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.”
Turnover in Cabinets for second-term presidents has come to be expected. Mr. Bush’s 10 pre- and post-election Cabinet changes so far are five fewer than President Clinton’s 15 changes and six fewer than President Reagan’s 16.
Mr. Thompson listed half a dozen prospects to succeed him, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, although he singled out Mark McClellan for special praise.
“The president’s not asked for my opinion, and rightly so,” Mr. Thompson told reporters at a press conference. “If it’s Mark, I think we will be very happy with that decision.”
He added: “I think Mark McClellan is an outstanding young man — he would be a great secretary. I know that he’s being mentioned.”
Hours earlier, Mr. Bush ushered Mr. Kerik into the Roosevelt Room of the White House, which is adorned by a painting of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback in his Rough Rider uniform. The president noted that Mr. Kerik, like Mr. Roosevelt, was once commissioner of the New York City Police Department.
“As police commissioner on September the 11th, 2001, Bernie Kerik arrived at the World Trade Center minutes after the first plane hit,” he said. “The resolve he felt that morning will guide him every day on his job.”
As his wife and young children watched, Mr. Kerik took the podium and recounted the terrorist attacks.
“I witnessed firsthand the very worst of humanity, and its very best,” he said. “I saw hatred claim the lives of 2,400 innocent people, and I saw the bravest men and women I will ever know rescue more than 20,000 others.”
He added: “I promise you, Mr. President, that both the memory of those courageous souls and the horrors I saw inflicted upon our proud nation will serve as permanent reminders of the awesome responsibility you place in my charge.”
Mr. Kerik, who also served as Iraq’s interim interior minister, was summoned Wednesday to the White House and offered the job, Mr. McClellan said.
“The president really got to know him during the last two years,” the White House spokesman said, adding that Mr. Kerik “helped stand up the police training and police stations in Iraq. He did a great job training and getting that going.”
As for Mr. Kerik’s lack of experience with bureaucrats in Washington, Mr. McClellan said: “In this town, that can be a positive.”
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Kerik’s boss in city government and later at a private consulting firm, told the Associated Press the former undercover detective would surprise many within the sprawling bureaucracy of homeland security.
“When you see him, he’s a big strong guy and a black belt,” Mr. Giuliani said. “What you get to know when you work with him is how smart he is … how effective and sophisticated a manager he is.”
Mr. Kerik would become the second leader of the sprawling bureaucracy creating in 2003 by combining 22 disparate federal agencies with more than 180,000 employees and a combined budget of $36 billion.
Mr. Bush also praised Mr. Ridge, whom he has known for 20 years.
“He is one of the great public servants of our generation,” the president said. “As the department’s first leader, Tom oversaw the largest reorganization of the government in nearly a half-century.
“He met urgent challenges with patience and purpose, and because of his service our country is safer,” he added.
Mr. Bush was equally effusive about Mr. Thompson.
“He worked to modernize and add prescription drug coverage to Medicare for the first time in the program’s history,” Mr. Bush said. “He led the effort to broaden the network of community health centers across our country and to advance the development and use of health information technology.”
Mr. Thompson said he was proud of his accomplishments, although he warned there could be a global outbreak of the flu and terror attacks that could affect the health of Americans.
“For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,” he said.
Mr. Thompson revealed that he sought to leave the Cabinet a year ago, but was asked by the White House to stay on through the president’s re-election.