Top Pentagon Policy Official Pushed Out

John Rood, the U.S. Defense Department’s policy chief, has been blamed for an exodus of civilians from the Pentagon.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood speaks in Arlington, Virginia, on Sept. 25, 2019. DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James K. Lee

The U.S. Department of Defense’s top policy official, John Rood, is stepping down from his post following pressure from the White House, leaving another gaping hole in the Pentagon’s senior leadership as the department comes under increased scrutiny over its handling of the president’s hold on military aid to Ukraine.

Trump lost confidence in Rood, a former Lockheed Martin executive who has been serving as undersecretary of defense for policy since January 2018, after a steady drumbeat of departures of senior policymakers from the Pentagon over the past year, sources tell Foreign Policy. The decision was based on a recommendation by Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, according to one source.

“I would like to thank John Rood for his service to our Country, and wish him well in his future endeavors!” Trump tweeted.

There is no evidence that Rood’s ouster is related to the Pentagon’s handling of Trump’s directive to freeze roughly $250 million in military aid to Ukraine, which resulted in his impeachment. But the timing of the decision raises questions about whether the president is done purging officials involved in dealings with Ukraine. Rood approved the aid in May 2019, before Trump directed the hold. CNN and other outlets first reported on Rood leaving his post.

Alyssa Farah, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said Rood will step down from his post at the end of this month. He will be temporarily replaced by acting Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson.

“I would like to thank John Rood for his service to the Department,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in a statement released on Wednesday. “John has played a critical role on a wide range of DoD issues including modernizing our nuclear deterrence capability, efforts to increase burden sharing by our NATO allies, our Missile Defense Review and implementing the National Defense Strategy. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

The news comes as the nomination of another senior Pentagon leader may hang in the balance. The White House reportedly mulled pulling the nomination of Elaine McCusker to be Pentagon comptroller after she raised legal concerns with Trump’s directive to withhold the aid. The initial report by the right-leaning New York Post has not been confirmed, and some lawmakers and Pentagon officials have cast doubt on whether such a decision will go forward.

Despite his best efforts, Esper has struggled to stem the flow of senior civilians leaving the Pentagon. Six senior officials tendered their resignation in a span of just a few weeks late last year, including Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver. Of 59 Senate-confirmed positions, 16 are currently vacant.

Rood is seen as a major contributor to the Pentagon’s struggle to fill empty leadership posts. Current and former officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity this past December said Rood created a hostile work environment, saying that he is frequently “abrasive” toward his staff.

A defense official recounted an episode in which Rood was verbally abusive, yelling, cursing, and slamming his hand on the table. Rood dragged out the minor dispute for several days.

Pentagon civilians also told Foreign Policy at the time that Rood does not stand up to his military counterparts in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and that those working at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, sometimes referred to as OSD(P), feel Rood does not have their backs.

“He never did much to advance the civil service and he doesn’t rely on the advice of OSD(P),” said a former defense official. “You get the impression that he doesn’t trust his own staff.”

Sources told Foreign Policy at the time that Rood relied on the Joint Staff over the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy on such issues as the war in Syria and the negotiations over Fort Trump in Poland.

Other former defense officials defended Rood.

“I have known and worked with John in various capacities for decades. My working relationship with him at OSD was always excellent,” David Trachtenberg, a former deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told Foreign Policy in December, in a statement provided by a department spokesperson. “I think the fact that John and I both previously served in OSD Policy contributed to our understanding of the importance of civilian oversight of the military and our appreciation of the talent and professionalism of the Policy workforce.”

Update, Feb. 19, 2020: This article was updated to include a statement from the defense secretary and Pentagon press secretary.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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