Bush to move quickly on Kerik replacement

Ex-nominee apologizes over immigration problem

Bush expected to move swiftly on Kerik replacement

December 12, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush is expected to move swiftly to select a new secretary of homeland security after his first choice, former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, suddenly withdrew Friday night in the midst of growing questions about his nomination, administration officials said.

Bush ignored questions from reporters yesterday about Kerik. Aides gave no hint about the timing of a new replacement for Secretary Tom Ridge, who had announced plans to stay on the job until early February unless a successor was confirmed before then.

While administration officials remained closemouthed, at least in public, Kerik and his chief patron and business partner, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, mounted what appeared to be a coordinated effort yesterday to explain Kerik's decision to withdraw. Their comments, in separate appearances before TV cameras, centered on Kerik's acknowledged failure to pay employment taxes for a nanny who apparently was in the country illegally, rather than on questions about potential conflicts of interest in his business dealings.

Kerik appeared outside his New Jersey home to apologize for what he said were embarrassing mistakes involving the employment of a woman who, until recently, cared for his two children. He said he did not discover the problem until late Wednesday and denied that he had been pressured by the White House to withdraw his name from consideration.

"I owe the president ... a great apology that this may have caused him and his administration a big distraction," Kerik said later in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.

Giuliani said that he had spoken yesterday with White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and that the president would make a new choice "expeditiously."

The former mayor, often mentioned as a potential 2008 Republican presidential candidate, said that because Kerik's duties as homeland security secretary would have involved enforcement of immigration laws, he could not have been confirmed by the Senate.

Giuliani rejected suggestions that a growing list of other questions about Kerik's background would have prevented him from joining the Cabinet.

"Those problems were manageable," said Giuliani, whose partnership with Kerik has earned millions for the former police chief, who has a history of rocky personal finances and once filed for bankruptcy.

Negative publicity surrounding the pullout of Bush's pick for a key job in his administration has raised doubts about the efficacy of the vaunted White House management operation. That increases the likelihood that another nominee will be named soon, at least in part to try to shift attention from Kerik and unresolved questions about his selection.

Among the possible choices to head Homeland Security, an enormous department with 180,000 employees spread across 22 former federal agencies, are several people whose names circulated prominently in the days before Kerik's was announced.

They include Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas who is one of the department's top officials, and Fran Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser. Both have an important credential that Kerik lacked: They have already been scrutinized for the positions they hold and are well-known inside the administration.

Kerik's abrupt withdrawal, announced in a terse White House release Friday night, focused unwanted attention on Bush's second-term Cabinet shake-up, which administration officials had pronounced complete barely one day earlier.

In the weeks since his re-election, Bush has moved with unusual swiftness to change most of his first-term Cabinet, replacing them with trusted loyalists in key departments such as State and Justice.

The shake-up has been carried out with careful attention to secrecy, a matter of particular importance to Bush and his close-knit team of advisers, who also prize loyalty. One test for would-be Cabinet picks was whether their selection would leak to the news media before the administration was ready to make it known. None did.

Now, Kerik's withdrawal is redirecting attention to the changes for Bush's second term and raising new questions about the Cabinet selection process.

Critics charge that the premium Bush puts on loyalty makes it more difficult for him to hear differing points of view. They say that removing figures such as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who questioned elements of Bush's approach to Iraq, is intended to stifle dissent and tighten control of the federal government by the White House staff.

Among questions raised by the failed choice of Kerik: Did the desire to keep a close hold on information and finish the Cabinet shake-up quickly make it more difficult for White House officials to gather sufficient information about the former New York cop and possibly others who weren't well-known to Bush insiders?

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