President Trump picked the day before Veterans Day to decimate the Pentagon’s civilian leadership and install three men whose chief qualification for their new high-powered jobs is loyalty to a man whose days in the Oval Office are numbered.
All of which raises the question — why? And will the “why” turn out to have a serious and lasting impact on national security during a transition already fraught with difficulty?
The Monday firing — by tweet — of Defense Secretary Mike Esper, which preceded the rest of the Pentagon bloodletting, could have been a simple act of revenge. It had been anticipated since June, when Esper went public about his regret at appearing in the Lafayette Square photo-op with Trump.
Trump had also clashed with Esper over invoking the Insurrection Act to allow active-duty military to be used to quell demonstrations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May. And in a White House where bad ideas never die, there’s no telling if this irrational president still thinks that putting troops in the streets is a viable idea that could be enabled by Esper’s replacement.
It’s not simply the upending of the rest of the Pentagon hierarchy — the jettisoning of experienced and knowledgeable hands — that is distressing. It’s the bizarre cast of characters installed in those top jobs.
Trump named Anthony Tata as undersecretary for policy. His earlier nomination for the same post this summer was withdrawn after social media posts were disclosed, some of them Islamophobic and others promoting various conspiracy theories.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, 34, now acting intelligence undersecretary, first joined the Trump administration during the brief tenure of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. He replaces the now-ousted Joseph Kernan, a retired three-star admiral and former Navy SEAL officer.
Christopher Miller, who was only months ago merely deputy assistant secretary of defense, replaced Esper. Miller’s chief of staff is now Kash Patel, a former aide to Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. Patel is believed to be largely responsible for the so-called Nunes memo, which grossly mischaracterized the warrant obtained by the FBI on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
On Wednesday Miller named Douglas Macgregor as a senior adviser. Macgregor’s nomination to be ambassador to Germany was withdrawn after his derogatory comments about Muslims and Mexicans surfaced.
But Macgregor has long been a vocal proponent of an immediate withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan. And that raises the specter of a far more dangerous game that could be afoot in these last weeks at the Defense Department under its new leadership.
Will Trump attempt to make one last grand gesture and withdraw nearly all of the 5,000 troops still on the ground in Afghanistan by Christmas, as he promised last month? He has also talked about bringing troops back from Germany, Syria, and Somalia.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with backup from Esper, had been adept at parrying Trump’s repeated efforts to precipitously withdraw troops. But what happens now that Esper is gone and the upper echelon of the Pentagon is a wholly owned subsidiary of Team Trump?
“If this is the beginning of a trend — the president either firing or forcing out national security professionals in order to replace them with people perceived as more loyal to him — then the next 70 days will be precarious at best and downright dangerous at worst,” said US Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement issued by his office.
Lawmakers of both parties now have to do more to protect US security interests. The still-pending National Defense Authorization Act includes bipartisan provisions aimed at halting any precipitous troop withdrawals, at least from Germany and Afghanistan. The bill, of course, has drawn a veto threat from Trump. But it is more critical now than ever.
This lame-duck Congress bears a larger than usual responsibility for shielding this nation from the worst instincts of this dysfunctional president and supporting a military that, as Milley said this week, is “unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant, or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual.”
This nation’s military is sworn only to defend the Constitution — an idea Donald Trump never seemed to grasp. Now, having lost the election and the respect of his troops and generals, he has nothing left to lose. The world is watching to see if other American leaders will rein him in.
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