U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel resigned under pressure Monday, the first shake up of President Obama’s Cabinet after the Democratic party lost control of Congress following the midterm elections.
Hagel has been an exemplary defense secretary, Obama said from the White House, noting that he led the department through a time of transition. But, the president said, now is “the appropriate time to complete his service."
The president indicated discussions over Hagel's departure began last month when “Chuck came to me to discuss the final quarter of my presidency.” Hagel has agreed to stay on until his successor is confirmed by the Senate, likely by the new Congress after the New Year.
"It’s been the greatest privilege of my life to serve with the men and women of the defense department and defend their families," Hagel said during his resignation.
The White House reportedly lost confidence in Hagel less than two years after his nomination. “He himself was uncomfortable with the position,” said NBC News’ Jim Miklaszewski. Possible candidates to succeed Hagel include former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, and Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed.
Obama at the press conference noted an instance of bipartisanship when as a Senator in 2008 he traveled in Afghanistan and Iraq with both Hagel and Reed. According to Reed's spokesman in a statement following the resignation, the senator "has made it very clear that he does not wish to be considered for Secretary of Defense or any other Cabinet position."
Hagel, 68, previously also served as deputy secretary of the Veterans Administration and was the only Republican on the president’s national security team. Nominated in 2013, the former Republican senator from Nebraska was the third secretary of defense to serve Obama. He had a close personal relationship in the Senate with Obama and Vice President Biden when all three served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The New York Times was the first Monday to report Hagel's departure. His resignation comes after meetings held during the past two weeks, the Times reported. According to one senior official, "He wasn't up to the job."
“He often had trouble articulating the details of many of the operations, many of the incantations, of what goes on here at the White House and he had a difficult time expressing those thoughts,” said Miklaszewski. “It appeared he sometimes didn’t even have a grasp of them. And quite frankly, according to one senior official, the White House and the DOD leadership pretty much lost confidence in Hagel.”
Pentagon officials and members of the administration have said Hagel struggled to lead at the Pentagon and be a strong voice within the president's inner circle. Still, he is the not the first defense secretary to lose his job following midterm losses for the president he serves. Donald Rumsfeld also was fired by former President George H.W. Bush following midterm losses to the Republican party in 2006.
When asked during a PBS interview this month if he was concerned with rumors that Obama wants to change his national security team, including possibly his secretary of defense, Hagel told Charlie Rose, "I don't get up in the morning worried about my job."
The Obama administration has been trying to defeat Islamic militants whose influence is growing in Iraq and neighboring Syria. It is also extending its force commitment in Afghanistan, still trying to bring a close to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, secure a nuclear deal with Iran, and attempt to contain Russia as it moves into Ukraine.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday said that "there has already been work done" in selecting a new defense secretary, adding that "another secretary might be better suited" in the fight against ISIL.
Republican Senator John McCain, who takes over senate arms services in January and will lead the confirmation hearing of the new defense secretary, praised Hagel today, but had in fact been especially confrontational with him at hearings.
"Secretary Chuck Hagel and I have had our differences over many years, but I have always considered him a friend, a patriot, and a dedicated public servant who has always put our country first and the needs of our men and women in uniform above his own," McCain said in a statement.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell also offered reaction in a statement, saying "We appreciate his service to the nation," but that "It's important to remember that Secretary Hagel's departure comes at a moment of great peril for our country."
Obama has had difficult relationships with his defense secretaries that surfaced only in their departures. Robert Gates, who served under former President Bush and then stayed to serve two years under Obama, was critical of the president’s strategy in Afghanistan. In a memoir published after stepping down, Gates wrote that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” Leon Panetta, who succeeded Gates and seemed a stalwart member of Obama’s inner circle, was harsher, saying the president hurt America’s reputation abroad by refusing to take action after the Syrian government used chemical weapons. "The result, I felt, was a blow to American credibility," Panetta said. "When the president as commander in chief draws a red line, it is critical that he act if the line is crossed.”
Hagel’s struggles did not seem to be about strategy or policy. Rather, he was perceived as weak by the president and unable to lead. In a 2013 NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, only 12% viewed Hagel in a positive light.
Commenting on the news, a senior White House official noted that Hagel "helped manage an intense period of transition for the United States Armed Forces, including the drawdown in Afghanistan, the need to prepare our forces for future missions, and tough fiscal choices to keep our military strong and ready."
The official said Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who was the first enlisted combat solider to serve as Secretary of Defense, will remain as defense secretary until his replacement is confirmed by the United States Senate. This would be the second major confirmation the White House is seeking from a Republican controlled Congress: A new nominee for attorney general is also pending.