Trump Taps Loyalists to Defense Policy Board in Last-Minute Move

The appointments come as part of a broader sweep to reward the president’s supporters with late-game promotions at the Defense Department.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (left) and then-National Security Council Senior Director of Counterterrorism Kash Patel
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (left) and then-National Security Council Senior Director of Counterterrorism Kash Patel at the White House on Oct. 27, 2019. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The outgoing Trump administration is set to appoint two loyalists to join the top federal advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Defense, Foreign Policy has learned, with less than one full day left before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated, a move that could be seen as rewarding officials who remained close to the lame-duck commander in chief.

Defense Department chief of staff Kash Patel, who joined the agency just a day after President Donald Trump fired former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper via tweet in November 2020, has been nominated to join the Defense Policy Board alongside Anthony Tata. Tata left an acting position in the policy shop last week. He was installed six months ago, after conspiratorial tweets surfaced that torpedoed his bid to become undersecretary of defense for policy. 

Typically, agency officials who join federal advisory boards to the Defense Department, such as the Defense Policy Board, do so after four days of “cooling off” from government service. Tata left his job performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for policy last week, and completed onboarding requirements for the board. Patel will continue serving in the administration up until the end of the Trump administration, a defense official confirmed, and would not be fully eligible for the role until after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. The incoming Biden administration could reverse many of these moves quickly after coming into power on Wednesday.

Michael Pillsbury, a China hawk who gained prominence in the inner ranks of the Trump administration, was promoted to head up the board last month but lacks a security clearance to convene meetings, a person familiar with the situation told Foreign Policy. A defense official familiar with the situation confirmed that Pillsbury had not completed his onboarding requirements for the role but would not specifically address the status of his security clearance. 

Foreign Policy first reported in November that the Defense Policy Board had been purged of high-profile advisors that month, including former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. The board, which provides independent advice on defense policy and key strategic matters, last convened in October 2020 to discuss China strategy and deterrence in space, according to a notice in the Federal Register. 

After the November purge, Trump allies were added to the panel including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Air Force pilot Scott O’Grady, along with Pillsbury. Gingrich took to the airwaves after the election and claimed it was stolen, and O’Grady, who was shot down over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 and became Trump’s postelection nominee to serve as assistant secretary of defense for international security, amplified tweets after the election that proposed Trump declare martial law and called the election outcome a coup. O’Grady and Charles Glazer, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador have finished onboarding onto the Defense Policy Board, the defense official confirmed.

The moves come as part of a broader sweep to reward Trump loyalists with late-game promotions at the Defense Department, most notably Michael Ellis, who was installed as the National Security Agency’s top lawyer this weekend, a position in the career civil service that is legally protected. Ellis has a political background in the Trump administration that included trying to stop former National Security Advisor John Bolton from publishing his book.

Meanwhile, Tom Williams, who took over Tata’s role performing the duties of the top policy official, has downgraded over a dozen department awards for political appointees and civil servants who had opposed Trump or were not seen as aligned with him—before his higher-ups intervened to stop the move. Williams put himself up for the distinguished service award, the highest award he is eligible for. Miller, the acting defense secretary, granted him the award in the past month.

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