Ashton Carter, the former No. 2 official at the Pentagon, is reportedly President Barack Obama’s pick for Defense Secretary, according to published reports. But White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined Tuesday to say that’s the case.
CNN reported that Obama will nominate Carter to replace Chuck Hagel, the beleaguered Secretary of Defense, who last week said he’d step down, less then two years after taking office and at the height of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group.
But Earnest said he wasn’t ready to make any announcements, even as he said Carter has a reputation that would put him on the shortlist: Carter served as deputy secretary of Defense “very, very ably,” Earnest said, and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
“This is an indication that he fulfills some of the criteria that we've discussed in the past,” Earnest said. “He's somebody that certainly deserves and has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for his previous service in government. He is somebody that does have detailed understanding of the way that the Department of Defense works.”
And the former deputy press secretary added, “I personally am a pretty strong advocate in seeing people who have previously performed well in deputy roles being promoted to the top job.”
Hagel will remain at his current post until his successor is confirmed.
Carter spent years in the Pentagon through two administrations, rising to deputy Defense secretary before leaving last year.
He has considerable Pentagon experience and is unlikely to draw significant opposition in the Senate, which would consider his nomination. He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate for both the No. 2 and No. 3. Pentagon positions.
When Carter resigned from the Pentagon in 2013, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., praised him. Now McCain is the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will hold hearings on the next Pentagon nominee.
He also drew praise at the time from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“He has great mutual respect and admiration from senators on both sides of the aisle," Graham said when Carter announced plans to leave the Pentagon in 2013. "During his time as deputy secretary, we have faced some of the most challenging times in the department's history. Ash Carter was always there, providing exceptional leadership at a time when it mattered."
Carter, who left in December 2013, had served as deputy secretary since October 2011 and had two earlier stints at the Pentagon in a variety of posts, working under 11 defense chiefs.
Hagel praised Carter at a farewell ceremony, saying at the time that is deputy had “shown again and again that he can translate his high ideals into better, more efficient, more effective ways of doing business for our department, for our people and for our country.”
Carter bowed out with stinging criticism of Congress. The Pentagon can handle funding cuts after a decade of record growth after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he said, but the partisan budget battles of the last two years have hampered it.
Along with other federal agencies, the Defense Department at the time was entering its second year of broad, forced spending reductions under a system called sequestration.
"It's unsafe because it affects the readiness of the forces that would respond to contingencies," Carter said.
"It's dispiriting to and unworthy of the patriots -- military and civilian -- who serve this government," he said. "Most seriously, it embarrasses us in front of friends and allies -- and also potential opponents. A great and strong nation needs a working government."
Carter had also held a senior Pentagon post under President Bill Clinton. After graduating from Yale, he'd become a Rhodes Scholar and earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Oxford University in England.
In between his government work for Clinton and Obama, Carter headed the international section of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and directed its preventative defense project.
The New Republic magazine two years ago named Carter to a list of the 25 "most powerful, least famous" people in Washington.