Security Brief

The U.S. Military Is Caught in Trump’s Political Crossfire

Esper’s job hangs in the balance, and former Defense Secretary Mattis issues a rare and stinging rebuke of the president.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks as President Donald Trump listens during the daily White House coronavirus press briefing on April 1 in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks as President Donald Trump listens during the daily White House coronavirus press briefing on April 1 in Washington. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is in hot water, ex-Pentagon chief James Mattis lashes out at Trump, and the State Department’s fired watchdog speaks out.

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Esper Is On the Ropes With Trump, Mattis Lashes Out

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s crazy day on Wednesday began in the Pentagon briefing room, where he appeared to contradict President Donald Trump by saying that the United States would not send active-duty troops to quell anti-police protests. By 6 p.m., Esper’s predecessor James Mattis had publicly rebuked both him and Trump in a statement sent to Foreign Policy and other news outlets. Esper’s job security looked as grim as it’s ever been.

Here’s a blow-by-blow of Esper’s no good, very bad day.

9:45am. Esper tells reporters that he does not support using the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty U.S. troops to quell protests in the wake of his controversial walk with Trump to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday, calling the move “a matter of last resort.” Esper ends the briefing after 20 minutes for a trip to the White House, where his comments generated anger with Trump’s aides.

10am. U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy receives notice of an order from Esper to send home 200 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division on standby to respond to protests in Washington, the Associated Press reports.

Mid-morning. Trump confronts Esper in the Oval Office after his press conference, Bloomberg reports. Trump later asks aides if Esper can still be effective in the role.

2pm. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany says Esper’s job is safe but pointedly refuses to endorse the Pentagon chief from the podium. “As of right now Secretary Esper is Secretary Esper,” she said. “That’s about as strong an endorsement for Esper as late-stage [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson,” Axios reporter Jonathan Swan noted on Twitter.

4pm. Esper reverses his earlier decision to pull active-duty soldiers out of the D.C. area, a defense official told Foreign Policy, leaving the 82nd Airborne Division on standby to respond to protests if Trump invokes the Insurrection Act.

6pm. James Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, launches into his former boss with a blistering salvo. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” Mattis said of Trump’s photo-op at St. John’s.

Buried in the statement, Mattis took a parting shot at Esper, who drew fire for referring to U.S. cities as a “battlespace” earlier in the week. “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,’” Mattis writes.


What We’re Watching

Other U.S. officials push back on Trump. Officials have rejected calls from Trump to bolster the federal government’s military presence in Washington. The president urged governors to send National Guard troops to the capital in a massive show of force intended to intimidate people protesting against police brutality. Several states, including neighboring Virginia and Trump’s home state of New York, rejected the call, citing concerns over the misuse of troops to escalate tensions.

Some Republican-led states did opt to send troops to the capital, with more expected in the coming days. The federal government also floated the idea of taking over Washington’s municipal police force—a suggestion flatly rejected by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Fired State Department watchdog speaks out. Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general sacked after falling afoul of Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, gave an interview on Wednesday to members of Congress investigating the circumstances around his removal. Democratic lawmakers said Linick told them that he was investigating Pompeo and his wife for misusing State Department resources and had opened an investigation into Pompeo’s directive to sell billions in arms to Saudi Arabia—over congressional opposition.

Linick said he still hasn’t been given a valid reason for his firing, according to the lawmakers. Pompeo hasn’t publicly offered specifics about why he recommended Linick be removed from his post. Linick was the fourth senior government watchdog sacked by Trump in recent months.

New Russian nuke policy. Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed a new policy this week allowing Moscow to deploy nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear strike. The policy change was motivated in part by the belief that the development of new conventional weapons in other countries—principally in the United States—could give adversaries the capacity to destroy key assets in Russia and “[threaten] the very existence of the state.”

The policy change comes as tensions between Russia and the United States over their nuclear stockpiles reach a low point. Both countries withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, and they are at loggerheads over the future of the New START treaty.

U.S., Russian forces jam traffic in Syria. Meanwhile, U.S. and Russian forces got stuck in an hourslong faceoff in northern Syria on Wednesday, snarling traffic for hours as U.S. troops demanded the ability to use the roads. “Today in [northeast] Syria, U.S. troops negotiate with Russian military units to navigate roads we controlled before Trump’s impetuous decision to hand the area to hostile forces,” tweeted Brett McGurk, Trump’s former special envoy to the global counter-ISIS coalition. “This is not a sustainable situation.”


Movers and Shakers

Coming for Esper’s spot? While Esper disagreed with the White House, one of Trump’s top allies in Congress backed the president’s push to use the military for anti-police protests. Sen. Tom Cotton published a controversial op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday calling for Trump to “send in the troops” to protect U.S. cities from looting—fueling speculation among defense insiders that he could be angling for the top job.

A source close to Cotton told Politico that he was focused on reelection but may consider serving in a cabinet position if Trump were reelected in November.

Senate confirmations. The Senate confirmed two nominees for top Defense Department jobs this week, filling out the Pentagon’s policy shop—which has lacked a full-time leader since Trump ousted John Rood in January. James Anderson is set to take over as the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, but he could continue serving as the Pentagon’s acting policy chief. Victor Mercado, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, will take over Anderson’s old role as assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities. The moves cut the Pentagon’s backlog of vacancies needing congressional approval down to 17.

First black service chief. The Senate is poised to confirm Air Force Gen. Charles Brown as the new chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force. If confirmed, he would be the first African American head of a military service branch, as Defense News reports.

Volker joins think tank. Kurt Volker, Trump’s former envoy to Ukraine peace talks who became a central witness in the congressional impeachment investigation, has joined the Center for European Policy Analysis as a distinguished fellow.


The Week Ahead

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will speak at an Atlantic Council event on Monday about how the alliance is responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s Iran envoy and senior advisor to Pompeo, will speak on Tuesday at the Hudson Institute.


Quote of the Week

“Washington has become overly dependent on military tools and has seriously neglected its nonmilitary instruments of power, which have withered and weakened as a result.”

—Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, warning how the U.S. is over-militarizing foreign policy


Foreign Policy Recommends

Building a better Blob. Washington’s foreign policy community has come under heavy criticism in recent years, spurring Trump’s disjointed and confused—but otherwise novel—approach. But as Emma Ashford writes in Foreign Affairs, a more appropriate response would be to change the existing foreign-policy consensus and replace it with something more effective.


Odds and Ends

No spying here. Indian police have returned a pigeon to a Pakistani fisherman after it was determined not to be a spy. The bird flew across the contentious India-Pakistan border, causing officials to fear it was engaged in nefarious espionage. Apparently, they realized it was just a pigeon.


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

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

Dan Haverty is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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