WASHINGTON — U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name Thursday as President Barack Obama’s leading candidate for secretary of state, saying the administration could not afford a “lengthy, disruptive and costly” confirmation fight over statements she made about the extremist attack in Libya that killed four Americans.
Rice called Obama on Thursday morning, before sending him a letter officially withdrawing from consideration. Rice said in an interview that she had concluded early this week that what she and Obama considered “unfair and misleading” charges against her over the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, would impede the president’s second-term agenda.
“This was my decision,” Rice said. When asked if Obama had tried to dissuade her, she said that he “understood that this was the right decision, and that I made it for the right reasons.”
Her withdrawal leaves Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass. with no apparent competitors to take over from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. A senior administration official said that “something strange would have to happen” for Kerry not to be the choice.
The official also said that former senator Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., has emerged as a “solid” candidate to run the Pentagon, although a final decision has not been made. For the CIA, the official said, Obama is deciding between Acting Director Michael Morell and deputy national security adviser John Brennan, who has yet to tell the president whether he would accept the job.
As Obama assembles his second-term national security team, formal announcements are due as early as next week. National security adviser Thomas Donilon will remain in his job, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.
Rice said in the interview that “after a long, grueling battle, in all likelihood, I would be confirmed.” The assessment was shared by White House officials and by senior Democratic congressional aides who said they were confident that a majority of senators would have voted for her.
“But I really came to believe this would not be weeks, but potentially months, and incredibly distracting and disruptive,” Rice said. The first few months of any president’s second term, she said, are “your high-water mark of influence.”
“If my nomination meant that the odds of getting comprehensive immigration reform passed or any other major priority were substantially reduced, I couldn’t live with myself,” she said.
Rice’s withdrawal was a retreat by Obama, who had repeatedly voiced support for her. In a statement issued by the White House, Obama described her as “an extraordinarily capable, patriotic, and passionate public servant.”
But her removal from the scene is unlikely to quell the controversy that led to it: the extremist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Criticism led by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has focused on what they called Rice’s intentionally misleading description, in television interviews five days after the attack, of an anti-American demonstration that turned violent. The administration later revised that assessment, using what it said was updated intelligence information, to blame organized extremists.
Rice’s withdrawal, Graham said in a statement, “will not end questions about what happened in Benghazi.” Clinton is scheduled to appear before House and Senate committees next week to discuss an independent State Department review of possible security lapses that is nearing completion.
Rice and Obama made clear that she will continue at the United Nations. But administration officials said Obama left open a door when he spoke of her “limitless capability to serve our country now and in the years to come.”
In the weeks before the Nov. 6 presidential election, as Republican criticism of Rice crystallized, the White House initially portrayed the fight over her as nakedly partisan. Congressional Republicans were unfairly attacking the ambassador simply because she represented the White House, administration spokesmen said.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney also criticized the White House’s handling of the attack, and suggested a cover-up.
But the controversy over Rice’s portrayal of the attack did not evaporate after Obama won, and some congressional Democrats became worried about the cost of a nomination battle that probably would make negotiations over taxes and spending more difficult.
The White House insisted that Rice’s television appearances had been closely coordinated with the intelligence community, and senior intelligence officials came forth with background statements supporting her.
Obama did not disguise his anger in defending Rice at a news conference after the election.
“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he said. “I’m happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi, and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
But White House attempts to mollify critics and round up support by sending Rice to Capitol Hill for two days of meetings last month backfired when moderates such as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, declined to endorse her.
Collins’s criticism was a red flag for the administration. Along with new Republican charges this week that Rice had mishandled diplomatic tasks when she served as the Bill Clinton administration’s chief diplomat on Africa, Rice and the White House began to believe that the cause was lost.
The Africa charges, a senior administration official said, “indicated that they were going to keep going — once they ran out of one issue, they would manufacture another.”
By last Sunday, Rice said in the interview, “I started very seriously thinking that the costs really outweighed the benefits. That no number of facts or rationality or reason was going to deter those who were determined to make this a political issue.”
In its schedule, the White House said Obama will meet with Rice in the Oval Office on Friday.
Throughout the controversy, Kerry has said little about Rice. On Thursday, he called her “an extraordinarily capable and dedicated public servant.”
“As someone who has weathered my share of political attacks and understands on a personal level just how difficult politics can be,” he said, “I’ve felt for her throughout these last difficult weeks, but I also know that she will continue to serve with great passion and distinction.”
Rice, 48, was an early Obama backer among Democratic national security experts who had worked in the Clinton White House, where she served on the National Security Council staff. During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton’s team considered Rice’s support for Obama a defection.
After Obama won, he gave Rice the U.N. job, a plum among policy wonks but a post that is not well known nationally. There, she quickly became a White House insider with strong connections among Obama’s close circle of policy advisers. Rice has worked alongside Hillary Clinton without any public hint of discord, although the two were never close.
In a statement issued by the State Department, Clinton called Rice an “indispensable partner,” and said they had worked together on difficult issues such as Iran, North Korea, Libya and South Sudan. “Susan has worked tirelessly to advance our nation’s interests and values,” Clinton said. “I am confident that she will continue to represent the United States with strength and skill.”
Rice said she does not think the secretary of state battle will undermine her effectiveness at the United Nations. “They know, because they’ve seen it firsthand, that I have the full confidence of the president,” she said.
Scott Wilson contributed to this report.