WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) and Commerce Secretary Don Evans (search) have formally resigned from office, handing in letters that suggested President Bush will have a prosperous second term but that they are too tired to continue with him.
"While the promise of your second term shines bright, I have concluded with deep regret that it is time for me to return home. It is a blessing to have served America with such an extraordinary leader and a true friend. With the fondest admiration, I respectfully request that you accept my resignation," said Evans, one of the president's closest friends.
Word had floated last week that Ashcroft was planning on leaving the Justice Department (search). In fact, the attorney general handed in his five-page, handwritten resignation to the president on Election Day.
In it, Ashcroft said he had never been more honored than to work for the president, but his time to retire had come.
"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," Ashcroft wrote in the letter he scripted himself, aides say, to prevent any leaks.
In a letter to DOJ employees released Tuesday, Ashcroft added that he was pleased that his department had helped prevent another terrorist attack.
"For the past three years, my every working day has begun with a report — a catalog of the murderous acts being plotted against Americans. That we have passed these three years in safety and security is a credit to you. But it would be the height of arrogance to assume we achieved this alone. The Psalms remind us: 'Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stands guard in vain," he wrote.
Ashcroft, 62, has signaled for months his desire to leave, aides say. His aides say that he feels like he accomplished everything he set out to do. They add that Ashcroft recognized that if he is going to leave, it's best to leave while on top, and the attorney general feels like he made positive changes to the Justice Department and the country.
Ashcroft said that he will stay on in his role until his successor is confirmed. Some of the individuals speculated to be in the running to take his place are Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot, White House general counsel Alberto Gonzales, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Republicans immediately showed an outpouring for Ashcroft, who was frequently criticized by Democrats as someone seeking to compromise civil liberties.
"I said when John Ashcroft was nominated that he was perhaps the most experienced candidate for attorney general in recent history, and his time in office made clear that experience matters," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.
"John Ashcroft has served this country well as Attorney General and was a key leader in fighting the War on Terror. He redirected the resources of the Justice Department to this important mission and helped keep America safe," said Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
According to a senior Justice Department official, though Ashcroft was frequently "attacked and vilified" for allegedly ignoring civil liberties, he was actually the voice of restraint and reason in high-level meetings about the War on Terror, repeatedly insisting the country would be best served by sticking to constitutional principles in its treatment of U.S. citizens captured as enemy combatants. Ashcroft also repeatedly disagreed with the Pentagon on how it was treating the prisoners at Guantanamo, who also did not get lawyers or due process, according to the official.
Ashcroft, however, was repeatedly overruled by senior White House officials who chose to side with the Pentagon. Even though he disagreed and had been overruled, Ashcroft "took the heat" for those cases.
In two statements released by the White House, President Bush thanked both men for their service.
"John Ashcroft has worked tirelessly to help make our country safer," the president said. "John has served our nation with honor, distinction, and integrity."
"Don Evans is one of my most trusted friends and advisors. He has been a valuable member of my economic team ... Don shares my belief that the promise of America means our best days lie ahead. Together, we have worked to make that a reality," Bush said.
Bush's farewell to Evans was more effusive and more personal, fitting to their more than three decades of friendship dating to the oil business in Midland, Texas, where they would attend church together and meet every day for a three-mile jog.
Evans, 58, was instrumental in Bush's 2000 campaign and came with him to Washington. Evans has told aides he was ready for a change. He was mentioned as a possible White House chief of staff in Bush's second term, but the president decided to keep Andy Card in that job.
One name being mentioned for Evans' job at Commerce is Mercer Reynolds (search), national finance chairman for the Bush campaign, who raised more than $260 million to get him re-elected.
Ashcroft and Evans, who have headed their respective departments since the start of the Bush administration, are the first members of the Cabinet to leave as the president considers the shape of his second term. The resignations were announced by White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who said Bush had accepted the decisions of both secretaries.
Meanwhile, three high-ranking Bush administration officials said they would like to remain on the job. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt all said they want to continue.
Washington continued to buzz with speculation about the futures of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Powell, en route to Mexico City, said late Monday he has an ambitious travel schedule in Europe in the weeks ahead in hopes of patching deep divisions stemming from the Iraq war. He gave no hint about his own plans beyond the early December meetings, although he is widely expected to leave his job at the end of Bush's term or early in the second term.
Senior aides to Rumsfeld say he would like to remain in the job for at least part of Bush's second term. Rumsfeld told reporters at a news conference Tuesday that he had not discussed it with Bush since the election, and he did not say whether he wanted to remain. Rumsfeld ran through a list of Pentagon accomplishments during his tenure, prompting some at the White House to suggest that his remarks had a valedictory tone. But Pentagon aides discouraged the idea he was hinting at any intention to leave.
Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, is considered a possible successor for either Rumsfeld or Powell. She has let it be known that she does not want to remain in her current role in the second term, and officials say her path is up or out. Rice said a year ago she wasn't interested in getting enmeshed in the bureaucracy at the State Department, but aides don't rule that out now, particularly with prospects for change in the Middle East.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and Anna Persky and The Associated Press contributed to this report.