WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday faulted Democratic bloodlust on Capitol Hill for forcing the resignation of his longtime friend and ally, Alberto Gonzales, as attorney general.
Speaking Monday before traveling to New Mexico, Bush expressed profound disappointment that his protége is leaving his job as top law enforcement officer in the U.S. after two and a half years.
"After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position and I accepted his decision," Bush said, reeling off a long list of policy Gonzales helped form as Bush's senior counsel at the White House and at the Justice Department.
"It is sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."
But even the president's allies suggested it was time to wipe the slate clean at the Justice Department, whose employee morale and list accomplishments have dwindled in recent months as Gonzales faced deeper and deeper Senate scrutiny.
"The attorney general's resignation offers an opportunity for Washington to stop partisan bickering and move forward with the people's business," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
"I'm glad he's stepping down so the department can move forward with its important work," Sen. Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told FOX News.
Saying he was proud to serve the president, Gonzales earlier in the day announced that he had resigned from his position following a tumultuous 2007 marked by intensive Senate inquiries, investigations and examinations into his leadership at the Justice Department.
Gonzales' last day in the Bush administration will be Sept. 16.
"Yesterday, I met with President Bush and informed him of my decision to conclude my government service as attorney general of the United States effective as of September 17, 2007," Gonzales said in a brief press conference in which he thanked the Justice Department's employees for their service.
He added that he is grateful to the president for giving him the honor of serving the country.
"I often remind our fellow citizens that we live in the greatest country in the world, and that I have lived the American dream. Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days," he said.
An embattled Gonzales had been besieged by attacks on his credibility and capability over his handling of the firing of at least eight U.S. prosecutors last year and for statements he made to Congress about the debate over the legality of National Security Agency surveillance programs.
Gonzales on Friday called the president, who grudgingly accepted the resignation. Bush then invited Gonzales and his wife Becky to lunch on Sunday at the president's Crawford, Texas ranch. At that time, Gonzales gave the president the official resignation letter.
Bush named Solicitor General Paul Clement as temporary replacement for Gonzales until a permanent replacement is found. Bush said Clement, who currently serves in the second highest Justice Department position requiring Senate confirmation, has an impeccable record. Clement and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have been floated as possible permanent replacements, though Bush made no remarks indicating his direction on the next attorney general.
According to senior administration officials, there is a "sadness" in the White House that the situation "had to come to this." The president and senior officials believe Gonzales could have rode out the storm because Gonzales "did nothing wrong."
It's a "sad fact" that the atmosphere is such that Gonzales had to leave for the sake of his department, said an official who added that the administration was willing to stand by the attorney general.
Gonzales is one of the last members of the administration still around who had been with the president since before Bush was elected governor of Texas in 1994. Bush has steadfastly held that Gonzales did nothing wrong in the firings or legal decision-making and the probes were merely an attack on the administration for its decisions.
But even critics who agreed Gonzales had done nothing illegal by firing the attorneys argued that the handling of the public relations and his responsiveness to the Senate had raised several concerns.
Earlier this summer, Gonzales had addressed Justice Department employees to say he was going to ride out the storm. But several career officials had expressed a loss of confidence in the attorney general.
Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democrat leading the Senate investigations into Gonzales, said the attorney general made the right choice.
"This was long overdue, but thank God it has come. The Department of Justice was virtually non-functioning under the attorney general. It's a wonder he stayed on so long," Schumer, D-N.Y., told FOX News. Schumer said the top problem for Democrats regarding the attorney general is that he "did not put the rule of law first."
"The No. 2 problem is that he didn't competently" run the department, Schumer said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy indicated that just because Gonzales is out doesn't mean the panel will stop investigating possible breaches of law or ethics.
"The obligations of the Justice Department and its leaders are to the Constitution, the rule of law and the American people, not to the political considerations of this or any White House," said Leahy, D-Vt. "I hope the attorney general's decision will be a step toward getting to the truth about the level of political influence this White House wields over the Department of Justice and toward reconstituting its leadership so that the American people can renew their faith in its role as our leading law enforcement agency."
The timing of Gonzales' departure has been the subject of several questions. Some insiders indicated the president didn't want Gonzales to leave, and certainly wasn't going to let him go during the height of the Democratic firestorm. The announcement came the same day Bush was attending a fundraiser for New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, whose dust-up with one fired prosecutor became part of the narrative during the Senate hearings.
"The question is, why did he take this long? This bleed has been going on for more than a year," Democratic strategist Bob Beckel told FOX News, adding that the nominee to replace Gonzales will face a "contentious" hearing. Beckel predicted that Bush would name a Democrat just to get a nominee through the Democratic-led Senate.
"It would have to be a Democrat who is not a liberal Democrat," said Weekly Standard editor and FOX News contributor Fred Barnes, who doubted the president would pursue that course.
Schumer said he was under "no illusions" that the president will name a Democrat, but the nominee must be someone who Democrats are confident "will put the rule of law above political considerations."
He urged the administration to consult Democrats before naming a replacement to serve out the remaining 17 months of Bush's term.
"We're not looking for confrontation. The ideal situation would be for the White House to come and talk to us and say, 'Here are some possibilities. What do you think?'" Schumer said.
FOX News' Bret Baier and Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.