Plenty of possibilities to replace Gonzales

And Ashby Jones


In seeking a replacement for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the Bush administration must find a candidate acceptable to Congress and able to reinvigorate a demoralized, fractured Justice Department.

President Bush, speaking Monday after Gonzales announced his resignation, didn't name a successor. An administration official said the nomination might be delayed until after Bush's trip to Australia next week.

The names of several possible candidates were making the rounds in Washington, but all of them face potential hurdles. They include Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former deputy attorney general and current PepsiCo Inc. executive Larry Thompson, former Solicitor General Theodore Olson and Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. Others include Homeland Security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller.

For a White House that usually has replacements lined up for top jobs, the uncertainty over Gonzales's successor underscores the difficulties the administration faces in finding a suitable candidate. Any candidate is likely to face a tough confirmation hearing by a Democrat-controlled Congress, for a job that will only last, at most, the remaining 1.5 years of the Bush administration.

Gonzales is one of the highest-ranking members of the Bush administration to step down since November, when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced his resignation. In that case, Bush named Robert Gates as his replacement at the same news conference.

For now, Paul Clement, the Justice Department's solicitor general, is serving as acting attorney general.

Chertoff, a former federal prosecutor and former head of the Justice Department's criminal division, has one of the strongest legal resumes for the job. But his position at Homeland Security would be hard to fill. In addition, his tenure at that agency was damaged by its slow response to Hurricane Katrina, and he has riled Democrats over how counterterrorism grants are doled out.

Those miscues "should be too difficult to overcome," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.

Chertoff, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney under Rudolph Giuliani in the 1980s and was appointed by former President George H.W. Bush to serve as the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, has support from an unlikely group: defense attorneys.

Carmen Hernandez, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the department needs someone to restore morale and integrity to the Justice Department, as well as to depoliticize how decisions are made.

"He was a U.S. attorney and he's much more steeped in the tradition of the Department of Justice than Gonzales ever was," she said. "Although NACDL frequently disagrees with [Chertoff], at least he is someone who will consider bona fide arguments."

The possible candidate with the least-negative image is Thompson. Widely respected by prosecutors and defense attorneys, his departure from Justice in 2004 caused concern among career employees at the department who respected his work and thought he was in line to succeed then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The question is whether he would leave Pepsi for a short-tenured job, legal experts said.

"Bush has openly said he wants Larry to come back in the administration many times," said John Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel and a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. But, Yoo concedes, "you have a year maybe, and the confirmation hearings are going to be unpleasant because of the presidential elections." Ultimately whoever gets the job, he says, will "only have four or five months to lead the department in the direction you want."

Olson, who served at Justice during the Reagan administration and the current president's first term, is also well-respected. One negative is his role in the Florida presidential-ballot recount that helped put Bush in the White House in 2000.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said Olson is "certainly very competent. The question is whether Democrats feel he is too much of a Republican partisan."

Sen. Hatch's name has also emerged, and Tobias predicted that Senate colleagues would confirm the Judiciary Committee ranking member "in a minute." In addition, Tobias said, while people may disagree with Hatch, "he can be bipartisan."

James Tierney, director of the National State Attorney General Program at Columbia Law School, said a Hatch nomination would be interesting. "People would say he's a politician but I don't think there's a reason to believe he couldn't be an honorable attorney general and that's really what we want," Tierney said.

Other possible replacements are long shots, including Messrs. Cox, former attorney general William Barr and Ashcroft. Cox is considered more valuable at the SEC, although some White House officials said he is considered too independent.

One of the more interesting names that has surfaced is Mueller's. A former U.S. attorney, he sided with Ashcroft and former Deputy Attorney General James Comey in opposing the Bush administration on some elements of its terrorist-surveillance program and he threatened to resign, along with other high-ranking Justice officials, if changes weren't made. Mueller's notes from a meeting with a hospitalized Ashcroft recently reignited questions about statements Gonzales had made.

After nearly six years as FBI director, the stress of heading the agency most responsible for preventing domestic terrorism may have Mueller looking for a change, one federal agent said, adding, "This would allow him to continue pushing for changes at the FBI while taking on a greater role in restoring credibility to the [Justice] Department."

Yoo said the White House may prefer that Mueller stay focused on remaking the FBI. "The worst thing you can do to a turnaround effort is switch captains on the boat while you're still turning it," he said.

John D. McKinnon contributed to this article

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