“Senator Hagel’s unacceptable comments about gay people, coupled with his consistent anti-
LGBT record in Congress, raise serious questions about where he stands on [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] equality today,” said HRC President Chad Griffin, a major fundraiser for Obama’s reelection campaign. “For him to be an appropriate candidate for any administration post, he must repudiate his comments.”
The rising concerns bubbled to the surface even after phone calls to gay rights activists in recent days from senior White House aides, including top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. The aides told the activists that any Pentagon nominee would “live up to the principles” on gay rights established by Obama, according to several people familiar with the conversations.
Gay people proved to be among Obama’s most generous campaign donors and enthusiastic backers in this year’s reelection campaign, particularly after he decided to express his support for same-sex marriage.
Hagel, whose nomination could come as early as Friday, declined through a spokesman to comment. White House officials declined to discuss the complaints or Hagel’s potential nomination.
Press secretary Jay Carney, asked Thursday about pro-Israel groups’ concerns, offered a general defense of the former senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran. Hagel “fought and bled for his country,” Carney said. “He served his country well. He was an excellent senator.”
In defending Hagel, both publicly and in private, White House officials appear to be trying to avoid a repeat of their experience with the would-be nomination of Susan Rice to be secretary of state. Rice, Obama’s U.N. ambassador, withdrew from contention amid questions about her role in responding to the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Hagel, a centrist Republican who served in the Senate from 1997 to 2009 and often criticized George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq, would add additional bipartisan heft to the Obama Cabinet. His presence could add credibility during what is expected to be a period of deep cuts in defense programs.
Gay rights groups said Thursday that if Hagel becomes defense secretary, he will oversee final implementation of the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which barred openly gay service members. In addition, same-sex couples are pressing for equal treatment in the military on issues such as housing and spousal protection.
The Human Rights Campaign, which judges lawmakers on votes on such matters as hate-crimes legislation, gave Hagel a “zero” grade during most of his time as a senator.