Attorney General John Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans resigned yesterday, the first two Cabinet members to leave the administration in the wake of President Bush’s re-election last week over Sen. John Kerry.
Mr. Bush praised both men, saying Mr. Ashcroft “worked tirelessly to help make our country safer” and calling Mr. Evans “one of my most trusted friends and advisers,” who worked to “advance economic security and prosperity for all Americans.”
In a five-page handwritten letter of resignation, Mr. Ashcroft told the president that the “objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved,” but added that the Justice Department “would be well-served by new leadership and fresh inspiration.”
Mr. Ashcroft said he would remain until a successor is confirmed; Mr. Evans said he would leave in January.
Mr. Ashcroft, 62, one of Mr. Bush’s first Cabinet picks in 2000, had been rumored for some time to be ready to leave, telling colleagues he was exhausted after four years of leading the Justice Department’s war on terrorism.
He also has been under constant attack for his staunch enforcement efforts and for his defiant public defense of the Patriot Act, which has drawn criticism from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“I believe that my energies and talents should be directed toward other challenging horizons,” Mr. Ashcroft said in the letter, which was dated Nov. 2 — Election Day.
Although Mr. Ashcroft wrote the letter a week ago, he released it yesterday, saying in the note that he wanted to time his resignation “and the ensuing transition in conjunction with you so that your administration and the cause of justice are served optimally.”
He said he wrote the letter by hand “so its confidentiality can be maintained” and the transition arrangements made.
Mr. Evans, 58, long has been considered one of the president’s best friends — dating back to their days in the oil business in Midland, Texas — and was instrumental in Mr. Bush’s 2000 campaign.
In his letter of resignation, he said: “These past four years have brought great progress in strengthening America’s national security and economic security, and advancing the global march to peace, prosperity and freedom. Your leadership inspired our nation and the world to reach higher and to try harder to achieve goals beyond conventional expectations.
“While the promise of your second term shines bright, I have concluded with deep regret it is time for me to return home. It is a blessing to have served America with such an extraordinary leader and a true friend,” he said.
White House officials told reporters that neither Mr. Ashcroft nor Mr. Evans was asked to resign from the Cabinet.
Mentioned as possible successors to Mr. Evans are Mercer Reynolds, national finance chairman for the Bush campaign who helped raise more than $260 million for the president’s re-election; Marc Racicot, former Montana governor and the 2004 Bush campaign chairman; and former Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican.
Other rumored departures include Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
Mr. Rumsfeld said Monday he had not discussed whether he will stay on as the Pentagon chief, but made clear this week he is not finished trying to “overhaul” the U.S. defense and military establishment.
“When I arrived back at the Pentagon some four years ago, [Mr. Bush] asked me to undertake an overhaul of the department’s assumptions and organization and strategies. We’ve now spent nearly four years doing so, and we’ve made considerable progress, but there’s much to be done,” he said.
Other Defense Department officials have said Mr. Rumsfeld is expected to continue in the top defense job for a year before stepping down.
Mr. Powell said late Monday en route to Mexico City that he faced an extensive travel schedule in Europe over the next several weeks in an effort to repair relations with other countries damaged by the Iraq war. He gave no hint about his departure from his Cabinet post.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has been mentioned as a potential successor to both Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Powell.
Mr. Ashcroft has been berated by liberal, civil rights and other activist groups as an enemy of blacks, women and “working people,” saying he would ignore hate crimes, restrict abortion and even allow rat poison in drinking water — a reference to his vote as a U.S. senator to weaken the Clean Water Act.
His high visibility often clouded the Bush message, department insiders said, although he stood firm in his commitment to defend the nation, noting that the United States was at war with terror and that “thanks to the vigilance of law enforcement … we have not suffered another major terrorist attack.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, who worked with Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Evans as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the two men last night.
“As the United States faced difficult times after the attacks of September 11, Don Evans and John Ashcroft stood firm with our president to help this country move forward,” he said.
“Secretary Evans played an important role in helping the president bring us out of an economic recession, and Attorney General Ashcroft has been instrumental in protecting America from further terrorist attacks. During my interaction with them, I greatly appreciated their integrity, ideals and principles,” he said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said Mr. Ashcroft “served our country faithfully during one of our most challenging chapters in history. … His courage and leadership are second to none.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and a longtime Ashcroft critic, said Mr. Bush “now has the opportunity to appoint a new attorney general who will protect not only our safety, but our constitutional rights as well.”
A shortlist of potential replacements for Mr. Ashcroft includes Mr. Racicot, White House General Counsel Al Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey, U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty in Virginia and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Others mentioned as possible nominees are former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson, who recently was hired as vice president and general counsel at Pepsico in New York.
Mr. Giuliani has said he is busy in a private consulting business and was not seeking the job, and a spokesman for Pepsico said Mr. Thompson was “excited about his opportunities” at the company and was “fully committed to that effort.”
Joseph Curl, Stephen Dinan, Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.