More Top Pentagon Officials Out After Trump Sacks Esper

“It’s embarrassing for the United States,” a former senior intelligence officer who served under Trump said of the recent spate of firings.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at the Pentagon for meetings with senior military leaders in Washington on March 15, 2019. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Defense’s top policy official was dismissed on Tuesday, three sources familiar with the move said, one day after President Donald Trump terminated his Senate-confirmed defense secretary in a mid-morning tweet.

James Anderson, who was confirmed as deputy undersecretary of defense for policy and was elevated to serve as an acting official in the top policy job, was forced out on Tuesday after a tumultuous relationship with the White House. Anderson, a former George W. Bush administration official, had pushed back on a series of new Trump appointees seen as loyal to the White House.

Anthony Tata, a Trump loyalist, conspiracy theorist, and former Fox News contributor was appointed to serve in an interim role as the No. 2 official in the Pentagon’s powerful policy shop after his nomination to the undersecretary role was withdrawn over conspiratorial and Islamophobic comments. With Anderson’s ouster, Tata is now performing the duties of the top policy job, current and former officials said. Officials feared Tata’s elevation could put him in a position to demand more resignations across the department.

The rapid-fire personnel changes at the Pentagon are emblematic of overall confusion and unease at the president’s refusal to accept the election results, officials said. Trump insists the election results are not final, alleging baseless claims of voter fraud. Even as President-elect Joe Biden fields congratulatory calls and messages from foreign leaders around the world, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stuck by the president’s claims, saying in a press conference on Tuesday: “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”

In his internal resignation letter, Anderson praised the “dedicated team of national security professionals” he worked with and said “[i]t is clear that despite profound national security and defense challenges, America is more secure than it was four years ago.”

He also appeared to offer a subtle hint at the legal and ethical challenges facing Trump appointees who are caught in a bind as Biden tries to begin the formal transition process. Trump continues to refuse to concede his defeat, and his top aides have warned officials across the administration against cooperating in a transition.

“Now, as ever, our long-term success depends on adhering to the U.S. Constitution all public servants swear to defend,” Anderson wrote. Multiple current and former officials said that he was given the option to resign or be fired by Christopher Miller, the new acting Pentagon chief, Trump’s fifth in less than four years.

Anderson’s ouster—which officials said he expected for weeks—is anticipated to be among the spate of other potential firings that some current and former officials expect to come. Joseph Kernan, the agency’s top intelligence official, and Jen Stewart, outgoing Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s former chief of staff, are also expected to be removed. The ouster of Stewart, who was just named to head up the Pentagon’s transition team to the incoming Biden administration, could further disrupt the turnover of the agency, which has already been interrupted by the Trump administration. Pentagon officials have been told they can have no contact with the incoming Biden team until the General Services Administration certifies the results of last week’s election to greenlight the formal transition process. The Pentagon confirmed the moves in a statement late Tuesday.

Politico was the first to report the news of Anderson’s ouster. A defense official confirmed that Anderson had resigned but did not immediately respond to further inquiries. The White House recently froze a hold on new appointees at the Pentagon at the deputy assistant secretary level and above, likely in preparation for Esper’s firing, two officials said.

Anderson had long clashed with the White House Presidential Personnel Office, led by former Trump body man John McEntee, who sought to insert unqualified Trump loyalists into top policy jobs. Those included Tata and Rich Higgins, a former National Security Council staffer known for circulating a conspiratorial memo, whom the Pentagon’s liaison office directed the policy shop to hire as chief of staff in May. The policy office under Anderson also pushed back on the hiring of Frank Wuco, a former State Department official and radio host known for posing as a fictional jihadi, and who was eventually hired to a front office job at the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

But recently the battles have only gotten more intense, prompting Anderson’s ouster. For instance, Anderson stood up for Michael Ryan, the Pentagon’s top Europe and NATO official, who was also pushed out of the building early this month, officials said. He was replaced by Andrew Winternitz, a career defense official, according to his LinkedIn profile. Anderson, who anticipated his ouster in advance, began moving his belongings out of the Pentagon weeks ago—and others have done the same.

Tata’s nomination for the job foundered over the summer after he faced criticism from lawmakers for offensive and conspiratorial social media posts, including falsely claiming that former CIA Director John Brennan ordered the assassination of Trump via a coded message on social media. Tata apologized for his remarks in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Yet with Tata moving into the top job, he is expected to bring more loyalists along with him.

Kash Patel, a former National Security Council official also who worked to help House Republicans attempt to discredit the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, would potentially move into Stewart’s role as chief of staff to the new acting Defense Secretary Miller, who also worked on the National Security Council, one current U.S. official and former senior administration official briefed on the matter said. Taking over for Kernan in the top intelligence job will be Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the acting civilian official overseeing special forces who joined the Pentagon in May. He had previously been forced off of the Michael Flynn-era National Security Council after the retired Army lieutenant general was fired and indicted by the FBI. Tata’s new deputy will be Thomas Williams, the Pentagon said in a statement.

Anderson’s ouster continues a trend of the White House overruling the Pentagon to fill key policy positions with officials loyal to Trump, headlined by the ouster of Esper. In September, the Pentagon’s White House Liaison Office was remade with less experienced officials loyal only to Trump. Anderson’s predecessor, John Rood, was also pushed out earlier this year.

“They are filling all of the positions with political types not policy people,” said a former senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “So they are the crew they sent over from the [White House].”

The ousters come a day after Trump announced he was firing Esper on Twitter, saying that he had been “terminated” and would be replaced in an acting capacity by Miller, the current director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Trump and Esper’s relationship had soured over the past several months, stemming from concerns that the defense secretary was not sufficiently loyal to the White House.

While Miller, the new acting secretary, is not seen as overtly political, he has won over Trump loyalists because of his long track record on counterterrorism—dating back to his combat tours as a special forces officer during the initial invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq—and his easygoing demeanor, officials said. Though he had a good relationship with Anderson when he briefly filled in as the Pentagon’s top acting civilian official overseeing special operations and low-intensity conflict, he was under significant pressure to remove the acting policy chief after the election.

“This will be disruptive to the transition process in that what has always been followed is the outgoing [defense secretary] stays in place until the incoming [defense secretary] is confirmed and appointed like Carter and Mattis,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general and former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Esper has been in the Pentagon for almost four years, and Secretary of Defense for over a year. Miller will not have the knowledge or level of detail for transition discussions, and he will only be there 73 days before he is replaced on January 20th.”

The Pentagon is not the only agency in turmoil. The Justice Department’s top election crimes prosecutor quit in protest Monday night after Attorney General Bill Barr called on U.S. prosecutors to take account of election irregularities before the Electoral College certifies Biden as the winner of last week’s vote.

“It’s embarrassing for the United States. I was a CIA officer for 26 years,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior officer with the intelligence agency. “These are the [situation reports] that I’d be writing about a dictator who’s mad at his defense minister and has his interior minister fire him. It’s like something out of the Middle East.”

Update, Nov. 10, 2020: This article was updated with further details on transition-period personnel changes at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Update, Nov. 10, 2020: This article was updated to provide information from a Defense Department statement.

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