President Bush has persuaded Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to stay on amid criticism of the postwar situation in Iraq, a steady presence in a Cabinet undergoing a wholesale makeover.
Word of Mr. Rumsfeld’s agreement yesterday to continue to run the Pentagon came just hours after Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson became the eighth of 15 Cabinet members to announce his resignation, senior administration officials said.
“These are challenging times — we are a nation at war and it’s critical we win this war,” one official said. “Secretary Rumsfeld, the president believes, is the right person for the job.
“He has proven himself to be a strong leader during these times of challenge,” added the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And the president’s pleased that he agreed to stay.”
Mr. Rumsfeld, 72, became a lightning rod for the president’s critics on the left, especially with the rocky transition toward a free government in Iraq since a U.S.-led military coalition toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
The defense secretary earlier garnered widespread admiration on both sides of the aisle for his passion for modernizing the military and, after the September 11 attacks, the relatively smooth allied victory over the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
However, Mr. Rumsfeld’s handling of the war in Iraq has been criticized repeatedly, including Democratic assertions that he failed to plan properly for the postwar transition. He also has been blamed for abuses at U.S. prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and U.S. Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mr. Rumsfeld, who had no public appearances scheduled yesterday, didn’t comment about staying.
Having already lost such key Cabinet members as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft, the president asked Mr. Rumsfeld during their weekly meeting Monday to remain in the job for his second term, which begins Jan. 20.
Mr. Bush yesterday moved swiftly to fill another vacancy by nominating Bernard B. Kerik as director of the Homeland Security Department. If approved by the Senate, the former New York City police commissioner would replace outgoing Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge.
Mr. Thompson said yesterday he would be “very happy” if Mr. Bush replaced him with Dr. Mark McClellan, the government’s Medicare chief and brother of White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.
The presidential spokesman declined comment, citing potential conflict of interest. He also denied a reporter’s suggestion that the Cabinet resignations, occurring about every three days since Nov. 9, are turning into a “stampede” that will disrupt the transition to the president’s second term.
“Absolutely not,” Mr. McClellan said. “Everybody is committed to working together to make this process a smooth transition to a second term.”
He downplayed the significance of the exodus.
“There are a number of members of the Cabinet who have been serving for quite some time, longer than most secretaries have served in previous administrations,” Mr. McClellan said. “We’re in a lot better position coming into this time than we were in 2000 to move into the next term.”