Rumsfeld staying, Thompson leaving Cabinet
WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- scarred by postwar violence and prison scandal in Iraq -- accepted President Bush's request that he remain for the second-term Cabinet. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson resigned Friday, warning as he left of a possible terror attack on the nation's food supply.
"For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," Thompson said as he announced his departure. "We are importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that."
Thompson's resignation broadened the exodus that has emptied more than half of Bush's Cabinet before he takes the oath of office for a second term. In all, eight members of the 15-person Cabinet have said they will leave.
The decision to keep Rumsfeld resolved a major question about the postelection reshuffling in the Bush administration. In an Oval Office meeting Monday, Bush informed Rumsfeld he considered him the right man for the job, and the Pentagon chief -- widely thought to want to keep his job, at least for a time -- agreed to remain, a senior administration official said Friday.
A former congressman, as well as White House chief of staff and defense chief under President Ford, Rumsfeld kept Bush's confidence despite U.S. deaths in Iraq that have spiraled above 1,250.
Rumsfeld has a full plate: continuing military operations in Iraq, focused now on securing the country ahead of January elections, the ongoing effort in Afghanistan and a plan to modernize the military.
Meanwhile, a longtime Bush loyalist from Texas -- Medicare chief Mark McClellan, who also has served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and is the brother of White House press secretary Scott McClellan -- is considered to be Bush's top choice to replace Thompson. The outgoing secretary also dropped several other names, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Men and women with personal ties to the president have been high on his list as he refashions his circle of top officials for the next four years.
But earlier Friday, Bush departed from that approach to announce his nomination of Bernard Kerik, the burly high school dropout who led New York's police department at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks, as the new chief of the 2-year-old Department of Homeland Security.
Standing side-by-side in the White House's Roosevelt Room, both men made plain that Kerik's searing experiences in the rubble of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and afterward as the city and the reeling police department buried their dead and picked up the pieces, were an important reason he was chosen to oversee the nation's protection from future attack.
"Bernie Kerik understands the duties that came to America on September the 11th," Bush said.
"I know what is at stake," Kerik said.
Bush still must name a new head of the Energy Department to succeed departing Secretary Spencer Abraham. And Thompson was not expected to be the last to exit the Cabinet.
Treasury Secretary John Snow, despite being called by the White House a valuable member of the president's economic team, has not received a public endorsement of continued service. Snow, who has been in the job less than two years, declined in a Friday appearance on CNBC to reveal whether he has submitted or offered to submit his resignation.
Scott McClellan, the press secretary, dismissed suggestions of Cabinet members making a disorderly stampede for the door.
"A number of them have served a full four years now, and that's a long time for anyone to serve in a position like that," McClellan said.
Presidents Clinton and Reagan saw seven Cabinet seats change hands after they won new terms, President Nixon nine and Presidents Truman and Johnson four each.
Thompson responded in detail to a question about his biggest worries as he leaves the federal government, citing two areas he said "need a lot more work" for Americans to be safe.
He also said that while inspections of food imports have increased dramatically, they remain "a very minute amount" and that better technologies are desperately needed. Food poisoning, Thompson said, is something he worries about "every single night."
He also warned of the possibility of a global flu outbreak. Thompson lamented there still was not a vaccine for the avian flu and criticized Congress for not approving more money to tackle the disease, which some estimates have said could kill as many as 30 million to 70 million people around the world.
"This is a really huge bomb out there that could adversely impact on the health care of the world," Thompson said.
His tenure was marked by a massive overhaul of the Medicare government insurance program that added a prescription drug benefit for the elderly. But difficulties abounded, from the still-unsolved, deadly 2001 anthrax attacks that terrified a nation still reeling from the Sept. 11 terror attacks to this year's flu vaccine shortages.
"He is a friend and a true public servant who worked every day to make Americans healthier and to help more Americans in need achieve the dream of independence and personal responsibility," Bush said in a statement.