Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday announced his resignation, prompting President Bush to ask National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to replace him in a move the president plans to announce today.
Mr. Powell was the most prominent of four Cabinet secretaries who announced their resignations yesterday. The other three were Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and Education Secretary Rod Paige.
Already gone before yesterday were Attorney General John Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans in what is shaping up as a major reshuffle of Mr. Bush’s team for his second term, with more changes considered likely.
“Now that the election is over, the time has come for me to step down,” Mr. Powell wrote in his letter of resignation to the president, which was dated Friday.
“I am pleased to have been part of a team that launched the global war against terror, liberated the Afghan and Iraqi people,” he said.
Senior administration officials said Mr. Powell would be replaced by Miss Rice, who is fiercely loyal to the president and his closest foreign policy adviser. Miss Rice is expected to be replaced as national security adviser by her deputy, Stephen Hadley.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that the Cabinet members who resigned “are all very distinguished individuals who have served their nation with honor and distinction.”
“All of the individuals will continue to serve in their current capacity until their replacement is confirmed by the Senate,” he said.
As the architect of Mr. Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption, Miss Rice will likely face spirited questioning from Senate Democrats who opposed the U.S.-led war against Iraq. But they also might find it politically awkward to vote against confirming the first black woman to be secretary of state.
Mr. Powell, the first black man to be secretary of state as well as the first to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was lavishly praised by the president yesterday.
“Colin Powell is one of the great public servants of our time,” Mr. Bush said. “He is a soldier, a diplomat, a civic leader, a statesman and a great patriot. I value his friendship. He will be missed.”
Mr. McClellan disputed a reporter’s suggestion that Mr. Powell’s departure signals a victory of “hard-liners over pragmatists” in an administration that abhors dissent.
“That’s the typical D.C. speculation game that people like to engage in and no matter how wrong it is,” he said. “That is not the way I would look at it at all.”
Still, Mr. Powell once said that on a scale of zero to 100, with 100 being the most conservative, he ranks significantly lower than other key administration officials, including Miss Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith, and even his own undersecretary of State, John Bolton.
“If you put, say, Cheney up around 90, and Don and Condi and company between 80 and 90, and you put Bolton and Feith at about 98, then I’d be somewhere around 60, 65,” he told The Washington Times. “So I’m a little bit out of the mold you would expect.
“And the media, from the very first day I took the job, used this difference to create a stereotype,” he added. “It’s a stereotype that I fought.”
The press routinely portrayed Mr. Powell as the lone moderate voice in an administration populated by war-mongering right-wingers. But while Mr. Powell disagreed with his colleagues on such social issues as abortion and affirmative action, he generally backed them on national security matters.
“I will always treasure the four years that I’ve spent with President Bush,” he told reporters at the State Department yesterday.
This did not impress the Democratic National Committee, which issued an unsigned statement that attempted to place Mr. Powell’s resignation in a negative light.
“His departure underscores four years of deep divisions and frustrations between Powell and the rest of the Bush administration,” the statement said. “Powell served as a reminder that Bush seemed determined to go to war.”
The remarks were echoed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee.
“He was a crucial bridge to our allies when they felt his was the only constructive voice in an increasingly isolationist administration,” Mr. Leahy said. “The president should have heeded Secretary Powell’s counsel more often than he did.”
This is probably not the end of Cabinet resignations, according to administration officials.
Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services, also is expected to resign, and Mr. Bush may look to a former governor to take that position, including former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, or former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot.
Mr. Rumsfeld is expected to stay on until at least Iraq’s scheduled January elections, but his fate after that is uncertain.
Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao is expected to stay in the administration and is said to have her eye on the Transportation post held by Norman Y. Mineta, a Clinton administration holdover. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton is also expected to remain.
For his part, Mr. Powell said he always intended to leave after one term and has been discussing his departure with Mr. Bush for several months. He tendered his resignation after attending a press conference at which the president pledged to spend America’s political capital trying to achieve Middle East peace now that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is dead.
By leaving now, Mr. Powell gives his successor the benefit of a full four years in which to re-engage in peace negotiations.
“Hopefully, over the next few weeks, I’ll be able to see how much potential there is in this new opportunity in the Middle East with the passing of Chairman Arafat,” Mr. Powell said.
He also spoke of repairing relations with France and Germany, which opposed the liberation of Iraq.
“We had some difficulties with some nations in Europe last year over Iraq,” he said. “We are getting rid of those differences and coming together again.”
The president, mindful that Mr. Powell was seen by some as the administration’s friendliest face to Europe, made a point of announcing Friday that he would devote significant energies to strengthening America’s bond with Europe. Mr. Bush said Europe would be the destination of his first overseas trip during his second term.
Until yesterday, Miss Rice was often mentioned as a replacement for Mr. Rumsfeld in the event of his resignation. In an interview with The Washington Times earlier this year, she expressed frustration at the slow pace of international diplomacy and said Mr. Bush was eager to effect change more rapidly — even in the face of global resistance.
“In international politics, he will stake out ground, and then bring others to it,” she told The Times in an interview earlier this year. “I think that’s sometimes hard.
“It’s dissonant for a world that’s accustomed to extremely slow movement,” she added. “Diplomacy tends to be glacial, and the president is not satisfied with glacial.”
As secretary of state, Miss Rice likely would work closely with Mr. Rumsfeld, with whom she tangled three years ago. The spat arose after Mr. Bush named her his “principal adviser” on counterterrorism, including military operations.
In a secret memo obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. Rumsfeld reminded Miss Rice that the president’s principal military adviser, by law, is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I am no lawyer, but it seems to me there is only one principal military adviser,” Mr. Rumsfeld wrote. “Otherwise, the word ‘principal’ would have a brand new meaning.”
James G. Lakely contributed to this report.