Report

Trump Loyalists Primed to Further Remake Pentagon

Officials in the Pentagon see this week’s purges as a sign the White House will be even more aggressive in bending the Pentagon to its political whims.

This picture taken December 26, 2011 shows the Pentagon building in Washington, DC.
This picture taken December 26, 2011 shows the Pentagon building in Washington, DC. AFP via Getty Images

When acting U.S. Defense Secretary Christopher Miller arrived at the Pentagon on Monday, stumbling up the steps and taking off his mask, four Defense Department officials—all loyalists to President Donald Trump—were waiting for him inside. They had been given a heads-up by the White House that Miller was on the way. 

By the end of the next day, the four men would be at or near the top of the Defense Department’s radically altered organization chart after a White House-directed bloodletting remade the agency’s leadership. Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to contest President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory, citing unfounded claims of voter fraud, and is plowing ahead with preparations for a highly implausible second term, leaving officials fearing that more firings could be in the offing. 

In the twilight of his administration, Trump has reshuffled these loyalists into positions for which current and former colleagues said they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get Senate confirmation. Officials in the Pentagon see this as a sign that the White House will seek to become even more aggressive in bending the Pentagon to its political whims, according to seven current and former officials who were interviewed for this story, many speaking only on condition of anonymity. The turmoil comes after Trump abruptly ousted Defense Secretary Mark Esper from his post via Twitter on Monday and then forced out acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson on Tuesday, denying the incoming Biden administration a proper transition and moving the United States toward the full withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Middle East that Trump pledged to execute years ago.

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata—who once stumped for Trump on Fox News and spun conspiracy theories on social media—now controls the Pentagon’s policy shop, replacing Anderson just four months after the administration rescinded his nomination for the Senate-confirmed role when tweets peddling his Islamophobia and conspiracy theories about a former CIA director trying to assassinate Trump surfaced in the media. (He later apologized for some of those social media posts in letters to senators on the Armed Services Committee.)

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, an acolyte of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was fired after less than a month as Trump’s first national security advisor in 2017 and who later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, will oversee the Pentagon’s intelligence operations. This includes the Defense Intelligence Agency, an agency Flynn previously headed before he was fired during the Obama administration. Beneath them are Joe Francescon, who has risen from a career National Security Agency official to Miller’s deputy chief of staff, and Thomas M. Williams, now serving as the temporary No. 2 official in the policy shop.  

The advancement of Tata and Cohen-Watnick, and the separate hiring of Trump ally Douglas Macgregor as a senior advisor to Miller, are signs that the administration could be pushing to drastically curb U.S. military involvement in the Middle East in the final months of the Trump administration. Both Tata and Macgregor—who were both presented to Esper as White House picks for the top policy job this summer—have called for a reduced U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, and one official described Cohen-Watnick as suspicious of the defense industrial complex trying to extend the so-called forever wars. Biden has said that he plans to draw down U.S. forces from Afghanistan, but leave several thousand troops to stop al Qaeda and the Islamic State from launching attacks against the United States. 

Macgregor, like Tata, was up for a more senior post in the administration, but those plans faltered because of a cool reception from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Trump planned to tap Macgregor to be his next U.S. ambassador to Germany, but lawmakers opposed him on the grounds of past controversial remarks, including violent xenophobic comments about refugees and immigrants in the United States and Germany. 

Macgregor, like Trump, harbored skeptical views of NATO, and in past op-eds, he disparaged the alliance as outdated. “NATO is simply a zombie periodically reanimated through various methods, usually voodoo magic,” he wrote in the National Interest last year. “It’s time for the NATO zombie to expire.” He has also favored a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a policy priority that aligns with the Trump administration and his supporters outside of government. 

The Pentagon’s top policy official for Europe and NATO, Michael C. Ryan, was recently ousted after falling afoul of Trump loyalists, officials said. Officials described Ryan as a skilled and seasoned expert on transatlantic policy. The Trump administration has sought to remove about one-third of the 36,000 U.S. troops from Germany, a decision which critics charge was made with no strategic rationale. 

Miller, the new acting Pentagon chief—who did tours as a Green Beret in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—rose from the National Security Council’s counterterrorism directorate to lead the federal government’s largest agency in the span of less than a year, and is not viewed as a partisan. But he has cultivated close ties with Trump loyalists such as Kash Patel, his new chief of staff, who sought to undermine the Russia probe during his time as a Republican House aide. The New York Times reported that Miller devised a diplomatic mission to reach out to Qatar to buy off senior leaders of the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, but the idea was shot down by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

The spate of firings may only be the first step of many as Trump’s political loyalists dig their heels in on the president’s refusal to accept the election results. One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that meetings to discuss routine matters of a transition process to the next administration have been “postponed indefinitely” and that other influential Pentagon officials could be targeted in a new wave of resignations or firings. 

 There is suspicion that the new leadership may target Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top Senate-confirmed acquisition official, and Lisa Hershman, the chief management officer, in the coming weeks. Mark Tomb, Anderson’s deputy chief of staff, was also let go yesterday, Foreign Policy confirmed. The Intercept first reported on concerns about Lord’s job security and Tomb’s firing. 

Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who has known Miller for 20 years, including service together in Afghanistan, and who has described him as a “consummate professional, highly intelligent and competent” and dedicated to the nation, has called for officials to rally around the new acting Pentagon chief. But the firings have still raised concerns about stability in the Pentagon. 

“Stability at the Department of Defense during this time of transition is very important,” said Mulroy, now an ABC News national security analyst. “Secretary Esper’s leadership in keeping the military out of any domestic political issues and continuity of the chain of command was critical. Replacing him as well as other senior leaders now and all at once was not responsible, nor consistent with ensuring stability.”

And it’s not just the score-settling that took place over the past two days that has officials worried, headlined by the firings of Esper and Anderson, who spent the last few weeks of their tenure trying to protect colleaguesboth political appointees and career professionalstargeted for removal by White House loyalists. In mid-October, Esper managed to forestall the firing of Joseph Kernan, the agency’s top intelligence official, who was eventually replaced on Tuesday. 

Trump’s new executive order curbing civil service protections has also deepened the desire of loyalists to remove career officials not seen as being on board with the White House’s agenda. The new White House liaison at the Pentagon, Joshua Whitehouse, known as a Trump ally, also recently demanded that the policy shop oust Steven Schleien, the chief operating officer in that office since 2015 and responsible for its budget and human resources. Anderson protested that Schleien had civil service protections for his job, likely making his firing illegal, a message that the Pentagon’s general counsel then relayed to the White House. Whitehouse has also drawn complaints for repeatedly walking into Anderson’s office in recent weeks unannounced without a mask or taking a temperature check, concerning officials worried about a recent U.S. spike in coronavirus cases.

In a statement, a Pentagon spokesperson said the building has imposed a mandatory face cloth wearing policy and emphasized personal protective measures and following COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The Department of Defense fully respects and adheres to legal protections for civil servants,” the spokesperson said.  

The personnel changes have former officials and experts worried about a lack of experience in top Pentagon jobs. Francescon has risen from a career-competitive civil servant attached to the NSC to one of the acting defense secretary’s closest advisors in the past five months, while Williams has moved into the No. 2 Pentagon policy job after being bumped up to perform the duties of an assistant secretary, an unusual jump several levels from his career position. 

“He’s barely qualified to be an action officer in policy, let alone an [assistant secretary],” another former Trump administration defense official said of Williams when he was promoted this summer. “I cannot express how incredibly messed up this is. This is the person that is supposed to go toe-to-toe with the vices and three-star programmers over major budget and program decisions. God help us.”

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

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