The Senate’s top two Republicans voiced support for Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday as allies of the defense secretary sought to outflank Republican critics in and out of Congress.
“I am confident that Secretary Rumsfeld is fully capable of leading the Department of Defense and our military forces to victory in Iraq and the war on terror,” said Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. “Most importantly he has the confidence of his commanders in the field and our commander in chief.”
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican whip, said Mr. Rumsfeld “is an excellent secretary of defense and we are fortunate to have a man of his courage and vision serving the president at this critical time.”
Mr. Frist and Mr. McConnell came to Mr. Rumsfeld’s defense after several days of Republican criticism aimed at the man who has steered the Pentagon during the Iraq war and its messy aftermath. More than 1,300 American troops have died since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in 2003.
None of Mr. Rumsfeld’s Republican congressional critics has yet called for his ouster. Still, they have grown increasingly outspoken in recent days, less than two weeks after the White House disclosed that the president wanted the defense secretary to remain in his post into a second term.
The increased criticism from Republicans also coincides with the aftermath of Mr. Rumsfeld’s encounter with troops in Kuwait who complained about long deployments and a lack of armored vehicles and other equipment.
“I’m not a fan of Secretary Rumsfeld,” said Republican Sen. Trent Lott in remarks to the Biloxi, Miss., Chamber of Commerce this week. “I don’t think he listens enough to his uniformed officers.” The Mississippi Republican said Mr. Bush should make a change at the Pentagon in the next year or so.
Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, released a letter to Mr. Rumsfeld asking why the Army had not moved more aggressively to produce fully armored Humvees for the troops in Iraq — an issue she said she had raised at a hearing nine months ago.
“I don’t like the way he has done some things. I think they have been irresponsible,” said Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran.
“We didn’t go into Iraq with enough troops. He’s dismissed his general officers. He’s dismissed all outside influence. He’s dismissed outside counsel and advice. And he’s dismissed a lot of inside counsel and advice from men and women who have been in military uniform for 25 and 30 years.”
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said he had “no confidence” in the defense secretary, although he added that Mr. Bush “can have the team that he wants around him.”
In the face of Republican criticism, White House spokesman Scott McClellan has been issuing declarations of presidential support on a regular basis.
“Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a great job leading our efforts at the Department of Defense to win the war on terrorism and to help bring about a free and peaceful Iraq,” he said yesterday. “And he’s instrumental in our efforts during this time of war we are in.”
David Keene of the American Conservative Union also issued a statement of support during the day. He said much of the Republican criticism was “petty, coming from some who do not care for the secretary’s blunt, plain-speaking style. … It’s also true that much of the criticism is really intended for President Bush but aimed at Rumsfeld.”
In contrast to the presidential campaign, when Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry and other Democrats routinely called for Mr. Rumsfeld’s ouster, much of the recent criticism has come from Republicans.
In part, that reflects the fact that the election is over and the president safely re-elected. It also stems from grievances nursed privately by lawmakers who feel Mr. Rumsfeld has not treated them with the deference they expect, Republican aides say.
Mr. Frist’s brief written statement seemed to refer to such concerns. “I think it is important to not confuse style with substance,” he said.