REITERS - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Thursday his resignation last week was not prompted by "major differences" with President Barack Obama, pushing back against statements that he had been fired or quit due to White House micromanagement.
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Hagel, speaking publicly for the first time about his November 24 resignation, said he decided to step down after several conversations with the president led him to conclude that now was the best timing for a Pentagon leadership change.
"This was a mutual decision based on the discussions that we had," he said, noting that no aides had been present during their talks. "I don't think there's ever one overriding or defining decision in situations like this, unless there's some obvious issue, and there wasn't, between either one of us."
Hagel, speaking emotionally at times, said there are always differences on minor issues like style, speed and approach, but he said he considered Obama a friend and "there were no major differences in any major area."
The Pentagon chief, a Republican, has been in office since February 2013. He resigned in the aftermath of midterm elections that saw Obama's Democrats routed by Republicans, who now control both house of Congress.
Unnamed sources were quoted as saying he had been fired and had privately voiced frustration over the administration's strategy in Syria and Iraq and his lack of influence.
"Only two people know what was said. That's the president and me," Hagel said, dismissing "all the speculation and all the smart people" trying to figure out what was said.
"It's not one defining issue for me. ... But it's a combination of things, as you think through these things, and the president and I talked about it," he said. "So I'm very comfortable with my position and my decision. I think the president feels good about it. I feel good about it."
Hagel, the first former enlisted soldier to serve as secretary of defense, noted that Thursday marked the 46th year since he returned to the United States after being in the Vietnam war.
"If anybody would have told Sergeant Hagel walking off that plane with my duffel bag where I'd be 46 years down the road, that would have been pretty hard for me to believe it," he said. "I mean, the privileges I've had have just been tremendous."