WASHINGTON — President Obama announced the resignation of Chuck Hagel Monday, commending the secretary of defense for his “steady hand” through a period of transition for America’s military.
Obama suggested that it was Hagel’s decision to resign after less than two years in office, saying, “If there’s one thing I know about Chuck, it’s that he does not make this or any other decision lightly.”
The 68-year-old Hagel said he will say on the job “every day, every moment” until his successor is nominated and confirmed by the Senate. “It’s been the greatest privilege of my life to lead, and most importantly, to serve,” Hagel said in announcement from the White House Monday morning.
Hagel arrived at the Pentagon in February 2013 during a period of belt-tightening and disengagement for the military, but ended up leading the fight against new and different enemies — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the Ebola outbreak in western Africa.
The announcement also comes shortly as Obama approves plans to give U.S. military commanders bigger roles alongside Afghanistan forces as they fight the Taliban following the end of the U.S. combat operation next month.
A White House official said Hagel began speaking with Obama about departing the administration beginning in October, noting that the midterm congressional elections provided a natural transition. Obama has also spoken to many top administration officials about whether they would stay on for the last two years of his presidency, the official said.
Administration officials said possibilities for Hagel’s job include Michèle A. Flournoy, a former under secretary of Defense for policy who was runner-up for the slot when Obama tapped Hagel in early 2013; Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a defense specialist and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne; and Ashton B. Carter, a former deputy secretary of Defense.
Reed disavowed any interest. “Senator Reed loves his job and wants to continue serving the people of Rhode Island in the United States Senate,” said press secretary Chip Unruh.
There are conflicting accounts of whether Obama asked Hagel to step down or he resigned voluntarily.
The New York Times, citing anonymous sources, reported that Obama asked Hagel to resign on Friday after two weeks of discussions about the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State. The Times first reported the resignation Monday.
Obama nominated Hagel in January, 2013 to succeed Leon Panetta. As a former senator from Nebraska who had forced a friendship with Obama in the Senate, Hagel became the only Republican on Obama’s national security team.
“We come from different parties, but in accepting this position, you sent a powerful message, especially to those in this city, that when it comes to our national security and our military families, our country always comes first,” Obama said Monday.
Hagel got off to a rocky start even before he was sworn in. His confirmation hearings before the Senate were contentious — even with former colleagues from his own Republican Party. Although relations with Capitol Hill improved over the last two years, Hagel still struggled to articulate Pentagon policies in briefings and speeches.
“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,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement.
He also said that Hagel was frustrated by the administration’s national security policy and decision-making process, and that defense secretaries have been micro-managed by the Obama White House.
The defense secretary had planned a trip to Asia, including a scheduled stop in Vietnam that had personal meaning for Hagel. When it was cancelled earlier this month, Pentagon sources said the change signaled trouble for Hagel’s tenure — but officials from the White House and Pentagon immediately denied that Hagel was considering or being pushed to step down.
Hagel was the first enlisted combat veteran to serve as Secretary of Defense — a quality that Obama said made him particularly attuned to the needs of service members and their families.
“He’s been in the dirt. He’s been in the mud,” Obama said. “He volunteered for Vietnam and still has the scars and shrapnel from the battled he has fought.”
Obama will be the first president since Harry Truman to have four defense secretaries during his time in office. The position was created during Truman’s tenure in 1947.