Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Ashcroft Quits Top Justice Post; Evans Going, Too

The New York Times
November 10, 2004

Ashcroft Quits Top Justice Post; Evans Going, Too

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 - Attorney General John Ashcroft, one of the most high-profile and polarizing members of the Bush cabinet, said Tuesday that he would resign, after a tumultuous tenure in which he was praised for his aggressive fight against terrorists but assailed by critics who said he sacrificed civil liberties in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, a close friend of President Bush who spent years promoting the administration's tax cuts across the country, also submitted a letter of resignation on Tuesday.

The two were the first in a series of departures from the administration that are expected before Mr. Bush is inaugurated in January for a second term.

Larry Thompson, who served as deputy attorney general until last year and is a personal favorite of the president, is the leading candidate to replace Mr. Ashcroft, according to a Republican close to the White House. If named, Mr. Thompson, 58, would be the first African-American ever to lead the Justice Department. Others mentioned as possible successors include Marc Racicot, who was chairman of Mr. Bush's re-election campaign, and Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel.

In his letter of resignation, Mr. Ashcroft indicated that he would stay in the job to ensure a smooth transition until his successor was nominated and confirmed.

Mercer Reynolds, a Cincinnati businessman who was Mr. Bush's campaign finance chairman, is a top candidate to replace Mr. Evans, the Republican said.

In a hand-written resignation letter to Mr. Bush, dated Nov. 2, that was released by the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Ashcroft said, "The demands of justice are both rewarding and depleting."

He added: "I take great personal satisfaction in the record which has been developed. The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved. The rule of law has been strengthened and upheld in the courts. Yet, I believe that the Department of Justice would be well served by new leadership and fresh inspiration."

The resignation of Mr. Ashcroft, 62, had been widely expected, even as some Justice Department officials in recent days had suggested that he might want to stay on.

But Mr. Ashcroft had been sidelined for nearly a month last March when he underwent surgery to remove his gall bladder after a severe case of pancreatitis. In addition, he never developed a close relationship with Mr. Bush and annoyed some members of the White House staff who thought he was at times a grandstander who was overtly politicizing the Justice Department. One Republican close to the White House said on Tuesday night that Mr. Ashcroft had gotten a "strong signal" from the administration that his resignation would be accepted.

Mr. Bush, in a three-paragraph statement released by the White House, praised Mr. Ashcroft for his work over the past four years.

"I applaud his efforts to prevent crime, vigorously enforce our civil rights laws, crack down on corporate wrongdoing, protect the rights of victims and those with disabilities, reduce crimes committed with guns and stop human trafficking," the statement said. "I appreciate his work to fight Internet pornography. I am grateful for his advice on judicial nominations and his efforts to ensure that my judicial nominees receive fair hearings and timely votes."

But Mr. Ashcroft's critics were caustic. "We had an attorney general who treated criticism and dissent as treason, ethnic identity as grounds for suspicion and Congressional and judicial oversight as inconvenient obstacles," said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University. "He was a disaster from a civil liberties perspective but also from a national security perspective."

Republicans close to the White House said they expected Mr. Ashcroft's successor to be announced on Wednesday. Naming Mr. Thompson, who is widely regarded as a moderate and is respected by both Democrats and Republicans, would be a critical early signal that Mr. Bush is making a move toward the political center.

"You would hopefully see a more modulated approach by the Justice Department on the issues that John Ashcroft was very aggressive on," said Alan Vinegrad, who served as United States attorney in Brooklyn early in the current administration.

Mr. Thompson, the general counsel at Pepsico in Purchase, N.Y., left the Justice Department in August 2003. But he has kept up his ties to the administration, and earlier this year joined Mr. Bush at a ceremony in Buffalo to mark the anniversary of the USA Patriot Act, an antiterrorism law. "Larry, we miss you over there," Mr. Bush said at the ceremony. "Don't get too comfortable."

Mr. Thompson, who has been a visiting professor at the University of Georgia law school and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, came under scrutiny in 2002 when a conservative public interest group, Judicial Watch, filed a lawsuit that accused Mr. Thompson of helping artificially inflate the stock of the Providian Financial Corporation when he was a director there. Mr. Thompson, who made at least $1 million from the sale of his stock, denied any wrongdoing.

The resignation of Mr. Evans had also been widely expected. Mr. Evans, who has known Mr. Bush for more than three decades, had made it clear to associates before the election that he wanted to step down even if the president won a second term. Mr. Evans' family had recently moved back to Texas, and Mr. Evans has been a Republican favorite to run for governor of the state.

In his letter of resignation to the president, dated Nov. 9, Mr. Evans said, "While the promise of your second term shine bright, I have concluded with deep regret that it is time for me to return home." He added, "It is a blessing to have served America with such an extraordinary leader and a true friend."

Mr. Bush, in a statement released by the White House, called Mr. Evans "one of my most trusted friends and advisers" and "a valuable member of my economic team." Mr. Bush added: "To encourage job creation here at home, Don has worked closely with me to reduce taxes, open markets for American goods and services and promote a level playing field abroad."

Mr. Evans' departure is part of a broader reshuffling expected in the administration's economic team, which includes John W. Snow, the treasury secretary. A prominent Republican with close ties to the White House said on Tuesday that while Mr. Snow will remain for now at Treasury, he will probably step down after six months or a year.

Extending Mr. Snow's tenure would reward the treasury secretary, a 65-year-old former railroad executive who aggravated Bush campaign officials when he traveled to Ohio in October and called job losses under the president nothing more than "myths." But Mr. Snow has also been a tireless salesman for Mr. Bush's tax cuts and a cheerleader for his economic policies.

Administration officials are also contemplating a shift for Stephen Friedman, who is currently director of the White House National Economic Council. Mr. Friedman, a former top executive at Goldman Sachs, is under consideration as the United States trade representative and would be in charge of negotiating international trade agreements.

It remains unclear what will happen to Robert B. Zoellick, Mr. Bush's top trade negotiator for the past four years. Mr. Zoellick, who made progress on global trade talks and negotiated free-trade agreements with Chile, Australia and nations in Central America, had been looking for a new post in a second Bush term.

Republicans also said on Tuesday that Roland W. Betts, a close friend of the president and a Democrat, is a leading candidate to become chairman of the inauguration festivities in Washington in January. Mr. Betts, an owner of the Chelsea Piers sports and entertainment complex in Lower Manhattan, has known Mr. Bush since their days together at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Yale University, and spent election night at the White House with Mr. Bush.

Edmund L. Andrews contributed reporting from Washington for this article, andAdam Liptak from New York.