Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to step down

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Chuck Hagel. Photo courtesy of CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama announced Monday that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will step down from his position as soon as the Senate confirms a successor.

Hagel, who has served as Defense secretary since February 2013, was forced out by President Barack Obama, CNN confirmed from several sources.

During his remarks from the White House, Obama, however, praised Hagel as an “exemplary” Defense secretary, calling him critical to a number of national security accomplishments during his tenure, and characterized Hagel’s resignation as his own choice.

“If there’s one thing I know about Chuck it is that he does not make this or any decision lightly,” Obama said from the State Dining Room. “This decision does not come easily to him.”

Behind the scenes, administration officials told CNN there were a series of discussions over the past several weeks with the President, initiated by Hagel. The talks covered a “broader discussion of national security for the next two years,” a defense official said.

The two came to realize that “a different focus was needed and a change is in order,” the official added. “It is wrong to conclude that this was a protest by Hagel or it was over policy differences.”

The New York Times first reported Monday morning that Obama asked Hagel to step down last Friday, seeking to reassure critics of the President’s foreign policy with the move.

Obama did not announce a successor Monday, a White House official told CNN. That official said that the short list to replace Hagel includes former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, a former paratrooper.

The move, White House officials told the Times, was meant to acknowledge that the new national security threats facing the nation — most notably the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — call for a different kind of leadership in the Defense Department.

“The next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus,” an administration official told the paper.

At the White House press conference, Hagel thanked the President and his colleagues, pledged to work “just as hard as I have over the last couple years” until his successor is confirmed. And he evaluated his tenure at the Pentagon as a success.

“I believe we have set not only this department, the department of Defense, but the nation on a stronger course towards security, stability and prosperity. If I didn’t believe that I would not have done this job,” he said.

A critic of the Iraq war, Hagel was brought on to oversee withdrawal from Afghanistan and a smaller Pentagon budget than ever before.

Hagel, a former senator of Nebraska, was the last Republican still serving in Obama’s Cabinet and was a Vietnam combat veteran.

Hagel’s tenure was rocky before it even began.

During his confirmation hearings, Hagel drew sharp criticism from pro-Israel Republicans concerned with his opposition to aggressive sanctions against Iran and for his criticism of the Defense Department as “bloated.” His confirmation was filibustered before he ultimately won approval.

And his two years at the Pentagon have been marred by gaffes that occasionally undercut the President and an inability to sell the administration’s national security policy.

He at one point called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” contradicting the President’s comments just months before that the group was simply “junior varsity.”

The administration has taken persistent criticism over the past few months as a series of national security crises roiled the nation, and the President’s response was seen by many as flat-footed and inconsistent.

Hagel’s departure has been rumored to be coming for weeks, and as recently as last week he dodged questions about his continued tenure at the Pentagon.

“First of all, I serve at the pleasure of the President,” Hagel told PBS, asked whether he’d continue in the position. “I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity I’ve had the last two years to work every day for the country and for the men and women who serve this country. I don’t get up in the morning and worry about my job. It’s not unusual by the way, to change teams at different times.”

Pressed on whether he felt he still had Obama’s confidence, Hagel said, “Well, I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t. But you’d have to ask him that. I mean I see him all the time.”

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