John D. Ashcroft, the combative attorney general whose anti-terrorism policies made him the focus of a fierce national debate over civil liberties, resigned yesterday along with Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, one of President Bush's closest friends.
Ashcroft, 62, has been one of the most controversial and influential figures of Bush's first term. Ashcroft provided reliable fodder for Democrats on the campaign trail and served as a visible representative of the evangelical Christians who played a crucial role in reelecting the president.
Ashcroft Resigns: The attorney general resigned Tuesday, one of the first two members of the Cabinet to quit before the start of a second term.
Transcript: Author Ronald Kessler discusses Bush's second term and recent resignations.
Ashcroft's resignation letter to President Bush, dated Nov. 2 and released Tuesday.
Video: The Post's Dana Milbank
Ashcroft's Legal Record
Administration sources said Ashcroft's successor is likely to be White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales.
In a five-page handwritten resignation letter to Bush -- dated Election Day but released yesterday -- Ashcroft took credit for declining crime rates and the absence of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. "The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved," he wrote.
But Ashcroft, whose gallbladder was removed in March after he was hospitalized for pancreatitis, also wrote that the "demands of justice are both rewarding and depleting" and that "the Department of Justice would be well served by new leadership and fresh inspiration."
Bush said in a statement that Ashcroft "has worked tirelessly to help make our country safer" and has "transformed the department to make combating terrorism the top priority."
The resignations were the first departures from Bush's Cabinet since his reelection, and administration officials said they came for very different reasons. Ashcroft -- aware of the controversy he has provoked and, according to friends, exhausted after his illness -- preemptively offered his letter before the White House initiated a formal discussion about his future.
Evans, 58, often described as Bush's best friend, is eager to return to Texas to rejoin family members, who have already moved back.
A White House official said Bush considered Ashcroft's resignation at Camp David over the weekend and decided to accept it this week. Ashcroft said in his letter that it was handwritten "so its confidentiality can be maintained."
Picking Gonzales would give Bush tight control over the Justice Department. As governor of Texas, Bush put Gonzales on the state Supreme Court.
Administration sources said other contenders to replace Ashcroft include his former deputy, Larry D. Thompson, who would be the nation's first African American attorney general but has indicated he is not interested, and Marc Racicot, a former Montana governor who was chairman of Bush's reelection effort.
Ashcroft's deputy, James B. Comey; former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani; and New York Gov. George E. Pataki also are on the handicap lists of administration insiders. Most are considered more moderate than Ashcroft.
Ashcroft's nomination was the subject of a pitched battle in the Senate, which confirmed his appointment in February 2001 by a modest margin along partisan lines. In a message to Justice employees yesterday, Ashcroft said he will continue to serve as attorney general until his successor is confirmed.
Ashcroft, the son and grandson of Assemblies of God ministers, spent most of his political career as an attorney general, governor and U.S. senator in Missouri. He explored a run for president in 1998 as the candidate of the religious right.