The State Department and the White House are denying a published report Monday that Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage have told the White House they will not serve a second term if President Bush is re-elected.
Mr. Powell, who polls indicate is one of the most popular members of the Bush administration, is widely reported to have told close friends that he does not intend to remain in his job if President George Bush wins another four years in office.
But his aides are vehemently denying an account in Monday's Washington Post that Mr. Powell and his deputy Mr. Armitage have made what amounts to a flat commitment to step down on January 21, 2005, the day after the next presidential inauguration.
The Post quoted administration sources as saying that Mr. Armitage conveyed that in a recent conversation with White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in a story that immediately set off media speculation about who might succeed the Secretary of State.
At a news briefing here, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker insisted that the reported exchange between Mr. Armitage and Ms. Rice never occurred. "There was no conversation between the Deputy Secretary and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice concerning any plans for 'stepping down.' There is no basis for the story, as I said. And as Secretary Powell has always said, he and the deputy secretary of state will serve at the pleasure of the president and will continue to do so. So welcome to Washington in August where some of these goofy stories tend to hit the front pages, but there is no basis to that story," he said.
There were similar comments from White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan in Texas, who said the Secretary of State and Mr. Armitage are "enjoying the job that they are doing," and that the Post account was a reflection of the Washington summer "rumor mill."
State Department Spokesman Reeker stressed that Mr. Powell is conducting business as usual and that he and Mr. Armitage would fly to Crawford, Texas, on Tuesday to brief the president on foreign policy developments including pending talks on North Korea's nuclear program and Middle East peace efforts.
Officials here say that even if Mr. Powell planned to leave in 2005, it would be politically unwise to announce his intention now, 17 months before the end of the current administration, in that it could undermine his influence in foreign policy dealings.
One administration official took particular exception to a suggestion in the Post story that Mr. Powell had told associates that a promise to his wife rather than any policy difference with the White House was behind his desire to limit his tenure to one term.
The official said Mrs. Powell has nothing to do with the issue and that she is "extremely distressed" to have become a factor in the media reports.
In recent decades, few U.S. Secretaries of State have had long tenures, and the last one to serve eight years, the span of two presidential terms, was Dean Rusk, who was named by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and remained in the post under President Lyndon Johnson after Mr. Kennedy's assassination.