Ashcroft, Commerce Chief Evans Resign From Cabinet

Times Staff Writers

The White House on Tuesday announced the resignations of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Don Evans as President Bush began reshaping the top ranks of his administration for his second term.

The departures of Ashcroft, the nation’s controversial chief law enforcement officer, and Evans, the administration’s leading business booster, were not complete surprises. Ashcroft, 62, has had health problems and underwent gallbladder surgery in March. Evans, 58, had told aides he was considering a change, and had moved his family back to Texas.

Ashcroft, who had become a magnet for criticism of the administration’s law enforcement policies in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, informed Bush of his intention to leave in a five-page handwritten letter of resignation, dated Nov. 2 -- election day.


“The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved,” Ashcroft wrote. “Yet, I believe that the Department of Justice would be well served by new leadership and fresh inspiration.”

Evans, an old friend of Bush’s from their days in the Texas oil business, said in his letter that he was ready to go back to Texas. “While the promise of your second term shines bright, I have concluded with deep regret that it is time for me to return home,” he wrote.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said neither man had been asked to resign. Ashcroft, she said, will stay on the job until a successor is confirmed, but Evans intends to leave Commerce by the end of January.

The president issued brief statements praising both officials.

“John Ashcroft has worked tirelessly to help make our country safer,” Bush said. He credited Ashcroft with transforming the Justice Department “to make combating terrorism the top priority, including making sure our law enforcement officials have the tools they need to disrupt and prevent attacks.”

Bush described Evans as one of his most trusted friends and advisors. “Don has worked to advance economic security and prosperity for all Americans,” Bush said. “He has worked steadfastly to make sure America continues to be the best place in the world to do business.”

A president’s reelection has frequently augured changes in the Cabinet; in the weeks after his reelection in 1996, President Clinton’s chief of staff and seven Cabinet members announced their resignations.


So far, Bush has publicly announced his intention to retain one Cabinet-level official, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. But the president has indicated his overall satisfaction with the performance of his top advisors, so it was unclear how extensive his staff changes would be.

Buchan declined to say how quickly the successors to Ashcroft and Evans would be named. “We will keep you posted in due course,” she said. “I’m not going to speculate on the timing of nominations.”

Bush’s selection of a successor to Ashcroft -- a staunch conservative with an aggressive attitude toward individual civil liberties -- will be one of the most politically sensitive appointments he will make.

With Ashcroft’s resignation, said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bush has his “first opportunity to make good on his post-election promise to work with congressional Democrats. In selecting a new attorney general, the president can begin the process of changing the tone in Washington.”

Among the publicly identified contenders for Ashcroft’s job are former Deputy Atty. Gen. Larry D. Thompson, now an executive with PepsiCo, and White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales. Thompson would be the nation’s first African American attorney general, and Gonzales the first Latino.

Other possible replacements include former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, chairman of the 2004 presidential campaign; former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani; and former Alabama Atty. Gen. William H. Pryor Jr., whom Bush named to the federal appellate bench as a recess appointment this year.


The leading candidate for Evans’ spot at Commerce appeared to be Mercer Reynolds, an Ohio investment banker who served as national finance chairman for Bush’s reelection campaign.

With Ashcroft’s departure, Bush is losing from his team a key conduit to the increasingly powerful Christian conservative movement.

Ashcroft hosted half a dozen leading religious conservatives for breakfast in his private dining room about a week before the election to thank them for their help on “moral issues,” said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.

“I could see that he wasn’t totally 100% recovered” from his gallbladder surgery, Sheldon said.

He credited Ashcroft with surviving four years of attacks from the left.

“He’s been a perfect attorney general,” Sheldon said. “He had a thankless job. The Patriot Act was a very hard pill for everyone to swallow, but we’re at war. The picnic’s over, and he had to blow the whistle.”

Ashcroft’s resignation was cheered by civil rights groups, who have chafed at some of the restrictions imposed since the Sept. 11 attacks.


“John Ashcroft was one of the most destructive attorneys general in the modern era,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way. “His tenure was marked by a severe erosion of Americans’ constitutional liberties and a diminished commitment to civil rights enforcement.”

Neas called on Bush to put forth a nominee “with a demonstrated commitment to the protection of civil rights and constitutional liberties.”

