A retired brigadier general who called former President Barack Obama a terrorist. A former employee of Republican MP Devin Nunes who wrote a memo accusing federal investigators of anti-Trump prejudice. And a close ally of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, whom a former intelligence officer described to me as “dodgy” and “inherently untrustworthy”.
These are the three men who will replace senior civil servants at the Pentagon this week. These are quick personnel changes, with critics fearing the president’s plans for the military and White House allies cheering that he has finally put the “deep state” to flight.
After President Donald Trump sacked Mark Esper as Secretary of Defense on Nov. 9, it seemed likely that further changes in the Pentagon’s senior civilian leadership would follow. After all, Trump had long empowered John McEntee, his 30-year-old former personal advisor, whom he tapped in February to run the President’s Human Resources Office, to identify federal officials suspected of working against the White House agenda, and replace them with administrative loyalists.
The Department of Defense has always been a prime target due to its numerous clashes with the President and other senior White House officials such as National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, government sources told me, namely over troop withdrawals and the use of the military in active duty to suppress anti-racism protests and police brutality.
“I feel like this layoff has been in the works for months, but the election gave Trump an opportunity to act,” said Jim Golby, a retired Army officer who now teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.
And act Trump did.
Who’s in and who’s out at the Trump Pentagon?
The first to fall was James Anderson, acting director of policy planning, who filed his resignation on Tuesday (it is unclear whether he was asked to). Anderson often embroiled himself with the White House over the Pentagon’s appointment of Trump loyalists, which has led many to suspect that he was forced out of his position.
And that position was important. The Policy Planning Director is widely recognized as the third senior civilian in the Department of Defense. Those on the job must advise the secretary at the highest level on political issues ranging from deterring China and Russia to determining the types of ships, planes and weapons the military needs.
Because of this, it’s difficult to find out that Anthony Tata will take on the role. Trump had previously nominated him for the Senate-approved position, but his appointment fell this summer after CNN announced that Tata Obama was Twitter as a “terrorist leader” and Islam as “the most suppressive violent religion I know”. Both Republicans and Democrats later pulled back to confirm the retired Army’s one-star general, even after Tata apologized for his earlier comments.
The White House instead placed Tata in an unacknowledged role at the Pentagon, effectively making him Anderson’s No. 2. Now that Anderson is gone, Tata has the job that even Republican senators wouldn’t want him in.
On the same day, Anderson submitted his resignation letter, as did Esper’s Chief of Staff Jen Stewart, paving the way for her successor, Kash Patel. Stewart’s departure was always likely when Esper was gone.
It’s also not surprising to see Patel standing on the tallest rungs of the Pentagon, as he’s popped up almost everywhere in the Trump administration. As an advisor to Rep. Nunes, Patel was the lead author of a 2018 memo released by House Republicans indicating that federal law enforcement spied on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Trump replied that the report Patel wrote “totally confirmed” him.
Patel then worked in the office of the director of the National Intelligence Service as a top advisor to then-incumbent chief Richard Grenell before returning to the White House to lead the National Security Council’s counter-terrorism team. In that role, he traveled to Syria earlier this year and became the first high-ranking US official to meet with the Syrian government in a decade to negotiate the release of two American hostages.
Patel will now be responsible for managing the Secretary of Defense’s day-to-day business and advising him on important political issues. It’s an important job, sure, but it really is more about administration and management than anything else. Because of this, some experts say that Patel is unlikely to change too much in his new role.
“It could be a sign of administrative incompetence, as the chief of staff is not where I would put someone if I were really trying to disrupt harmful things through the Pentagon,” Golby of the University of Texas told me .
A third senior civil servant – Undersecretary of State for Defense and Security, Joseph Kernan – also announced his resignation on November 10th. The retired Vice Admiral of the Navy and SEAL had served in the Department of Defense since 2017. A Pentagon statement said his decision to resign was “planned for several months”.
In his place comes Ezra Cohen-Watnick, one of the most controversial figures of the Trump era.
In 2017, Cohen-Watnick, as the National Security Council’s chief intelligence officer, combed old intelligence wiretaps, apparently to support Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. He even passed some of them on to a friendly Republican in Congress: Nunes. After taking over as national security advisor in February 2017, HR McMaster attempted to fire Cohen-Watnick but was prevented from doing so after Trump intervened personally (reportedly at the request of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner).
People who know Cohen-Watnick say he is a staunch Trump loyalist who firmly believes that a “deep state” thwarts the president at every turn. “It is worrying that he has been appointed to his new position,” a former US intelligence official told me on condition of anonymity to speak freely. “He wasn’t supposed to be serving in government anywhere.”
“I have never met anyone as shady or inherently untrustworthy as Ezra,” added the official.
All three new candidates will join Christopher Miller, the newly appointed acting Secretary of Defense, at the Pentagon. The former Special Forces officer most recently headed the National Counterterrorism Center until he took over the helm of Esper on November 9th. Experts say he is politically linked to Trump but not a loyalist or a farmer, which may allay some fears that he will give in to a demand from the president in the next two months.
Why is Trump making these controversial personnel changes now? Nobody knows for sure, but it’s probably not as scary as some fear.
When the resignations and appointments were announced, some feared a sinister conspiracy was afoot – that Trump loyalists had “buried” themselves in the Department of Defense so they could not be removed when Biden took office, or that there was one There would be some kind of cover-up or even that Trump was setting the stage for a coup.
But experts I’ve spoken to doubt these statements, suggesting that after the election, Trump finally had a chance to clean the house at the Pentagon and that he is hiring people who are more amenable to his desires in order to finally achieve something Some of the measures the Esper-led Pentagon had pushed forward – like the withdrawal of all remaining US troops from Afghanistan before Christmas.
Trump promised in October that these troops would be home by the holiday. But while the White House pushed hard on the Pentagon to grant that request, Defense Department leaders resisted, saying instead that any withdrawal must be “conditional” – in other words, when violence in Afghanistan did not rise.
That sparked months of back and forth that ended with the White House being angry with the Pentagon. A White House official told me that O’Brien, the National Security Advisor, had a bad relationship with Esper and wanted him out. He recommended Trump that Miller take his place. Trump appears to have listened, and now the way is clear for the troop withdrawal requested by the president.
On Wednesday, Axios reported that Douglas Macgregor, a Fox News employee and a long-time campaigner to pull US troops out of the Middle East, has just joined the Pentagon as an advisor to Miller. This confirms the claim that the movements are primarily about an accelerated withdrawal of troops.
This statement was intended to dispel concerns that the real aim here is for these employees to “dig themselves into” the Pentagon, meaning that a Biden administration could not remove them from their posts. However, such fears are unfounded, according to Loren DeJonge Schulman, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security Think Tank in Washington, DC.
She told me that all of the Pentagon’s new civilian leaders are political candidates. Biden can then easily have them removed once he takes office in January. “Political candidates serve the president for pleasure,” Schulman said.
Taken together, vigilance and skepticism about the movements are completely fair and justified. But there is no evidence that anything nefarious is going on, at least not yet.
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