The Pentagon refused today to say that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was fired, with press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby insisting it was a mutual decision even though Hagel didn’t want to leave his job.
“This was a mutual decision arrived at between the president and the secretary of defense after a series of discussions that they had about the next two years. And, that’s — and that is exactly what happened, that’s exactly how it — how it transpired,” Kirby told reporters.
“It would be inaccurate to characterize this as anything other than that, quite frankly.”
He further insisted “there’s no connection between the secretary’s resignation announced yesterday and the strategy that we’re pursuing against ISIL on Iraq and Syria, no connection whatsoever.”
Lawmakers were among those linking Hagel’s resignation to differences with Obama on policy, including whether boots might be needed on the ground against the Islamic State.
“And so, I wouldn’t draw from one any kind of conclusions or changes to the other. The strategy, as the secretary has said, as Chairman Dempsey has said, as I have said, against ISIL is working. It’s making — we’re making progress. Iraqi security forces on the ground are pushing out, out beyond Baghdad, into Anbar. Peshmerga continue to gain ground in the north,” Kirby continued.
“It’s not over, it’s not gonna be easy. Nobody is saying that. But our support from the air and now our support to them in an advise-and-assist capacity and soon a training capacity will continue. So I see no major muscle movements or changes to that.”
Hagel will stay until his successor is confirmed. Kirby said he’ll be focused on “implementing the recommendations and changes that he has accepted from the reforms that we put in place — Navy Yard shooting, nuclear enterprise review, medical health system review.”
Since Hagel’s ouster was announced Monday, senior administration officials have told media outlets that he was indeed fired and took potshots at the secretary. “The president felt he had to fire someone. He fired the only Republican in his cabinet,” one told Fox. “Who is that going to piss off that he cares about?”
Kirby brushed off a question about how Hagel’s going to work in this “poisonous” environment until a successor is confirmed.
“Let me challenge the implication in the question that there’s clearly bad blood between the building and the — and the White House or between Secretary Hagel and the — and the team,” the press secretary replied. “…And his focus is not on the atmospherics and on the sniping by some anonymous officials in these various news accounts. His focus is on the men and women who wear the uniform and their families and on this very critical time period that we find ourselves in.”
Hagel met with other leaders at the Pentagon yesterday after returning from the White House. “It was a very short meeting. One, he thanked them for their support for the last almost two years in office and for the — for the support he knew that he was gonna be able to continue to gather from them going forward,” Kirby said. “But, number two, it’s time to get — you know, I got to keep working, you know.”
He wouldn’t detail the discussions between Hagel and Obama that led to the Defense secretary handing in his resignation.
“It was a general understanding between the two of them that now was about the right time for new leadership at the Pentagon to implement and to carry to conclusion some of those changes and to — and to lead the Pentagon in the last two years of the Obama administration… policy disagreements or debates and discussions were not driving factors in the decision that the secretary made to submit his resignation.”
Kirby also dismissed an assertion that National Security Adviser Susan Rice has been micromanaging the Pentagon. “They meet and discuss — they meet more than once a week — I know that — and, of course, in — in other large setting meetings more than two or three times a week,” he said. “…There’s not an issue of micromanagement from any other place outside the building, you know. It’s not about micromanaging.”
“It’s not uncommon for — at least under this commander-in-chief, for defense secretaries to — to stay about two years in length,” Kirby said.
“It’s not that he didn’t want to stay on the job, and it’s not that the secretary doesn’t believe he isn’t, you know — that he’s not capable of — of — of still contributing or serving for the next two years…. It’s that they both decided that he had accomplished a lot, he had done what he had set out to do in this job and that now, with two years left to go, it was an appropriate time for new leadership.”