In a major embarrassment for Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany's president resigned Friday after weeks of a brewing scandal over alleged favors he received as an elected official before becoming head of state.
With his wife, Bettina, at his side, Christian Wulff acknowledged in a terse statement that the controversy surrounding him had sapped public faith in his ability to serve as president and as a uniting force in Germany.
"The republic needs a president … who is supported by the confidence of not only a majority but a wide majority of citizens," Wulff told reporters at the presidential palace in Berlin. "The last few weeks have shown that this trust and therefore my ability to be effective has suffered sustained damage."
He said he was certain of exoneration by any investigation of allegations of official misconduct during his tenure as leader of Lower Saxony. Wulff presided over the state from 2003 until 2010, when Parliament voted him in as president.
"In my offices I have always acted in accordance with the law," he said. "I have made mistakes, but I was always upright."
Wulff, 52, was Merkel's handpicked choice for the job of president, a largely ceremonial post but one that carries great moral authority in Germany. His resignation is a blow for Europe's most powerful leader as she grapples with the continent's debt crisis and other pressing issues.
Merkel abruptly canceled a meeting Friday in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti in order to deal with the setback at home.
She expressed regret over Wulff's decision to quit but praised him for putting the public interest first. Eager to avoid a bruising fight over a successor, both within her fractious ruling coalition and with opposition parties, she pledged to find a consensus candidate who could command broad cross-party support.
Both Merkel and Wulff belong to the conservative Christian Democratic Union. The chancellor remained supportive of Wulff throughout his troubles, even as questions over his past conduct grew and he became increasingly ill-tempered in his response to them.
The scandal, which emerged in December, centers on an allegedly improper home loan Wulff received from a friend's wife when he was governor of Lower Saxony. More recently, critics have also questioned the propriety of free luxury hotel stays he accepted from a movie producer.
Last month, Germans were shocked to learn of a tirade Wulff left on the voicemail of the editor in chief of the tabloid Bild in December, in which Wulff demanded that the paper refrain from publishing a story on the home loan. Bild, Germany's bestselling newspaper, went ahead with publication and Wulff was forced to apologize for his behavior.
He repeatedly batted away suggestions that he ought to resign as president. But his position finally became untenable Thursday when state prosecutors in Lower Saxony requested that lawmakers lift his presidential immunity to allow them to launch a formal investigation.
Although Merkel's popularity has not been dented by the controversy, the matter has been a distraction for her and her party.
Horst Seehofer, governor of the state of Bavaria and leader of the upper house of Parliament, will serve as acting president until a successor is chosen.