Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dies at 88

Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary who led the Pentagon when the U.S. launched wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, has died at the age of 88, his family announced Wednesday.

Rumsfeld, who ran the Pentagon for former President George W. Bush and lost his job a day after Republicans lost the House majority in 2006, died surrounded by his family in New Mexico, according to a statement.

"It is with deep sadness that we share the news of the passing of Donald Rumsfeld, an American statesman and devoted husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather," his family said.

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"At 88, he was surrounded by family in his beloved Taos, New Mexico. History may remember him for his extraordinary accomplishments over six decades of public service, but for those who knew him best and whose lives were forever changed as a result, we will remember his unwavering love for his wife Joyce, his family and friends, and the integrity he brought to a life dedicated to country," his family added.

Rumsfeld, who was born in Chicago in 1932, died just more than a week before what would have been his 89th birthday on July 9.

He attended Princeton University on academic and ROTC scholarships and was a collegiate wrestler before being commissioned into the Navy and serving as an active-duty aviator and flight instructor from 1954 to 1957.

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The Illinois native was first elected to Congress in 1960 as a Republican from his home state. He served for four terms in the House before resigning in 1969 to take a position in the Nixon administration.

Rumsfeld first led the Defense Department during the Ford administration in 1975 and was the youngest person in the country’s history to hold that job.

After his tenure ended in 1977, Rumsfeld joined the private sector before briefly running for president in 1988. He returned to his former post as Defense secretary after Bush took office in 2001.

Nine months into his tenure, Rumsfeld’s work at the Pentagon was reshaped by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as he was charged with overseeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in response.

But by 2002, Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney turned the Pentagon’s attention to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, leading to the invasion in March 2003.

Appearing in the Pentagon briefing room frequently to discuss the wars, Rumsfeld also became known for acerbic quotes and memorable soundbites.

“As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know," he said in 2002 to suggest Iraq was giving terrorists weapons of mass destruction despite no evidence that was happening.

He later titled his 2011 memoir "Known and Unknown."

Rumsfeld’s tenure was marked by several controversies at the Pentagon, including the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. Rumsfeld, who offered to resign twice in 2004 amid the scandal, later called Abu Ghraib his “darkest hour.”

As the United States got bogged down in twin wars and Democrats took control of Congress on a wave of antiwar sentiment, Bush replaced Rumsfeld with Robert Gates in 2006.

In a statement Wednesday, Bush called his first Defense secretary “a man of intelligence, integrity and almost inexhaustible energy.”

“On the morning of September 11, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld ran to the fire at the Pentagon to assist the wounded and ensure the safety of survivors,” Bush recalled. “For the next five years, he was in steady service as a wartime secretary of defense -- a duty he carried out with strength, skill and honor.”

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Rumsfeld remained vocal on defense issues after leaving the Bush administration, including critiquing then-President Obama's strategy in Syria. At one point, he referred to Obama as "the so-called commander in chief."

The former Pentagon secretary endorsed then-candidate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE during the 2016 presidential race, saying in an interview that year, "I'm a Republican, and there's not any doubt in my mind how I'll vote." Trump, a vocal critic of the Iraq War, later hailed the endorsement.

“[Trump] has caused people to respond in a way that most politicians have not been able to do,” Rumsfeld said in an NBC News interview in early 2016. “I see someone who has touched a nerve with our country.”

In one of his last public acts before his death, Rumsfeld co-signed a letter along with all nine other living former Defense secretaries warning against military involvement in the election, a rebuke to Trump’s efforts to try to overturn President BidenJoe BidenCDC chief clarifies vaccine comments: 'There will be no nationwide mandate' Overnight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden urges local governments to stave off evictions MORE’s victory in November.

Bush in his statement Wednesday praised Rumsfeld as "an exemplary public servant and a very good man" who led "a busy and purposeful life." He added that his former defense chief "always looked out for the interests of our servicemen and women," calling him "a faithful steward of our armed forces."

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it China moves quickly to replace America in Afghanistan Harris to travel to Vietnam, Singapore in August MORE said he was "saddened" to hear of Rumsfeld's passing and praised the former Pentagon chief for his "remarkable career."

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"Over the decades of his remarkable career, from Congress to the White House to the Pentagon, Secretary Rumsfeld was propelled by his boundless energy, probing intellect, and abiding commitment to serve his country," Austin said in a statement released later on Wednesday. "On behalf of the Department of Defense, I extend my deep condolences to his family and loved ones."

Rumsfeld is survived by his wife, Joyce, three children and seven grandchildren.

Updated: 8:37 p.m.