Here Comes the Trump Pentagon — Finally
After months of infighting and Senate holds, top Defense Department posts are slated to move forward.
Dozens of long-vacant desks in the Pentagon’s E-Ring may finally start filling up now that Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he’s satisfied with the military’s briefings on the new strategy in Afghanistan, leading to his release of a slew of nominations held up in the Senate since the summer.
The vacancies 10 months into the Donald Trump administration have had a number of pernicious effects, former defense officials and others say, from foisting much of the Pentagon’s work onto uniformed officers to leaving critical desks like Asia undermanned at a time of rising tensions in the region.
Following a contentious Oct. 3 Senate hearing during which he admonished Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford over their failure to brief senators on war plans, McCain told reporters, “we’ve been holding nominations … to fill in those Pentagon jobs,” until he is satisfied.
Just a day after that hearing, four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger, raising new questions over U.S. military operations in Africa and how much Congress had been kept in the loop. In an attempt to smooth things over, Mattis and other defense officials rushed to Capitol Hill for several classified briefings, leading McCain to declare last week that “we’re making progress and I will lift some of those [holds].”
Senate staffers confirmed they expect McCain’s committee to schedule more hearings for Pentagon officials in the coming weeks.
The lifting of McCain’s months-long hold on nearly two dozen Pentagon nominees began quietly this week, with several prospective picks finally moving to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote. On Thursday, they will have their hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
It will be the first hearing to vet potential Pentagon officials since July.
Among the critical jobs that remain unfilled are assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs — an important post at a time of nuclear saber rattling between Washington and Pyongyang — and the undersecretary of defense for policy, the Pentagon’s No. 3 job. On Oct. 27, the White House said it will nominate Randall Schriver for the Asia-Pacific post, but it has not yet sent his name to the Senate. On Oct. 16, the White House tapped John C. Rood, a senior executive at defense contractor Lockheed Martin, for the policy job. The Senate is expected to consider his nomination in the coming weeks.
Other important vacancies include the secretary of the Army, undersecretary of the Navy, the undersecretary for intelligence, and the head of special operations and low-intensity conflict.
The unusually long absence of Senate-approved Pentagon officials has led Mattis to rely more heavily on uniformed members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rather than civilians temporarily filling high-level positions. That has caused some concern over the civilian-military balance in an administration already stocked with current and former generals inside the White House and other agencies.
Mattis, a recently retired general himself, required a congressional waiver to take the Pentagon’s top civilian job.
One former senior defense official who worked in several Republican administrations said that he is “worried about the imbalance” spawned by Mattis’s reliance on military officers, as opposed to civilians. Other former defense officials stressed the importance of confirmed civilian officials for carrying out U.S. defense goals.
“We have a civilian staff and a military staff for a reason,” said Christine Wormuth, undersecretary of defense for policy in the Barack Obama-era Pentagon. “Ultimately the secretary of defense exercises civilian control of the military, but you need both military and civilian perspectives to implement policy.”
So far this year, things haven’t always gone smoothly as political appointees attempt to work with civil servants filling in on a temporary basis.
Last week, acting Navy Undersecretary Thomas Dee — who served as the vice director of the Navy staff until he was elevated to the position temporarily in February — said the administration’s plan to build a 350-ship navy could take as long as 30 years to fulfill, throwing cold water on one of President Trump’s signature pledges.
He was immediately contradicted by his boss, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who told MSNBC that Dee was an “acting placeholder” and suggested frictions between career and political officials.
“This is one more reason we need to get our politically appointed people in the Pentagon and working for us. I need to get my team there who are aligned with our vision,” he said.
The long absence of high-level officials carries other potential consequences.
Mattis has already kicked off several critical, high-profile reviews of the Pentagon’s ballistic missile defense capabilities, nuclear posture, and defense strategies, all of which require staff in tune with the White House’s larger political vision for national defense.
But months into the administration, and with work on next year’s budget already wrapping up, many future Trump appointees will have little opportunity to contribute to the big projects that will likely define their tenures, said Eric Edelman, a former defense official in the George W. Bush administration.
Not all of the absences are because of the Trump team’s inability to find suitable candidates or McCain’s temporary hold. Some 15 senior positions in the Pentagon have no nominee, apparently by design. Trump told Forbes last month he is “generally not going to make a lot of the appointments” normally seen in government “because you don’t need them.”
While Trump’s selections for many other federal agencies have been highly contentious, his Pentagon nominees have been uniformly safe picks, coming primarily from the defense industry or Capitol Hill. Many have previous experience in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Like Rood, Robert Karem, confirmed in May as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and David Trachtenberg, confirmed last month for the Pentagon’s No. 2 policy job, raised little debate or hand-wringing.
“All three of them are outstanding nominees, the kind of people I would have expected to see” under a Mitt Romney presidency, said Edelman, who worked on Romney’s national security team during the 2012 election. “Those are exactly the kind of people we would have put into senior positions.”