TOPICS > Politics

Bernard Kerik Withdraws From Consideration Amid Controversy

December 13, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: It was the boldest of President Bush’s second term cabinet picks, former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik as secretary of Homeland Security.

But late Friday night, the White House sent a terse two-sentence e-mail to reporters, saying Kerik “is withdrawing his name for personal reasons.”

Kerik also issued a statement, saying he’d just recently “uncovered information” that he had not paid taxes for a household worker who may also have been an illegal immigrant.

For more on the collapse of the Kerik appointment, we turn to Elisabeth Bumiller, White House correspondent for the New York Times.

Welcome, Elisabeth.


MARGARET WARNER: This is the only hiccup in what has been an incredibly smooth changeover in this second-term cabinet. What happened? I mean, why wasn’t this problem caught in the vetting process?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, that’s the question of the hour which we’ve been trying to answer. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said today that the vetting process had gone on for weeks– he used the word “weeks”– before the president nominated Mr. Kerik on Dec. 3.

And so it’s very unclear why they couldn’t find a lot of this information. It’s out there publicly. It’s also unclear exactly when Mr. Kerik was asked by White House lawyers whether he had a nanny problem. And he said he didn’t. And then this information came out later.

So, there are a lot of unanswered questions right now about why none of this surfaced after weeks and weeks of White House, basically, investigation.

MARGARET WARNER: And hadn’t also a lot of other problems surfaced in regards to his past, professionally and otherwise?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: That’s true. Now, the White House said they knew about some of them. For example, on Friday night, Newsweek reported that the real reason that Kerik was stepping down was because there was an arrest warrant that had been issued against him in connection with some debts on a condominium in New Jersey.

Now the White House said, “Oh, we knew all about that, and we thought we could certainly explain that in a confirmation hearing.”

Lately, there were other things that surfaced specifically that the… that Mr. Kerik had some connection to a company in New Jersey that was suspected or accused of having ties to organized crime. It’s unclear how he would have explained that.

But at this moment, the White House is still saying it was the nanny problem and none of the other issues.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it fair to say that Kerik was certainly aware that– particularly the New York papers had been incredibly aggressive on this one case you talked about the New Jersey company and also some things in his personal life-that he knew they were working on that?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Yes he did. He knew that the New York Times and the Daily News were working on stories about the New Jersey construction company. He was aware of that. But I can’t explain, perhaps he thought this was all… this could all be explained in a confirmation hearing.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, is it absolutely clear that he voluntarily withdrew? He wasn’t asked to?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, it’s as clear as I’m able to say. I mean, the White House says he withdrew on his own. And he says he withdrew on his own. And there’s no distance between them on that, so we’ve been reporting that for several days now.

I think it’s fair to say the White House did not encourage him to stay. It was a very brief conversation he had with President Bush, about 8:30 on Friday night when he told the president he wanted to withdraw his name and it was a very, very short conversation.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you wrote an interesting story today about Rudy Giuliani’s role in all this, and what an embarrassment this is also for Mr. Giuliani. Describe that.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, the mayor… Bernard Kerik was the mayor’s police commissioner, when Rudy Giuliani was mayor up until 2000. And the mayor had also gone into business with Mr. Kerik at Giuliani Partners.

And the White House was well aware of how highly Mr. Giuliani thought of Mr. Kerik. And so Mr. Giuliani over the weekend apologized to the White House for basically vouching for Mr. Kerik.

He called Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, on Saturday morning to apologize and then last night at a dinner at the White House he apologized to the president.

MARGARET WARNER: Does this cause any kind of strain? I mean, does it really reflect on Rudy Giuliani, or is it just a one day story as far as Giuliani is concerned?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: We’ll see. The mayor, of course, says that this is… this has not caused a strain with the White House. That’s interesting he said that that he felt the need to so publicly apologize and make his apologies known to the chief of staff and the president.

It doesn’t help him at all with the White House. The White House… but on the other hand the White House feels some degree of loyalty to him because Giuliani campaigned very, very hard for President Bush in the fall, and during the presidential campaign.

The president liked having the former mayor at his side. He was a great reminder of how much of defending the country after Sept. 11, you know, the mayor was… rallied New Yorkers in a way that really turned around his political fortunes at that time.

MARGARET WARNER: What did… in retrospect, what did the choice of Bernard Kerik say to you about what the White House is looking for in a new secretary of homeland security?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: They’re looking for, I think, they were looking for a symbol of strength and a reminder of how the country stood up on 9/11 and rallied.

Certainly Bernard… you know, Rudy Giuliani has said many times he does want a cabinet job, and I don’t think one would ever actually have been offered, but if you don’t have Rudy Giuliani, Bernard Kerik is a pretty good second choice.

He was right next to the mayor that whole day on 9/11 when the mayor ran from the, you know, in the dust and the rubble from the falling buildings. And, you know, he was the city’s police chief at one of the worst moments in the city’s history.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you also say… I read somewhere that even though there’s a brand new department the White House feels it’s already kind of cumbersome and it really needed the toughness and street smarts that they thought someone like a Bernard Kerik would bring to that.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: They need a good manager. Bernard Kerik had been in charge of the New York City Corrections Department. That is a very tough management job. He had been in Iraq.

The White House sent him to Iraq to help train Iraqi security forces over the summer. There were some mixed reports of his job there, but basically the White House thought he was the kind of manager and, you know, sort of street smart, street savvy guy they could count on.

MARGARET WARNER: So how are they doing on the search for somebody like that to become the new nominee?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: Well, I don’t think they’re going to reach into New York City anytime soon for a new nominee. I think they learned that it’s complicated in New York City.

If I had to guess I would say they would reach for a safe choice. But there’s a lot of names floating around. You know, Joe Lieberman, the senator from Connecticut, Fran Townsend who is the president’s domestic security advisor at the White House, you know, Asa Hutchinson, who is the deputy homeland security.

There’s a lot of names floating around. None of them are quite like, you know, Bernie Kerik, however.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you get the sense that the White House feels a great urgency — that speed is of the essence here?

ELISABETH BUMILLER: I have sense, yes. But I don’t think they want to go too quickly this time given what’s happened to them with Bernard Kerik. You know, the White House spent a lot of the day on the defensive about its vetting process and why it failed in this instance.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you very much.