At 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in the White House residence, President Bush got a phone call from Harriet Miers, who told him she planned to withdraw from her nomination to the Supreme Court.
The White House yesterday said the phone call was the first time the president heard she planned to quit. If that’s true, he was among the last to know.
Top conservatives have said for days that the White House was preparing for a Miers exit — and exactly one week ago, a prominent columnist laid out the exact exit strategy the president followed yesterday. Conservative spokesmen had criticized Miss Miers’ nomination from the outset.
Senior advisers in the White House also had an idea of what was coming, according to prominent conservatives. The Washington Times reported Saturday that Sara Taylor, director of the Office of White House Political Affairs, had called conservatives to ask how to proceed should Miss Miers withdraw.
The White House offered few details yesterday about the genesis of Miss Miers’ decision to pull out. One aide said that when she informed the president of her decision, he did not try to dissuade her.
Also Wednesday night, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist spoke with White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and offered a “frank assessment of the situation,” Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said.
But the White House said that Mr. Frist’s call came an hour after Miss Miers had informed the president of her decision, so it was not a factor.
Eleven hours later, she met the president in the Oval Office and handed him her withdrawal letter.
A Republican strategist with close ties to the White House said Miss Miers did not make her decision until after 5 p.m. Wednesday. The strategist said several factors — top among them press reports Wednesday about a speech Miss Miers had given — combined to prompt her exit.
In the 1993 speech, she said that “self-determination” should guide decisions about abortion and school prayer and that in cases where scientific facts are disputed and religious beliefs vary, “government should not act.” Reports of the speech angered pro-life advocates.
“That was probably the moment that she knew she couldn’t go forward,” the strategist said.
While many conservatives expressed relief about the Miers withdrawal, Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, blasted conservative groups for undermining the president’s nominee.
“Somebody probably pulled her aside and said, ‘Harriet, it’s going to be a terrible experience and why go through with it, because they’ve already made up their minds,’ ” he said.
The exit scenario, however, matched one laid out by syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.
“Hence the perfectly honorable way to solve the conundrum: Miers withdraws out of respect for both the Senate and the executive’s prerogatives, the Senate expresses appreciation for this gracious acknowledgment of its needs and responsibilities, and the White House accepts her decision with the deepest regret and with gratitude for Miers’s putting preservation of executive prerogative above personal ambition.
“Faces saved. And we start again,” he wrote Oct. 21.