U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice had come under heavy criticism for her defense… (Andrew Burton / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON – Susan Rice, who came under heavy criticism for her defense of the Obama administration after armed militants killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of State on Thursday as the president began to narrow his choices for key Cabinet positions.
“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,” Rice wrote in a one-page letter to President Obama. “That tradeoff is simply not worth it to our country.”
In a statement, Obama praised Rice, who is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as a key member of his Cabinet and “an advisor and friend.”
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“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,” Obama said.
The decision leaves Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as the leading contender to head the State Department after Hillary Rodham Clinton steps down early next year. That, in turn, would require a special election in Massachusetts and likely give Scott Brown, a moderate Republican who lost his Senate seat to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in November, another chance to run.
White House aides said the president also is now likely to choose either Chuck Hagel, a Republican and former U.S. senator from Nebraska, or Michele Flournoy, formerly the highest-ranking woman at the Defense Department, to replace Leon E. Panetta as secretary of Defense. If nominated, Flournoy would be the first woman to run the Pentagon.
Rice drew flak after she appeared on several Sunday TV talk shows five days after militants stormed a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in eastern Libya on Sept. 11, killing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Although Rice relied on so-called talking points given to her by the CIA, a number of Republican lawmakers said she had falsely described the attacks as spontaneous protests and not a calculated act of terrorism by Libyan extremists. Critics said she had tried to downplay the nature of the attacks to protect Obama during his reelection campaign.
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Rice later agreed that her statements were incorrect, but blamed the information she was given by the intelligence community. It did little to stanch the criticism, however.
As speculation grew that Rice was a likely candidate to replace Clinton, she tried to disarm her sharpest critics by meeting senior Republicans in closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill. But Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) all said they were dissatisfied, putting her expected nomination in jeopardy.
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[For the Record, 2:27 p.m. PST Dec. 13: This post originally referred to Michele Flournoy as the current highest-ranking woman at the Defense Department, a position she formerly held before aiding Obama's reelection campaign.]