WASHINGTON, AP – At least twice during the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld offered President Bush his resignation. On Friday, amid growing criticism of his stewardship of the war from retired generals who waged it, the issue never came up.
In a private phone call, Bush offered Rumsfeld his full support. And at no time did Rumsfeld offer to step down, according to a senior defense official familiar with the call.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the call was private, said the idea of a resignation “wasn’t even in the same stadium as the discussion they were having. That’s not where anybody’s head is.”
Instead, Bush said, Rumsfeld’s stewardship at the Pentagon was crucial for the United States.
“Earlier today, I spoke with Don Rumsfeld about ongoing military operations in the global war on terror,” the president said. “I reiterated my strong support for his leadership during this historic and challenging time for our nation.”
Bush’s strong endorsement, conveyed in a statement released by the White House while Bush was at Camp David, Md., for the weekend, appeared designed to blunt a clamor from within the ranks of retired commanders for Rumsfeld’s ouster.
Six retired generals have called for Rumsfeld to resign, accusing him of mishandling the Iraq war, ignoring advice of field commanders and having an arrogant management style.
In an interview aired Friday on Al-Arabiya television, Rumsfeld said he planned to stay on the job.
“The fact that two or three or four retired people have different views, I respect their views,” he said. “But obviously if, out of thousands and thousands of admirals and generals, if every time two or three people disagreed we changed the secretary of defense of the United States, it would be like a merry-go-round.”
A senior administration official said Bush issued a formal statement because of the “type of voices” engaged in the latest criticism of Rumsfeld. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to more freely elaborate on White House thinking.
Similar statements of support are unlikely for other officials whose time on the job may be limited, such as Treasury Secretary John Snow, the official said.
Joshua Bolten took over from retiring Andy Card on Friday as White House chief of staff, and several administration personnel changes were widely anticipated, perhaps as early as next week.
The timing of Bush’s statement on Rumsfeld seemed designed to tamp down speculation, particularly in Sunday newspapers and on weekend television news shows, that Rumsfeld might be on his way out.
Bush’s statement also contradicted some of the retired generals who said Rumsfeld ignored military recommendations from his commanders on missions in Iraq and in the broader war on terrorism.
“I have seen firsthand how Don relies upon our military commanders in the field and at the Pentagon to make decisions about how to best complete these missions,” Bush said. “Secretary Rumsfeld’s energetic and steady leadership is exactly what is needed at this period.
“He has my full support and deepest appreciation.”
Earlier Friday, retired Gen. John Batiste, who called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, said the recent criticism is “absolutely coincidental” and said he did not know of any coordinated effort to discredit the defense secretary.
“I have not talked to the other generals,” Batiste said on NBC’s “Today” show. But, he said, the demands for Rumsfeld to step down are “happening for a reason.”
Rumsfeld supporters in the Pentagon said they expect the criticism to continue, and expressed concern that it could have a damaging effect on officers who deal with Rumsfeld on a daily basis.
The senior defense official said the criticism from the generals makes it look as if general officers play no role in decision-making and don’t offer any advice to the civilian leaders. “It makes them look like bystanders and they’re not bystanders.”
Also calling for Rumsfeld to resign were retired Army Maj. Gen. John Riggs, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, retired Army Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold.