In a move that underlined the growing vulnerability of the White House, Harriet Miers said she was standing down to defuse an effort by Congress to gain access to internal documents that would reveal her role as a counsel to President George Bush. In reality, she stepped down as a result of a mounting campaign among conservatives who questioned her competence and suitability for the job.
In a formal letter to the President, Ms Miers said: "I have been greatly honoured and humbled by the confidence you have shown in me and have appreciated immensely your support and the support of many others. However, I am concerned that the confirmation process presents a burden for the White House and our staff that is not in the best interests of the country."
The timing of the decision shocked most observers. It was understood the White House was planning a fresh campaign to persuade Republican senators and conservative groups of Ms Miers' suitability and to contest claims that she lacked the judicial credentials for the job.
The Senate judiciary committee was to begin on 7 November what were likely to be the most contentious Supreme Court nomination hearings since Clarence Thomas was eventually confirmed in 1991.
Most of Washington had been avidly awaiting news from the special prosecutor who has been investigating the CIA leak affair. It is widely anticipated that at least one senior White House official could face criminal charges over the leaking of the identity of the CIA agent Valerie Plame, wife of the former ambassador Joe Wilson, who publicly questioned the administration's claims over Iraq.
An announcement by the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, is expected today. Attention focuses on the possibility that both Karl Rove, Mr Bush's special adviser, and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, could face indictments.
Now the once sure-footed Bush administration has to find another nominee for the Supreme Court. But will Mr Bush nominate someone who would simply better please the ultra-right of his party or will he opt for someone with more obvious judicial credentials?
Publicly, Mr Bush had been supportive of Ms Miers while privately officials were all too aware of the opposition she faced. That the White House chose to "accept" her withdrawal and defuse the row rather than tough it out underlines the vulnerability it faces on other fronts. In addition to the CIA leak affair, Mr Bush - whose personal ratings are already poor - this week had to deal with the death toll of US troops in Iraq passing 2,000.
Ms Miers phoned Mr Bush with her decision on Wednesday. He said yesterday: "Senators would not be satisfied until they gained access to internal documents concerning advice provided during her tenure at the White House, disclosures that would undermine a president's ability to receive candid counsel.
"Harriet Miers' decision demonstrates her deep respect for this essential aspect of the constitutional separation of powers - and confirms my deep respect and admiration for her."
But Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader, said: "The radical right wing of the Republican Party killed the Harriet Miers nomination." Mr Reid's assessment was clearly more accurate.
On Wednesday, the Senate Republican leader Bill Frist spoke to the White House chief of staff Andy Card and offered a "frank assessment of the situation in the committee and in the full Senate" on Ms Miers. He apparently said he could not confirm a majority of Republican support for her nomination in the committee or the full Senate.
Right-wing conservatives doubted Ms Miers' would be an ally, and questioned her willingness to oppose abortion rights or if she had a "consistent, well-grounded conservative judicial philosophy". Ms Miers' withdrawal means the justice she was to replace, Sandra Day O'Connor, will delay retirement. New nominees could include the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, Mr Bush's longtime friend who would be the first Hispanic on the court, and the lawyer Larry Thompson, who was the highest-ranking black law enforcement official in Mr Bush's first term.
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