The Pentagon denied Tuesday that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was forced to resign following a dispute with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and other policy staffers at the White House on the strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
"The Secretary has a close professional relationship with Susan Rice," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the chief spokesman for the Pentagon.
"There's no connection between the Secretary's resignation and the strategy we're pursuing against ISIL," Kirby said at a Pentagon briefing, using the administration's preferred term for ISIS. "He considers himself a strong partner in the national security team," Kirby said of Hagel.
Kirby declined comment on what he called the "sniping by anonymous officials" in published reports alleging that Rice pushed President Obama for Hagel's ouster.
Rice's move reportedly came after Hagel sent the White House a memo last month calling for the campaign against ISIS to focus also on undermining the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hagel's departure was "a mutual decision arrived at between the President and the Secretary of Defense," Kirby said. "It would be inaccurate to characterize it as anything other than that. It's not that he didn't want to stay on the job. It's that they both decided he had accomplished a lot."
The White House, after heaping praise on Hagel, also struggled to explain why Hagel had to go if he were such an asset to President Obama.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday also denied that Hagel's memo to Rice played any part in the resignation. "It did not have any effect," Earnest said. He said that Obama expected "unvarnished advice" from his Cabinet.
Earnest was less direct in answering another question from a reporter: If Hagel "had done such a wonderful job – you listed all his accomplishments – why did he have to go?"
"Well, again, this is based on a conversation between the two of them about what the next two years of this administration is going to look like," Earnest responded. "And based on what those priorities are going to be over the next two years, both men determined that it was an appropriate time for Secretary Hagel to step down."
Hagel will be leaving office ranked 13th for length of service of the 24 defense secretaries since World War II, but he will be well short of the average number of days in office. The average defense secretary spent 1,018 days in office.
Hagel was behind President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Defense Secretary Neil H. McElroy, ranked 12th with 783 days in office, and just ahead of his immediate predecessor Leon Panetta, 608 days.
The shortest term as defense secretary was the 114 days served by Elliot Richardson under President Richard M. Nixon before becoming attorney general.
The longest serving defense secretary was Robert McNamara in the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. McNamara served 2,595 days.
Donald Rumsfeld had hoped to become the longest-serving defense secretary but he resigned after midterm election defeats in the administration of President George W. Bush. Rumsfeld was the second longest-serving defense secretary, with only 10 days fewer in office than McNamara.
At a Pentagon briefing, Kirby stressed that Hagel would be diligent in carrying out his responsibilities at the Defense Department until a successor is confirmed by the Senate, which could be several months into next year.
Hagel will present a review on sexual assaults in the ranks to the White House next month, Kirby said. He also hoped to re-schedule a trip to Vietnam, where he served as an Army infantry sergeant, with his remaining time in office. Hagel canceled the long-planned trip last month.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org