Trump Taps Point Man to Remove Pentagon Officials Seen as Disloyal

Officials fear the arrival of a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence who could undercut Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
US President Donald Trump with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, sings the National Anthem before the Army v. Navy American Football game in Philadelphia on December 14, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper sing the national anthem before the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia on Dec. 14, 2019. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP

In another move aimed at consolidating control over policy and messaging, the Trump administration is sending a White House loyalist to serve in a key Defense Department policy role that officials are worried is aimed at weeding out civilians not loyal to the president, Foreign Policy has learned.

Michael Cutrone, who has been detailed as Vice President Mike Pence’s top national security aide for South Asia, is set to arrive at the Pentagon to serve in a behind-the-scenes role vetting Defense Department officials for loyalty to the president, according to two current administration officials.

Some officials fear that the arrival of Cutrone and other planned personnel moves at the Pentagon could undercut Defense Secretary Mark Esper as the White House has looked to put in place more defense officials loyal to the president, headlined by the reported pick of retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata as the agency’s top policy official, who caught President Donald Trump’s eye as a Fox News commentator.

“He is pushing to replace and remove civilians in OSD that are not aligned with the White House,” one current senior administration official told Foreign Policy of Cutrone’s plans to reshuffle officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “Esper has no say in who the key people are going into senior positions.”

In the months since his impeachment trial in the Senate, Trump has purged officials considered independent and appointed political loyalists to a number of senior positions, ousting the U.S. government’s top oversight official, Glenn Fine, last month and nominating a permanent successor in his place for his day job at the Pentagon. Trump also fired the intelligence community’s top oversight official, Michael Atkinson, in April, who told lawmakers about the whistleblower complaint over the White House’s hold of military aid to Ukraine that launched an impeachment inquiry.

It was not immediately clear when Cutrone, who is leaving his career-track position as a CIA analyst to become a political appointee, will take on his new role as principal deputy assistant secretary for international security affairs. He replaces Dave Trulio, the former chief of staff for the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy, who filled the job temporarily before leaving the department this year.

Officials say the new job would allow Cutrone to scrutinize Pentagon staffing without a public-facing side to his job. The Pentagon told Foreign Policy in a statement that it had “no personnel announcement with regard to that person or that position, and we don’t have any information about any other speculation” in the story.

A White House official told Foreign Policy that Cutrone was selected as a recognized national security professional to help lead the portfolio, which includes overseeing policy for NATO bloc nations, Africa, and the Middle East.

This latest personnel move has drawn concern from veteran Pentagon officials, who fear that the few remaining appointees in place empowered to push back on underdeveloped policy ideas will be removed from their posts or undermined, marking much tighter White House control than it had under former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who was close to many of the agency’s political appointees.

Kathryn Wheelbarger, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer for Sen. John McCain, permanently holds the role set for Cutrone but has been serving as an acting assistant secretary for international affairs for more than 18 months.

The White House official told Foreign Policy that the move would not impact Wheelbarger, who was sent forward this year as the Trump administration’s intended nominee for undersecretary of intelligence.

But the current senior administration official told Foreign Policy that Wheelbarger’s ties to McCain, a noted Trump critic, and Mattis were preventing the administration from putting her up for any confirmation. Politico reported in March that Wheelbarger’s nomination had been held up amid concerns from some Trump aides she was not sufficiently loyal to the president.

“She’s the only person holding down the fort, and she’s vulnerable. She has no top cover,” said Bilal Saab, who was until recently a senior advisor on Middle East issues at the Pentagon.

“Points of resistance to really bad policy ideas keep evaporating one after the other,” added Saab, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Defense officials believe Cutrone is taking cues on staffing issues from Pence’s office, where he served for nearly three years. Other former colleagues who worked with Cutrone said he was not an ideologue and had carved out a reputation as an expert on Afghanistan and other South Asia issues. “In the Pence office, there wasn’t a fealty box to check,” said one person familiar with Cutrone, who has been detailed to the vice president’s office since 2017.

Most of the ranks of those officials are already appointees tapped by Trump. But in spite of that, there has been a more concerted focus by the Trump administration to remove appointees seen as close with former Defense Secretary Mattis, who pushed back on the president’s treatment of NATO allies, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and abrupt exit from the counter-Islamic State mission in Syria, prompting the retired Marine Corps general to resign as Pentagon chief in December 2018.

“It’s becoming a bit of a purge,” said Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon policy official during the Obama administration. He said that as the administration stacks the Pentagon with a fresh wave of appointees who may not have as much defense policy experience, it can create friction between them and the civil service and military staffers. That, in turn, can throw sand in the gears of the policymaking process. “Some of these true believers … they might not know how to work with the bureaucracy, they might not know the issues as well, and they’re feeling the pressure from the bosses,” he said.

Cutrone will be talking to deputy assistant secretaries, the key issue area managers for Pentagon policy, to vet for appointees not aligned with the White House, the senior administration official said.

Surprising many, Cutrone helped nix the appointment of Seth Jones, a well-respected former advisor to U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan who was set to become the Pentagon’s top policy official to the war-torn country, by pointing attention to the think tank expert’s contributions to non-Trump-aligned political candidates, officials familiar with the matter say. Jones declined a request to comment for this story.

The sidelining of Jones comes as more appointees close to Trump have made headlines, including Lou Bremer, a former Navy SEAL about whom the White House filed notice of its formal intent to nominate as assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict—a role that has been left without a Senate-confirmed appointee for almost a year. Former officials said Owen West, the last full-time appointee to hold that role, his acting successor Mark Mitchell, and fired Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood were part of a Mattis-aligned contingent that pushed back on “more extreme” White House policy positions.

Simone Ledeen, another political loyalist, also recently took over as deputy assistant secretary for Middle East affairs. Ledeen has served in positions at the Pentagon and Treasury Department in the past and as an executive at an international bank. Her father, Michael Leeden, is a prominent conservative foreign-policy thinker who advised the Pentagon and State Department during the George W. Bush administration.

It is not clear whether Cutrone or the White House has identified other civilians for potential cuts, as the president has stepped in to appoint more loyalists to the Pentagon after Rood departed in February after staunchly opposing many of Trump’s initiatives, including up-tempo strikes against Iranian targets and the withholding of U.S. military aid for Ukraine that eventually triggered an impeachment inquiry.

Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Pentagon has looked to keep the pace of nominations moving forward. On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will host Kenneth Braithwaite, Trump’s former ambassador to Norway and a personal friend of Esper, for a confirmation hearing to be the next Navy secretary. He will face questions from the Senate alongside James Anderson, tapped to be the Pentagon’s No. 2 policy official, and Gen. Charles Q. Brown, nominated to be Air Force chief of staff.

Along with announcing his intent to nominate Bremer on Monday, Trump also said the administration would tap Shon Manasco as undersecretary of the Air Force, Michele Pearce to be Army general counsel, and John Whitley to be the Pentagon’s director of cost assessment and program evaluation.

But with lawmakers already squeezed into a tight legislative calendar by the coronavirus pandemic, former officials are worried that the administration could be pushing through too many unseasoned bureaucrats into high-level Pentagon roles.

“The end of the administration is not when the seasoned, cool hands come in,” said Townsend, the former Pentagon official. “It’s when they’re cramming people in.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer