Fleischer resigning White House post
Press secretary to leave in July
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Declaring "it's time to say good-bye," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Monday he is stepping down after 21 years in government and politics.
"You just reach a point where you have to look into your heart and know that it's time to go," Fleischer, 42, told reporters at the White House briefing.
"I will leave being able to say that I love my job. I believe deeply in President Bush, the man and his policies. But it is my time to go."
Deputy press secretary Scott McClellan was described by senior administration officials as the overwhelming favorite to step into the top job.
Fleischer, in an earlier telephone interview with CNN, said he informed Bush Friday that after 21 years of working in government and politics, it was time for him to move on. He said he would seek paid speaking engagements, do some writing and do whatever he could -- informally -- to assist the president's re-election campaign. Eventually, Fleischer said he envisions moving home to New York for a communications job in the private sector.
Fleischer said he decided that this period of time was the "last off-ramp" for senior staffers -- meaning those who stayed beyond the summer should also be committed to staying on through the campaign year. He expects to leave the White House in July.
Fleischer was a veteran Capitol Hill spokesman when he signed on with the short-lived presidential campaign of Elizabeth Dole. He signed on with the Bush campaign after Dole quit the 2000 race, and served as chief spokesman for the Bush campaign and presidential transition. Dole has since been elected to the U.S. Senate.
Points of contention
In 28 months as White House press secretary, Fleischer has had generally positive relations with the press corps, but there also have periods of contention about access to the president and the credibility of some White House statements.
In the past few weeks, for example, Fleischer told reporters there were no problems with Saudi cooperation in the war on terrorism. Hours later, it was reported that the White House deputy national security adviser took a secret weekend trip to Saudi Arabia to appeal for more help protecting residential compounds housing Americans and other Westerners.
Fleischer also was questioned by reporters about Bush's trip earlier this month to the USS Abraham Lincoln. Fleischer had consistently said Bush was flying out to the aircraft carrier on a Navy jet because the carrier was too far out at sea for a helicopter landing. By the day of the visit, however, the carrier was within helicopter range and other White House officials said Bush had made the decision in advance to fly with a pilot who made a tailhook landing, so that he could experience what the pilots experience.
By all accounts, it was Fleischer's decision to leave. He married recently, and said he looks forward first to "having time to relax a little and spend some time with my wife." From there, he said he envisions "a little work in the speaking circuit, some writing and whatever I can do to support the president's re-election."
At Monday's White House briefing, Fleischer said his most memorable moment as White House spokesman came September 11, 2001 -- a day he said had started as "just as innocent as any other day."
"To arrive at that school in Florida, only to find out that our country was under attack, I think that was a day we always remember," he said.
Fleischer also cited the "whole series of anthrax attacks" in the months that followed as something he will never forget.
McClellan has been Fleischer's top deputy, and is one of a handful of senior White House officials whose service to Bush dates back to his days as Texas governor. He is well liked and trusted by the president, and is close as well with White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, another member of what others on the White House staff call "the Texas Mafia."
Others mentioned as possible Fleischer replacements include Victoria Clarke, the top Pentagon spokeswoman.
But several administration officials said it was all but certain that the press secretary's job would go to McClellan. "This is Ari's day but you can expect an announcement in the not-too-distant future," one of the senior officials told CNN. "People need to talk things over but there is no reason to believe it will not be Scott."
--Senior White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.