WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's pick to be the next ambassador to Iraq withdrew from consideration Monday as Senate Republicans suggested his confirmation was endangered because of his behavior and judgment while working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in 2008.
Brett McGurk's nomination, which was scheduled for a vote Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, became endangered after the release on the Internet of sometimes racy emails he sent to journalist Gina Chon while he was married and was negotiating a security agreement with the Iraqi government during President George W. Bush's administration.
The emails indicated McGurk had an intimate relationship with Chon. McGurk has since married Chon, who resigned from The Wall Street Journal last week after acknowledging that she violated in-house rules by showing McGurk unpublished stories.
In a letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, McGurk said he was removing himself from consideration for the job with a "heavy heart." He said he was doing so after consulting Chon because he believed it was in the "best interests of the country, and of our life together, to withdraw my nomination and serve in another capacity."
McGurk said that Iraq badly needs a U.S. ambassador to succeed outgoing envoy James Jeffrey, but that the furor over the emails was a distraction that would delay the replacement. "The country is in the midst of a political crisis and our mission is undergoing rapid transformation," he said.
The controversy over the emails and the effect it had on Chon was a major part in his decision to withdraw, McGurk said.
"The most difficult part of this process, however, was watching my wife become a part of it," he said. "She is the most precious thing in the world to me, and the depiction of our relationship has been both surreal and devastating."
In a separate letter to friends and supporters, he wrote: "This is one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made."
When six Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked Obama last week to withdraw McGurk's nomination, they cited the emails. They also complained that McGurk had failed to defend American interests in Iraq during the security agreement negotiations
Some of the emails contain crude sexual references, and the senators said his use of an official State Department email account for the exchanges raised questions. There were also questions about whether McGurk had given Chon sensitive information about the negotiations.
"The public release of information detailing unprofessional conduct demonstrates poor judgment and will affect the nominee's credibility in the country where he has been nominated to serve," the senators said.
The senators could have scuttled McGurk's nomination entirely or held it up for weeks, even months.
The administration — as well as Jeffrey, the current ambassador to Iraq, and his two predecessors in Baghdad — had staunchly defended McGurk as the right person for the job given his extensive experience in Iraq and knowledge of the situation and political players. It also said he had been thoroughly vetted for the job.
The White House said Monday it appreciated McGurk's years of service to the country and was disappointed by his decision to withdraw.
"He has proven himself to be a skilled diplomat willing to take on some of the toughest challenges at the toughest times in a difficult region," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "While we regret to see Brett withdraw his candidacy there is no doubt that he will be called on again to serve the country."
Once a Supreme Court law clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, McGurk worked as a lawyer for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. He joined Bush's National Security Council staff, where in 2007 and 2008, when the emails were written, he was the lead U.S. negotiator on security agreements with Iraq.
After a brief stint outside government with the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, he returned to Baghdad last year as a senior adviser to the U.S. Embassy.