Newsday - Chertoff To Replace Gonzalez As Attorney General
Tom Brune and Carol Eisenberg
Early speculation on the replacement for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales focused yesterday on Michael Chertoff, but the Bush loyalist who is now Homeland Security chief could be a hard sell to the Democrats who control the Senate.
Chertoff topped the list of names mentioned as possible successors after Gonzales, who for months has fended off calls to quit amid charges he lied to Congress and politicized the Justice Department, yesterday announced his resignation, effective Sept. 17.
Yet a senior administration official cautioned the White House has not made Chertoff its final choice, and Democrats warned his selection could face tough confirmation hearings.
"There are a lot of questions about Michael Chertoff that will have to be answered," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third ranking Democrat in the Senate and the first to call for Gonzales to quit.
Chertoff, a Harvard Law graduate and Supreme Court clerk, worked on mob and political corruption cases in the 1980s under Manhattan's then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani. He later served as a counsel in the 1990s for Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) in his probe of the Clintons' Arkansas business dealings.
Schumer cited criticism of Chertoff's management skills after the Katrina disaster and his political partisanship in the Clinton Whitewater probe. His confirmation is possible, he said, "but it's hardly a slam dunk."
But Chertoff's name remains in the mix as White House chief of staff Josh Bolten prepares to make a recommendation for a replacement to President George W. Bush.
"There is a list. We are taking calls, we are making calls on both sides of the aisle," White House aide Ed Gillespie said on CNN. "We'll weigh those and pare down a list that the president will consider."
Among others rumored under consideration are former deputy attorney general Larry Thompson, now at Pepsi Co.; former solicitor general Ted Olson, now in private practice; Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, who declined comment; and Frances Fragos Townsend, White House homeland security adviser.
The White House has bought itself some time by appointing Solicitor General Paul Clement, who is respected on both sides of the aisle, as acting attorney general once Gonzales goes.
Clement can serve for 210 days before anyone is nominated and indefinitely once a nomination is made, said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
Schumer and other Democrats are urging Bush to meet them halfway on his selection and called for a contender who supports "the rule of law."
Democrats say they will be watching to see if the White House drops its combative stance in the wake of Bush adviser Karl Rove's departure.
Bush gave no sign of that yesterday, angrily complaining that the name of his longtime Texas friend and adviser had been "dragged through the mud for political reasons."
Chertoff, 53, a former top Justice Department official and federal appellate judge in New Jersey, was called a possible successor for Gonzales in March, when the attorney general came under criticism for the firing of eight prosecutors.
Speculation that he was the choice was fueled yesterday by word that Townsend had been asked to consider replacing him as Homeland Security secretary but had declined, according to a source with direct knowledge.
Most Democrats running for president pounced on the possibility of a Chertoff nomination.
"I don't think we should take the person responsible for Guantanamo and replace him with the person responsible for the aftermath of Katrina," said John Edwards.
Chertoff's selection also could cause its own complications: It would require two Senate confirmation hearings for a lame-duck presidency - one to fill Gonzales' post and another to confirm someone to replace Chertoff.
However, Chertoff supporters say he could weather a tough confirmation fight. He already has won near unanimous Senate confirmation as assistant attorney general, judge and Homeland Security secretary.
"He's proven he can take a lot of arrows," said former Homeland Security Undersecretary George Foresman.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said: "I don't know if Chertoff is getting it, but I do know that the president has a respect for Chertoff's legal abilities."