Evans’ departure was expected to create less of a stir. As chief advocate for U.S. business interests at home and abroad, he was seen as a supportive team player in sync with the president’s thinking on most issues.

Some people close to the White House had forecast before the election that Evans might be in line to become Treasury secretary or to take another senior job.

One Republican insider said Evans was told he was not going to get the Treasury job and decided he preferred to return to the business world. He headed Tom Brown Inc., an energy company in Texas, and played a major role in Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign before being named Commerce secretary.

University of Maryland economist Peter Morici, a former U.S. trade official, predicted that the president would choose replacements who were prepared to embrace his existing priorities, rather than people who might put a new stamp on the administration’s agenda.


“The job continues to be one of conveying the message instead of shaping the message,” Morici said. “He’s looking for people who will help him get it done, not who will tell him what he wants to do.”

Some observers close to the administration said they did not expect the kind of wholesale shakeup that had occurred under previous two-term presidents.

Bush, for instance, broke from tradition and did not ask all of his Cabinet officials and senior aides to submit letters of resignation.

Instead, officials who are leaving are doing so because of age or health or a desire to do something different, not because of a shift in policy or direction, said Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform and a key administration ally.

“I don’t think there are any people leaving because they’re being fired or because they’re mad,” Norquist said. “It’s just guys who are leaving because it’s that time of their life.”

Norquist held a dinner Tuesday night for Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who he said was expected to remain in the Cabinet.


Similarly, there were no indications that the president would be replacing key members of his national security team, at least in the short term.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld appeared to signal that he intended to stay for some time when he used a Pentagon news conference to discuss his plans to continue reshaping the military. Rumsfeld said he had met with Bush several times since the election and that his future had not come up.

People close to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have left open the possibility that he too might remain at his post, at least for several more months.

The White House does have one key national security post to fill. Robert D. Blackwill, who was the White House point man for Iraq, left this week, saying he had promised to remain only through the U.S. election. No successor has been named.

Although Bush and top aides have been spending considerable time in recent days weighing their choices, one top Republican said the White House had no selection team in place before the election.

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said announcements of Cabinet departures and other changes at the top levels of the administration could continue “over the next few weeks.”




Ashcroft chronology

Key events in John Ashcroft’s tenure as U.S. attorney general:


Dec. 22: President-elect Bush names Ashcroft as his choice for attorney general.


Feb. 1: Ashcroft’s nomination is confirmed by the Senate, 58 to 42.

Sept. 11: Terrorists hijack four jets. In attacks that kill about 3,000 people, they fly two planes into the World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon near Washington; a fourth crashes in a field in Pennsylvania.

September and October: Ashcroft starts reorganizing the Justice Department to make preventing another terrorist attack its top priority. His anti-terrorism policies include questioning 5,000 foreign men, mostly from the Middle East.

Oct. 26: Bush signs the Patriot Act, which was enacted with Ashcroft’s strong support. It facilitates detentions and investigations aimed at thwarting terrorist plots.


January: Ashcroft, a minister’s son and a devout Christian, orders two partially nude statues in the Justice Department building to be covered up so he can avoid being photographed in front of them. He launches Project Safe Neighborhoods, an initiative to increase prosecutions of crimes involving guns.

July 26: In the aftermath of the collapse of Enron Corp., the Justice Department creates, by presidential order, a corporate fraud task force to crack down on companies and executives who mislead employees and investors.


April: Attorneys for an alleged Chinese double agent accuse the FBI of covering up its own agents’ misdeeds while focusing on their client, Katrina M. Leung, a Chinese American businesswoman from San Marino. She was an informant and the lover of a former counterintelligence agent in Los Angeles, James J. Smith.


June: The Justice Department’s inspector general criticizes the handling of the detentions of 762 foreigners on immigration violations after Sept. 11.


March: Ashcroft is hospitalized with pancreatitis, and has surgery to remove his gallbladder.

June 28: The Supreme Court rules that terrorist suspects can use the U.S. judicial system to challenge their detentions.


Sources: Department of Justice, Reuters and Los Angeles Times.

Graphics reporting by Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago

Times staff writers James Gerstenzang, Paul Richter, Richard B. Schmitt and Richard Simon contributed to this report.