WASHINGTON – John Ashcroft (search) may turn in his resignation as early as January in a ritual reserved for second-term presidents, sources close to the attorney general said Thursday.
Sources close to the Ashcroft point out, however, that the attorney general is currently "conflicted" about leaving and has not yet decided whether to stay on if President Bush asks him to.
As a formality, when a president earns a second term, his entire Cabinet, which serves at the president's pleasure, resigns so as not to force him to fire them. Traditionally, the president refuses to accept the resignation of those who are likely to stay in their posts.
For months, Ashcroft, who as head of the Justice Department (search) is the country's chief law enforcer, has signaled his desire to leave the government. Sources say that he has been exhausted from his efforts in the war on terrorism. He has struggled with health issues, being hospitalized as recently as March for gallstone pancreatitis.
On the other hand, Ashcroft is more recently energized by the election results and feels vindicated by them, sources say.
The Justice Department has received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from supporters in the last two days asking him to stay on. These supporters believe that Ashcroft stands for strong moral values and the fight on terrorism, sources told FOX News.
Ashcroft has been responsible for enforcing the USA Patriot Act (search), which gives law enforcement greater authority to conduct surveillance on suspected terrorists. The Patriot Act was signed into law five weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but both conservatives and liberals have argued that the powers are too far-reaching. Ashcroft has steadfastly defended the act's authority.
The attorney general has also been the lead policy planner in determining rules for detaining terrorists found on the Afghan battlefield and has given legal bases for the government's positions on several other policies, like opposition to assisted suicide. Ashcroft recused himself from conducting the probe of a possible leak of a CIA employee's name. Valerie Plame (search) was outed as a CIA agent in news articles in July 2003. Her husband, Joe Wilson, a former Bush envoy to Niger who reported Iraq (search) did not seek yellowcake uranium from the African nation, said Plame's name was given out by administration officials as payback for his not backing administration claims on Iraq.
Asked about his Cabinet during a Thursday press conference, Bush said he will begin to think about Cabinet changes, but did not speak of any specific people he wants to replace.
"I put together a really good Cabinet. I am very proud of the people that have served this government, and they, come man or woman, have worked their hearts out for the American people," Bush said. "And I have learned that you have got to continue to surround yourselves with good people. This is a job that requires crisp decision making and therefore in order for me to make decisions, I have got to have people who bring their point of view into the Oval Office and are willing to say it."
In December 2002, Bush reshuffled his economic team. Treasury Secretary John Snow replaced Paul O'Neill and Stephen Friedman replaced National Economic Adviser Lawrence Lindsey. In May 2003, Josh Bolten was named to replace Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels. Daniels was elected governor of Indiana on Tuesday.
In December 2003, Florida Senator-elect Mel Martinez quit as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Part of the reason for a slate of departures is not just the president's mood or bids for elected office, but a huge burnout factor. After one presidential term, many Cabinet officials want to do something a little less taxing.
While a motto in government is "people who know don't talk," other Cabinet members have also been named for possible departure.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) has frequently been named as a possible retiree. Powell has denied considering his future, saying in September that time will tell.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters Thursday that if there is to be a change, that announcement will come after a meeting between Powell and Bush and that meeting hasn't happened yet. Powell has consistently said he serves "as the pleasure of the president." Boucher also cited several upcoming international trips that Powell is going on and discouraged reporters from speculating or listening to "close friends" or "advisors" of Powell's, saying that all official information on the secretary's future will come from Powell, Bush or the spokespeople for the White House or the State Department only.
Powell may stay until after Iraq's national election in January. He already has scheduled in the short term an overnight trip to Mexico next week, a trip to Chile the following week and afterward a stop in Egypt for a major international conference on Iraq's future. In December, he also has a NATO meeting in Brussels in December and a meeting in Morocco to push democracy among Arab nations.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (search) is also expected to leave near the start of Bush's second term; Thompson has indicated as much to associates.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) has occasionally been mentioned as a possible departure, though some analysts say he will probably stay until there is a successful end to the Iraq war. Another name that has also been suggested for changes is Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search).
Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) has been tossed out as a possible successor to Powell at the State Department. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (search) has also been mentioned as a possible replacement for Ashcroft.
FOX News' Anna Persky, Wendell Goler and Jim Angle contributed to this report.