At around 9:30 Monday morning, White House reporters got this comically bland update to the president’s schedule: “11:10AM THE PRESIDENT makes a personnel announcement.” This was followed by official leaks that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is resigning. By the time President Obama made the announcement in the State Dining Room of the White House, accompanied by Hagel and Vice President Joe Biden, his warm sendoff to Hagel contrasted sharply with comments from within the administration and the Defense Department.
In his remarks, Obama could hardly have been more kind to Hagel, calling him an “exemplary” defense secretary, lauding a long list of accomplishments, and repeatedly describing Hagel as a friend:
“Let me just say that chuck is and has been a great friend of mine. I’ve known him, admired him, and trusted him for nearly a decade since I was a green behind the ears freshman senator, and we were both on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There’s one thing I know about Chuck, he does not make this, or any, decision lightly. This decision does not come easily to him. I consider myself lucky to have him by my side for two years.”
Hagel spoke briefly following the president’s announcement, echoing much of what the president said, and thanking him for giving him the opportunity to serve:
The announcement of Hagel’s resignation was also attended by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, White House Counselor John Podesta, White House Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
Hagel will stay on until a successor is confirmed. The early short-listers are former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy and former Deputy Defense secretary Ashton Carter, as well as Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).
The official line on Hagel’s resignation is that this was a mutual decision that was initiated by Hagel, but within minutes of the story breaking, there were multiple reports that Hagel was pushed out, from sources in the Defense Department and the White House:
Senior defense officials told NBC News Monday that Hagel was forced to resign. Those officials said the White House lost confidence in the former Nebraska senator to carry out his role at the Pentagon.
According to one senior official, “He wasn’t up to the job.”
The leaks from the Defense Department and the White House are largely in sync when it comes to the broad strokes of Hagel’s ouster, but are markedly different in tone. Even before the president could deliver his warm sendoff for Hagel, administration officials were bluntly slamming Hagel as out of his depth on issues like ISIS and Ebola, which feeds into the Pentagon’s background narrative, and which could also present future problems for the White House. There have already been several tell-alls from former administration figures, and anonymously nut-punching Hagel on his way out isn’t a very good way to engender loyalty. Hagel’s tenure covered a lot of real estate that will figure prominently in 2016, which could make him a very useful resource for Republicans.
In the short term Hagel’s resignation puts Senate Republicans on the spot, somewhat, as the president will likely press for a quick confirmation from the new majority, and and likely won’t have a long list of candidates to choose from for such a crucial position. Republicans, anxious to make the president answer for his recent executive action on immigration, but will have to resist playing politics with the nation’s defense.