Leading Pentagon Official Exits After White House Axes Nomination

Kathryn Wheelbarger’s departure marks the second high-level official to leave this week as the White House stocks the Pentagon with loyalists.

The Pentagon
The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, is seen in an aerial photograph taken on April 23, 2015. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

A leading U.S. Defense Department policy official resigned Thursday after the Trump administration passed over her nomination for another top defense job, as the White House continued its efforts to fill the Pentagon with loyalists to  President Donald Trump.

Kathryn Wheelbarger—who performed the duties of assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, a top Pentagon policy job that oversees Defense Department strategy in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East—is resigning with an effective date of July 4, a person familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.

The decision comes as the Pentagon’s revolving door appears to be sending out more professional candidates in favor of new officials loyal to Trump. Wheelbarger’s planned departure occurred just two days after Elaine McCusker resigned as the Pentagon’s acting comptroller after questioning Trump’s decision to freeze military aid to Ukraine last summer. The White House recently rescinded McCusker’s nomination to be the Pentagon’s permanent comptroller after she questioned the aid freeze on Ukraine that had prompted Trump’s impeachment in the House.

Wheelbarger also saw herself replaced as the administration’s nominee to be the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence last week amid questions about her loyalty to Trump. A senior administration official told Foreign Policy last month that Wheelbarger’s ties to the late Sen. John McCain and former Defense Secretary James Mattis—who recently rebuked Trump’s response to nationwide racial injustice protests—were preventing the White House from nominating her for any role. Wheelbarger served as policy director and counsel on the Senate Armed Services Committee when McCain led the panel.  

In a short three-paragraph resignation letter obtained by Foreign Policy, Wheelbarger said she had faith that her remaining colleagues at the Defense Department “will continue to be guided by the U.S. Constitution and the principles of our founding, which will ensure both our security and freedom.”

Drawing upon the Constitution, her resignation letter came just a week after lawmakers raised legal questions about Trump’s response to the racial injustice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, including about the use of U.S. Park Police to break up a peaceful demonstration in Lafayette Square and a D.C. National Guard helicopter that performed a low-flying maneuver amid a gathering of protesters.

The incidents also raised questions about the use of the military for political purposes, as Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley joined Trump for a walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church on June 1, where the commander in chief staged a photo-op. Milley, who was wearing his Army battle dress uniform at the time, later apologized for having participated.

Wheelbarger’s departure, first reported by Reuters, is raising fears with current and former officials that there is little room left in the Pentagon to disagree with the White House across the river. Even Esper was said to be on shaky ground after he publicly disputed Trump’s assertion two weeks ago that he might have to invoke the Insurrection Act and send in U.S. troops to quell violence in cities amid protests against the killing of a black man in Minneapolis police custody.

“The ideological divergences and policy disagreements were too wide and deep for her and others who left before,” said Bilal Saab, a former senior advisor on security cooperation in the office of the secretary of defense for policy and now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. Another former colleague described Wheelbarger as “a professional policy person” and “not really partisan.”

On Thursday afternoon, Esper praised Wheelbarger on her time at the Pentagon. “In her role as Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Katie brought a wealth of experience and the utmost professionalism to the Department throughout her service,” Esper said in a statement. “Her leadership in support of the National Defense Strategy is evident in the proud accomplishments of her team.”

Wheelbarger’s departure comes as the White House has moved quickly to add more appointees loyal to Trump at the Pentagon. In May, Foreign Policy reported that Michael Cutrone, who served as Vice President Mike Pence’s top security aide for South Asia, slid into Wheelbarger’s permanent role as principal deputy assistant secretary for international security affairs last month, a post officials fear he will use to vet Pentagon officials for loyalty to Trump. The vice president’s office has disputed this characterization of Cutrone’s role at the Pentagon. 

Soon after that, Ezra Cohen, a former senior National Security Council official under Michael Flynn, was tapped to become the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for counter-narcotics. In place of Wheelbarger, the White House tapped Bradley Hansell, who served as a National Security Council director for transnational threats until last year, to the Pentagon intelligence post.

While Cutrone’s and Cohen’s roles do not require confirmation in the Senate, the Trump administration is facing pushback on Anthony Tata, a Fox News regular and a retired Army brigadier general whom Trump has tapped as his intended nominee to lead the Pentagon’s policy shop. Two Democrats on the Senate Armed Services panel—ranking member Jack Reed and Elizabeth Warren—have already confirmed they will not vote for Tata after Islamophobic comments he made on Twitter surfaced. Three prominent retired generals pulled their support for Tata on Thursday.  

But the tenure of Wheelbarger, who played a major role in handling NATO allies and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS that grew to more than 90 nations at its height, also demonstrated a major challenge the Pentagon has faced since Trump’s election: a lack of Senate-confirmed civilian appointees in the building.

“Let’s not pretend we didn’t know this was coming. This has been in the making for some time,” said Saab, the former Pentagon official. “The only reason why it took a bit longer is because Katie, the consummate professional she is, probably wanted to make sure some important files were effectively addressed and some kind of a transition plan was put in place before her departure.”

Taking over from Robert Karem in 2018, Wheelbarger served as acting assistant secretary for international security for 210 days—the legal limit that officials can act in Senate-confirmed roles without a vote under the Vacancies Act—until June 2019, at which point the role was downgraded to “performing the duties of” assistant secretary, a role with fewer authorities in creating policy but without a timeline of service. Of 755 Trump administration roles that require Senate confirmation, 138 still have no nominees, according to data from the Washington Post.  

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the move. But former colleagues defended Wheelbarger amid her departure.

“Katie Wheelbarger is one of the hardest working, smartest, and talented people I have worked with in government,” said Mick Mulroy, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East until last year. “She should have been confirmed for the job she so ably did for over a year and a half. She is a consummate professional who undoubtedly will be missed by the whole Pentagon policy team who I know will miss her leadership.”

Update, June 19, 2020: This article was updated to include details of Wheelbarger’s resignation letter.

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

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