How Obama and Chuck Hagel reached the end of the line

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s exit from the Obama administration came after weeks of discussion with President Obama over what role he would play in shaping defense policy over the last two years of his term.

The pair ultimately came to the conclusion that another leader would be better equipped to lead the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), senior administration and Defense officials said.

{mosads}While aides described the departure as a mutual decision based on shifting priorities at the Department of Defense, there are signs that tensions between Hagel and the White House contributed to the personnel change.

Hagel struggled to break into the president’s tight-knit inner circle, and clashed with influential White House officials on key policy initiatives. His frequent rhetorical missteps contributed to perceptions he was out of sync with the West Wing.

Ultimately Hagel believed the pivot to combating ISIS represented a dramatic change from the types of reforms he had hoped to accomplish during his tenure at the Pentagon, aides said.  

White House and Defense officials said Hagel was tapped to spearhead efforts like combating sexual assault in the ranks and trimming the Pentagon’s budget to deal with sequestration.

“The secretary was brought to usher in a certain dozen or so reform initiatives,” a Defense official said, adding that Hagel’s other tasks included reforming the nuclear enterprise, the military health system, the military justice system and the strategic pivot to Asia.

But while those issues were “at the top of the priority list” two years ago, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, the threat posed by ISIS “was not nearly as significant as it is now.”

That prompted Hagel and Obama to hold a series of discussions about Hagel’s future, the last of which occurred in the final week of October.

Obama and Hagel spoke about his future on two additional instances. On Monday, the secretary submitted his resignation.

A Defense official, speaking on background, said that Hagel initiated the conversation, because he thought it was “the appropriate time to reach out to the president,” with two years remaining in the president’s tenure. 

“The secretary has been in this town for a long time,” the official said. He denied it was related to any policy disagreement, or any disagreement with the president or his staff. “Sometimes being a leader means knowing when to go.”

The Defense official denied that Hagel’s departure was due to “not being a good fit” or the White House “wanting a different focus.”

The same week that Hagel met with the president in October, reports emerged that the secretary had sent a memo to national security adviser Susan Rice that was critical of the administration’s Syria policy. The memo reportedly called for a sharper focus on what to do about Syrian leader Bashar Assad, who is inadvertently benefitting from the U.S. campaign against ISIS.

The memo also came the same week that Hagel ordered all troops returning from the Ebola response in West Africa to undergo a 21-day quarantine, a policy odds with the administration’s position that quarantines for civilian volunteers were not necessary. 

Hagel raised some eyebrows this summer when he said ISIS “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that have seen. They’re just beyond a terrorist group.” Those remarks were sharper than the ISIS statements coming from the White House at the time.

Earnest on Monday said Obama and Hagel jointly determined “that another secretary might be better suited” to meet new challenges, without specifying what the challenges are.

Adding to perceptions Hagel had been forced out, the White House would pointedly not say that Obama had asked Hagel to stay in the administration. In the past, the president has made a point of asking his trusted advisers and confidantes to remain in the administration.

“I’m not aware of sort of the twists and turns of the conversation that they’ve had over the last month,” Earnest said. “It’s fair to say that the two men arrived at the same conclusion together, that it was time for Secretary Hagel to submit his letter of resignation, which he did.”

Hagel said in a television interview last week that it was not unusual for the president to “change teams.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday suggested Hagel had vented “frustration” to him over his treatment by the White House.

The steady stream of stories in recent weeks that suggested Hagel was having a difficult time penetrating the president’s inner circle carried echoes of Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, two past Defense secretaries who went on to write tell-all books critical of the president’s handling of defense policy.

Former Democratic aide Brent Budowsky said Democrats across the Capitol saw Hagel’s ouster as the latest example of “unprecedented” drama created by “too tight and too controlling of an inner circle.”

He noted that not only had each of the president’s previous Defense secretaries voiced concern over his Syria policy, so had former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“This is going to precipitate a very visible battle beginning today and going through the confirmation of his successor about what the policy should be, and highlight the long-term and chronic internal disagreement,” said Budowsky, who is a columnist for The Hill.

Other defense experts say Hagel was not particularly close with the president or members of his national security team. 

“He had no relationships that were already established within this administration,” said a retired military officer with current policy experience in Washington, who wanted to speak on background. 

The retired officer noted that Hagel is also older than the president’s closest advisers, such as Rice and chief of staff Denis McDonough. 

“The generational difference was a really difficult thing,” he said. 

The secretary also, at times, appeared to be eclipsed in influence by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, the officer said.

Hagel said he would remain on as Pentagon chief until his successor is confirmed. Senior Defense officials said he’d use the remainder of his tenure to focus on drawing down troops from Afghanistan, battling ISIS and conducting a review of the littoral combat ship program. 

“He has very sanguine view of this,” the official said.  

Tags Chuck Hagel Denis McDonough Hillary Clinton John McCain
See all Hill.TV See all Video