Security Brief

From a Midlevel Advisor to Pentagon Chief in Under a Year

Christopher Miller takes the reins at the Defense Department as the lame-duck White House replaces senior officials with Trump loyalists.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press before a meeting at the Pentagon on Jan. 18, 2018, in Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press before a meeting at the Pentagon on Jan. 18, 2018, in Washington. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief.

What’s on tap today: The acting U.S. secretary of defense stumbles into the Pentagon amid turmoil, the Biden transition plan continues despite President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the election results, and how drones helped Azerbaijan beat Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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How Christopher Miller Rose to the Top of the Pentagon

U.S. President Donald Trump’s new acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, has already stumbled twice in his first few days on the job: first, by tripping over the steps at the Pentagon’s River Entrance on his way into the building on Monday; and next, by leaving his prepared remarks under his seat when he got up to speak at the unveiling of the U.S. Army’s new national museum on Wednesday.

But if there were stumbles, they might be due to Miller’s meteoric rise from a National Security Council desk job to the top of the U.S. government’s largest agency in under a year. After post-election purges that have claimed officials who clashed with Trump and stacked the Pentagon’s leadership with the president’s allies, Miller now finds himself at the top of the mountain, if only for 70 more days. What can we expect?

While Trump reportedly told Miller not to rock the boat and former colleagues offer rave reviews of the former Green Beret, he is surrounded by a coterie of White House loyalists who have developed a reputation for blowing things up. Anthony Tata, who will perform the duties of policy chief, and Douglas MacGregor, Miller’s new senior advisor, have both attracted unwanted attention for conspiracy-minded social media missives and backed Trump’s push for a quick pullout from Afghanistan.

The dizzying week of personnel changes at the Pentagon, beginning with Trump’s abrupt sacking of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, has drawn fire from Democratic lawmakers and elicited silence from Republicans, highlighting how unpredictable the final months of the Trump administration could be.

“Firing the secretary of defense in the waning weeks of the administration undermines national security at a critical moment,” said Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The president’s choice to fire Secretary Esper is a play for attention and is yet another example of President Trump putting his ego over the needs and security of our nation.”


What We’re Watching

The transition. In the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, Trump made clear that the hand off to President-elect Biden’s administration would not be routine, cordial, or smooth. Nevertheless, Biden’s team is operating as if Trump isn’t disputing the election results. It has announced a list of hundreds of experts assisting the transition at different agencies.

Out of the gate, Biden announced this week he would tap Ron Klain, a veteran Democratic staffer and former Ebola czar, to be his chief of staff. Read our breakdown of this list and what it means for the Pentagon, State Department, and intelligence agencies.

Eyes in the sky. In the 21st century, it’s rare to see military conflicts with clear-cut winners and losers. But after six weeks of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Azerbaijan has emerged as the victor, and military analysts give outsize credit to the country’s expansive use of armed drones.

“The expanding array of relatively low-cost drones can offer countries air power at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a traditional air force. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh also underscored how drones can suddenly shift a long-standing conflict and leave ground forces highly exposed,” the Washington Post reports.

On Tuesday, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a cease-fire backed by Turkey and Russia that forced Armenia to swallow its losses and gives Russia an important foothold in the region, with boots on the ground. Nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers will be deployed to the conflict zone.

Jerusalem boosts settlement construction. Expecting the Biden administration to urge a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, authorities in Jerusalem have fast-tracked building plans over the Green Line. Haaretz reports that the plans include thousands of units in Givat Hamatos, where the Obama administration had previously pushed back on construction, as it could encircle a nearby Palestinian neighborhood.


Movers and Shakers

Pentagon bloodbath. This week has seen rapid-fire personnel changes at the U.S. Department of Defense, emblematic of the overall confusion and unease at Trump’s refusal to accept the election results. Taking stock:

Who’s in. Chris Miller, acting defense secretary; Douglas MacGregor, senior advisor; Kash Patel, chief of staff; Joe Francescon, deputy chief of staff; Anthony Tata, performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for policy; Tom Williams, performing the duties of deputy undersecretary of defense for policy; Ezra Cohen-Watnick, performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for intelligence

Who’s out. Three top Senate-confirmed officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson, and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Joe Kernan. Also out: Esper’s chief of staff, Jen Stewart, who was set to lead the transition effort, and Anderson’s deputy chief of staff, Mark Tomb.

Who’s next. Pentagon insiders fear that the new leadership may be after Ellen Lord, the agency’s Senate-confirmed acquisition chief, and Lisa Hershman, the chief management officer whose job has been under pressure from Congress, which has sought to eliminate it. 

Biden staffs up. President-elect Biden has picked Ron Klain as his chief of staff and announced transition teams for each U.S. government agency. He is also rumored to have a shortlist for cabinet picks, Foreign Policy reports:

Secretary of State: former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Sen. Chris Murphy, Sen. Chris Coons

Secretary of Defense: former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson

Director of National Intelligence: former Defense Intelligence Agency Deputy Director Robert Cardillo, former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon, former Obama counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco

CIA Director: former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, former CIA Deputy Director Avril Haines, former CIA acting director Michael Morrell

Got a tip about recent Trump administration firings or the transition? Get in touch with us: jack.detsch@foreignpolicy.com or robbie.gramer@foreignpolicy.com.


Foreign Policy Recommends 

An ominous prediction. Klain, Biden’s newly announced chief of staff, wrote a lengthy piece for Vox on the dangers of a deadly global pandemic and how ill-prepared we are to face it. The twist? He wrote it in 2018, well over a year before the first coronavirus outbreak.

Read his piece here and see how it compares to the pandemic response today.


The Week Ahead

U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea speaks at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on Lebanon’s security challenges and political crises on Friday.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Sen. Chris Coons, and others speak at a virtual conference hosted by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition on Monday, Nov. 16.

Former President Barack Obama releases his presidential memoir on Tuesday, Nov. 17.


Odds and Ends

An ode to dogs. Think you love your pup? Maybe not as much as Turkmenistan’s authoritarian president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who just unveiled a massive statue of his favorite dog in the capital, Ashgabat.


That’s it for today.

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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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