Pentagon Legislative Chief Calls It Quits

Robert Hood’s departure leaves the U.S. Defense Department at a high-water mark for vacancies under the Trump administration.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper (L) greets members of the House Armed Services Committee before testifying to the committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill February 26 in Washington, DC. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Robert Hood is in the background.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper greets members of the House Armed Services Committee as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Robert Hood stands behind him in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington on Feb. 26. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. Defense Department’s top legislative official will leave the agency on Friday, two officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, matching the Trump administration’s record for civilian vacancies as the White House scrambles to get more nominees through confirmation.

The departure of Robert Hood, assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, will leave the Pentagon without a point person to help guide eight Trump administration nominees for high-ranking civilian roles through confirmation. That includes Anthony Tata, President Donald Trump’s controversial choice to lead the Pentagon’s policy shop, who is targeted for a confirmation hearing next week despite offensive and conspiratorial tweets revealed by CNN.  

It was not immediately clear when Hood officially announced his resignation, or where his next position will be. Hood’s resignation would leave 21 of 60 senior positions at the Pentagon vacant or unfilled, matching a high-water mark for the administration first reached in March. The departure is another blow to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who had made finding new nominees a priority at the outset of his tenure last summer.

“Pushing through eight nominations at this time in the cycle—some rather controversial to boot—would be tough under the best circumstances,” Mara Karlin, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during President Barack Obama’s administration, told Foreign Policy. Without a point person on legislative affairs, she said, “it will be even less likely.”

Hood departs as the Pentagon has seen its relationship with Capitol Hill reach a low point on a range of issues. Earlier this year, Esper faced bipartisan pushback from lawmakers after the Trump administration opted to reprogram billions of dollars toward the U.S.-Mexico border wall from accounts overseen by Congress, raising anger about a possible end run around lawmakers.

Congress also pushed back forcefully on Esper’s handling of the White House’s demands for active-duty U.S. troop deployments to the Washington area during nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice after the death of George Floyd, with House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat, slamming a seeming “lack of coordination” in the response.

Former Senate aides say that Hood, a long-tenured legislative affairs staffer during the George W. Bush administration and a former senior aide to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, was active in getting nominees onto the legislative calendar, answering questions from lawmakers, and arranging office calls between the Trump administration’s picks and senators to hash out issues ahead of their confirmation hearings.   

But with the Pentagon’s legislative affairs shop left without a Senate-confirmed leader and the upper chamber hanging in the balance in November’s election, Republicans may be more focused on passing a stimulus package to ease unemployment caused by the coronavirus pandemic than helping to clear the decks on White House nominees.

“There are a lot more pressing issues than who the undersecretary of the Air Force is going to be for the next few months,” a former Senate aide told Foreign Policy.

Hood’s resignation also comes amid an accelerated pace of departures at the Pentagon, as the White House has sought to place Trump loyalists in top jobs instead of more mainstream Republican picks.

In June, Kathryn Wheelbarger, who worked under the late Sen. John McCain and former Defense Secretary James Mattis, resigned after performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs for nearly two years. Her announcement came just days after Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller, resigned after questioning Trump’s military aid freeze to Ukraine the previous summer.

Both Wheelbarger and McCusker saw their nominations for high-level positions in the Pentagon rescinded over questions about their loyalty to Trump, and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood was also fired in February after pushing back against the Ukraine hold, which led the House of Representatives to impeach Trump.

Amid a series of governmentwide interviews of political appointees in the administration that are being seen as loyalty tests, irst reported by Foreign Policy, the White House has also moved to slot Trump favorites into high-level acting Pentagon roles—some of them outside of the confirmation process.

Hood is leaving at a consequential time in the legislative calendar for the Pentagon. The House is slated to vote Tuesday on the final passage of the Defense Department’s final authorizing bill for the year, and some former officials fear that losing the legislative chief at this time could force Pentagon budget fights back out into the open.  

“Losing the legislative affairs chief at this moment is akin to the groom walking away from the bride at the altar,” said Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary for House affairs during the Obama administration. “When you lose a key player, it risks the strategy collapsing. All of the internal bureaucratic tussles can spill out into the open.”

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