ABC News’ Martha Raddatz and Lindsey Ellerson Report: In his first appearance since being nominated to continue as secretary of defense, Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday "there is no timeframe" for his tenure at the Pentagon.
"I’ve thrown away the clock because it was absolutely useless at the end of the day," the defense secretary told reporters. "The president-elect and I agreed that this would be open-ended. And so there is no time frame."
Gates admitted he had hoped Obama would not ask him to stay on as secretary of state because he knew he would not be able to decline the post if the question was asked.
"With the country fighting two wars and our men and women in uniform at risk, if a president asked me to help, there’s no way I can say no," said Gates. "So I spent a long time hoping the question would never be popped. I then hoped he’d change his mind, and yesterday it became a reality."
Gates also revealed details about his meeting with Obama prior to being offered the position. The two men met secretly at National Airport Fire Department on November 10, the same day the president-elect visited President Bush at the White House.
"We did meet the day he came to Washington to meet with the President. We met when he went back to the airport," said Gates. "They pulled the trucks out so that our cars could go in."
Outside of Fire Station 301, there were numerous Secret Service agents, and when Obama returned about an hour later to board his American Airlines jet bound for Chicago, whoever had been meeting with him slipped out a back gate. Now we know, it was Gates.
When the defense secretary was asked whether he considers himself "at odds" with Obama’s position on a timetable for withdrawal, Gates said that while Obama continues to make clear the importance of a timetable, he believes Obama will withdraw American troops responsibly.
"I think that I would subscribe to what the president-elect said yesterday in Chicago," Gates said. "He repeated his desire to try and get our combat forces out within 16 months, but he also said that he wanted to have a responsible drawdown. And he also said that he was prepared to listen to his commanders."
When pushed on the issue, Gates pointed out that the SOFA has significantly changed the situation in Iraq and therefore his outlook on the timetable.
"We are going to be out of all populated areas of Iraq by the end of June 2009," said the secretary. "I’m less concerned about that timetable. First of all, we have a definite timetable now in the SOFA. It’s a longer one, but it’s a definite timetable. So that bridge has been crossed. And so the question is how do we do this in a responsible way. And nobody wants to put at risk the gains that have been achieved with so much sacrifice on the part of our soldiers and the Iraqis at this point. And so I think that the president-elect framed it just right yesterday.
The secretary of defense went on to call his own situation at the Pentagon "unique."
"This is quite literally a unique situation," said Gates. "Since the creation of the position of secretary of defense some 60 years ago, no secretary has been asked to continue in office under a newly-elected president even when the new president has come from the same party. So I thank President-elect Obama for his confidence in me and look forward to working for and with him," said Gates.
Gates also told reporters that he considers himself part of the Republican party.
"I felt when I was at CIA that as a professional intelligence officer, like a military officer, I should be apolitical. And so I didn’t register with a party. I consider myself a Republican," said Gates. "Until yesterday, all of my senior appointments have been under Republican presidents."
While he acknowledged there will be another opportunity to reflect on his time in the Bush administration, the secretary did make a point to thank the current president.
"As I said yesterday in Chicago, serving in this position has been the most gratifying experience of my life and he made it possible. I also thank him [Bush] for his support in the difficult decisions that I’ve had to make. It has been an honor and a pleasure to work for and with him."