Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) is facing a multipronged assault on his record that casts doubt about his chances of becoming the next Defense secretary, even before he is formally nominated by President Obama.
Critiques of the Vietnam War veteran are coming from both his former colleagues in the Senate as well as advocacy groups, including one pro-Israel organization that produced an attack ad against him.
The push against Hagel is similar — though much less intense — to the criticism that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice faced when she was considered for secretary of State. The uproar eventually led her to withdraw from consideration.
While Obama voiced a vigorous defense of Rice at a press conference in November, White House officials have tried to defend him while staying above the fray on Hagel.
As a result, former military and diplomatic officials are quickly coming to Hagel’s side to vouch for him.
The criticism of Hagel has ramped up since reports surfaced two weeks ago that he was the favorite to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Observers expected Obama would name members of his second-term security team at the same time. Instead, he nominated only Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Friday — leaving his picks for Defense secretary and CIA director for later.
Hagel sought to address one strand of criticism Friday by issuing an apology for calling the former U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel “openly, aggressively gay” when Hormel was a nominee in 1998.
“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” Hagel said in a statement. “They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”
The apology came after Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin — who bundled donations for the Obama reelection campaign — issued a statement Thursday calling on Hagel to repudiate his remarks.
Following Hagel’s apology, Griffin said that “his statement of support for LGBT equality is appreciated and shows just how far as a country we have come when a conservative former senator from Nebraska can have a change of heart on LGBT issues.”
“Our community continues to add allies to our ranks and we're proud that Sen. Hagel is one of them,” Griffin said.
But Hagel’s statement supporting gay rights addresses only one obstacle he faces as a potential nominee.
Many Republican senators say they have serious questions about Hagel’s statements on the “Jewish lobby” and support of U.S. engagement with Hamas or Iran.
While no senator has said they would block Hagel’s confirmation — though some have said they would oppose him — Republicans have made clear their onetime colleague would have a difficult path should he be nominated.
“He’ll have to answer questions about why he thought it was a good idea to directly negotiate with Hamas and why he objected to the European Union declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said this week.
“He has a stellar military record, but I think these comments disturb a lot of people and he’ll have to answer those questions.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Friday raised his own issues about Hagel’s record on Cuba, though he stopped short of saying he would oppose confirmation.
“I have deep concern with some of the things he said with regard to Cuba and Cuban policy. I’m equally troubled by many of the things he said about Israel,” Rubio told reporters.
A few Democrats, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have defended Hagel. But many are waiting to say whether they would support him as a nominee.
The questions Hagel faces appear to signal that the other two candidates on Obama’s shortlist who are Democrats — Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter or former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy — could have an easier path with Republicans in the Senate than Hagel.
However, Hagel is not a typical Republican. He has an independent streak and was a leading GOP critic of the Iraq war during the end of the George W. Bush administration.
The volume of lawmakers’ objections to Hagel has increased this week amid a lobbying campaign from pro-Israel groups against his selection.
The Emergency Committee for Israel, a group that includes Weekly Standard editor William Kristol on its board, released an ad this week criticizing Hagel for opposing sanctions or military action against Iran.
In response to the criticism, a group of former ambassadors penned an open letter this week defending Hagel. The nine former ambassadors — including six to Israel — said Hagel’s credentials for the job were “impeccable.”
“He has invariably demonstrated strong support for Israel and for a two-state solution and has been opposed to those who would undermine or threaten Israel’s security,” the ambassadors wrote.
A group of 11 retired generals and admirals also released a letter Friday that said Hagel was “eminently qualified” to be Defense secretary.
It all puts the White House in an awkward position, as attacks on Hagel have ramped up because he has not yet been nominated.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Thursday said, “we've been through this before with Ambassador Rice where there's an effort to go after somebody, and we haven't nominated anyone.”
“We have made no personnel announcements, and I'm not going to engage in that,” Carney said in response to questions about Hagel’s record.
Carney nevertheless did defend Hagel generally, saying that the Vietnam vet “fought and bled for his country.”
“He served his country well,” Carney said. “He was an excellent senator.”