WASHINGTON -- United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice took herself out of the running Thursday to be the next secretary of state, bowing to a torrent of criticism by Republicans on Capitol Hill over remarks she made after a deadly attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Rice wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama that she was confident she could serve in the nation’s highest diplomatic post but that she wanted to spare the nation what would have been a contentious confirmation process at the onset of Obama’s second term.
“If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly – to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities,” she wrote. “That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country.”
Obama had never said he would appoint Rice, but she had widely been considered one of the president’s top choices to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who plans to leave as soon as a successor is named. The most prominent name mentioned as a possible nominee now is Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his party’s 2004 presidential nominee. As a member of the Senate, he likely would win easy confirmation from his colleagues.
Rice will continue to serve as ambassador and in Obama’s Cabinet – she will meet with him at the White House on Friday.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus expressed disappointment that an African-American woman they called qualified was denied a chance to serve in the high-profile position.
She would have been the third African-American in the spot after Republicans Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and the fourth woman after Madeleine Albright, Rice and Clinton.
The president repeatedly defended Rice from criticisms, led by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, that she misled Americans after the attack in Libya that killed four Americans. And he appeared to be ready to fight for her.
“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he said at a White House news conference the week after his re-election. “To besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
In a statement Thursday, Obama called Rice an “extraordinarily capable, patriotic and passionate public servant,” and he credited her with helping secure international support for sanctions against Iran and North Korea, achieve an independent South Sudan and advocate for human rights.
“I have every confidence that Susan has limitless capability to serve our country now and in the years to come, and know that I will continue to rely on her as an adviser and friend,” Obama said. “While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admirable commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first. The American people can be proud to have a public servant of her caliber and character representing our country.”
Late last month, Rice took the unusual step of meeting with Republican lawmakers who opposed her potential nomination. Normally, nominees make those visits to Capitol Hill after they’re nominated.
Several, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire as well as Graham and McCain, said later that they remained concerned and would try to block her nomination.
Graham said in a statement Thursday that he respects Rice’s decision but that he continues to question what happened in Libya on Sept. 11.
“When it comes to Benghazi I am determined to find out what happened – before, during, and after the attack,” he said. “Unfortunately, the White House and other agencies are stonewalling when it comes to providing the relevant information. I find this unacceptable.”
A spokesman for McCain said the senator thanks Rice for her service to her country and wishes her well.
“He will continue to seek all the facts about what happened before, during and after the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed four brave Americans,” spokesman Brian Rogers said.
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and information management officer Sean Smith were killed when the consulate came under attack. Several hours later, two other Americans, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, died at a CIA compound a mile away where surviving Americans from the consulate fled.
Republicans criticized Rice for describing the attack on Sunday talk shows as stemming from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video and not as a terrorist operation, suggesting that it was a deliberate bid to protect Obama’s record on terrorism in the closing weeks of his re-election campaign. Rice said she relied on talking points the intelligence community provided, an initial assessment that turned out to be incorrect.
Rice, a 48-year-old Stanford University graduate and Rhodes scholar, earned a reputation as a confident, hard-charging diplomat dating to Bill Clinton’s presidency. Her sometimes blunt style has earned her as many friends as critics.
Another complication was Rice’s wealth and the suggestion of a possible conflict of interest. She and her Canadian-born husband own millions of dollars worth of stock in Canadian energy and pipeline companies that would profit from the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Rice violated no laws and properly revealed the stock on government financial disclosure forms, according to government watchdog groups. But if she had become secretary of state, one of her first acts may have involved the pipeline’s permit.
Hannah Allam of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.