News conference begins at 32:25
WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stepped down Monday, the first Cabinet-level resignation after bruising midterm elections and amid mounting criticism of President Barack Obama’s security and foreign policies.
Obama praised Hagel, a former enlisted soldier in the Vietnam War, for his “steady hand” during a period of transition that included budget cuts, the drawdown in Afghanistan and the rise of new challenges like the Islamic State and Ebola.
Hagel took the reins at DOD in February 2013 after a confirmation fight in the Senate that only concluded when a cloture vote ended a filibuster by his fellow Republicans.
Just days after his confirmation, Hagel faced the first in a series of major challenges that arose during his tenure when huge automatic budget cuts known as sequestration kicked in, which promised to reduced expected Pentagon spending by $500 billion over the next decade. The cuts canceled a number of worldwide operations while forcing the services to curtail training and maintenance, and begin planning major end strength cuts.
This year, the Islamic State group's takeover of large parts of Syria and Iraq, as well as conflict between Russia and Ukraine, fundamentally recast the administration’s national security focus, with troops flowing back into Iraq in an advisory mission and new rotational deployments in Eastern Europe intended to reassure NATO allies.
“This was a mutual decision when looking ahead to the last two years of the Obama administration,” a senior defense official said.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Hagel had led the military at a time of particularly difficult challenges but had accomplished much in his tenure.
“He set us on course for many lasting reforms,” Dempsey said in a written statement. “He challenged us every day to adapt and innovate to changing times.”
Among Hagel’s actions was an order earlier this month to revamp the management of the U.S. nuclear force in the wake of troubling scandals, as well as reforms ordered in the military health system and a shakeup of the agencies charged with searching for and identifying U.S. war dead.
Hagel will remain in office until a successor is appointed, Obama said. No nominee has been named.
Hagel and Obama began discussing the departure last month, the president noted.
Hagel, a Republican, is the first Cabinet official to be removed since Republicans won a majority in the Senate early this month and increased their House majority, and at a time when national security officials were struggling to set a course amidst an increasingly unstable global situation.
Hagel’s resignation under pressure was first reported by The New York Times.
Administration officials told the Times that Obama’s decision to remove Hagel was a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different set of skills than those that Hagel was brought on to employ.
“The next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus,” one administration official told the Times, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A defense official who spoke to reporters on background pushed back against other anonymous quotes from officials who were indicating Hagel had been pushed out.
“This is not about a policy issue, it’s not a disagreement, it’s not a resignation in protest,” the defense official said.
Hagel’s aides at the Pentagon had been saying he expected to serve throughout Obama’s second term and denied that the cancellation of a scheduled trip to Southeast Asia this month — including a stop in Vietnam, where Hagel earned two Purple Hearts — indicated he was on his way out.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is slated to take over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, told The Washington Post that Hagel “was frustrated with aspects of the administration’s national security policy and decision-making process,” citing “excessive micro-management” on the part of the White House.
McCain noted that Hagel’s predecessors as defense secretary — Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta — had also complained in their memoirs about political interference from White House aides. “Ultimately, the president needs to realize that the real source of his current failures on national security more often lie with his administration’s misguided policies and the role played by his White House in devising and implementing them,” he said.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Hagel called him Monday morning to inform him of his pending resignation but didn’t elaborate on the reasons. “He said, ‘You know this town, you know the way it is.’”
When Obama nominated Hagel in January 2013, the president was intent on limiting defense spending, winding down the war in Afghanistan and keeping the military out of conflicts in the Middle East. He made clear that he was picking the decorated Vietnam War combat veteran in large part because Hagel understood “that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.”
What critics called a propensity to commit gaffes was highlighted this year when Hagel characterized the Islamic State group as perhaps the greatest terrorist threat the United States has seen, not long after Obama’s had sought to downplay the domestic threat of the group.
In October, Hagel reportedly wrote a two-page memo sharply criticizing White House policy on Syria for not focusing sufficiently on how the United States will deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Obama previously said Assad “must go,” but is now apparently being regarded as the lesser of two evils, compared to IS.
Obama said the decision was Hagel’s, and praised the 68-year-old former Nebraska senator and Vietnam combat veteran for what he said was a tight bond with U.S. troops.
“He understands our men and women like few others because he’s stood where they stood,” Obama said. “He’s been in the dirt and he’s been in the mud.”
In a statement to DOD personnel, Hagel said he was deeply proud the department had kept America safe and helped around the world during his tenure.
“We have prepared ourselves, our Allies and the Afghan National Security Forces for a successful transition in Afghanistan,” he said in a written statement. “We have taken the fight to ISIL and, with our Iraqi and coalition partners, have blunted the momentum of this barbaric enemy. We have come to the aid of millions of people around the world who have suffered the ravages of natural disaster and of disease.”