush would name a successor — or how quickly or easily the Senate might confirm one.
Apart from the president, there were few Republican expressions of regret following the departure of 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 Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, who last March was the first GOP lawmaker to call on Gonzales to step down. "Alberto Gonzales' resignation will finally allow a new attorney general to take on this task."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, 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 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," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has presided over the investigation into the firings of eight prosecutors whom Democrats say were axed for political reasons.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the investigation would not end with Gonzales' leaving.
"Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House," said the Nevada Democrat.
Gonzales also has struggled in recent months to explain his involvement in a 2004 meeting at the hospital bedside of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had refused to certify the legality of Bush's no-warrant wiretapping program. Ashcroft was 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 GOP member of the Judiciary Committee, told him at a hearing on the 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. "Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days," said the son of migrants.
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 last Friday to offer his resignation. Bush did not attempt to dissuade him but accepted with reluctance, they said. The president then invited Gonzales and his wife to Sunday lunch.
Gonzales was one of 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 high 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 entrusted him 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 won an appointment to 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 the second.
Both jobs gave him key responsibilities in the administration's global war on terror that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In a legal memo in 2002, he 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 Conventions were "quaint" and that in any event, the treaty did not apply to enemy combatants in the war on terror.
Human rights groups later contended 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 earlier this year. Leahy soon began investigating the firing of federal prosecutors.
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 Ashcroft 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 White House Chief of Staff Andy Card had appealed to Ashcroft to overrule his deputy. The ill 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.
Associated Press writers Lara Jakes Jordan, Jennifer Loven, Matt Apuzzo and Terence Hunt contributed to this story.