‘Devastating’: Top Pentagon leadership gutted as fears rise over national security

“Trio of resignations follow defense secretary’s firing.


The Pentagon | Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

The firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper kicked off a rapid-fire series of high-level departures at the Pentagon on Tuesday, setting off alarms on Capitol Hill that the White House was installing loyalists to carry out President Donald Trump’s wishes during an already tense transition.

In quick succession, top officials overseeing policy, intelligence and the defense secretary’s staff all had resigned by the end of the day Tuesday, replaced by political operatives who are fiercely loyal to Trump and have trafficked in “deep state” conspiracy theories.

Fears continue to swirl over what these newly installed leaders will do as Trump fights the results of last week’s election, and after he has shown he is willing to use troops to solve political problems.

Tuesday’s exodus led one top Democrat to accuse the administration of gutting the Pentagon in a way that could be “devastating” for national security.

“It is hard to overstate just how dangerous high-level turnover at the Department of Defense is during a period of presidential transition,” said House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith. “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.”

First came the resignation of James Anderson, the Pentagon’s acting policy chief, after repeatedly clashing with the White House over the installation of Trump allies in the department. That paved the way for retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata to take over policy on a temporary basis.

Tata, a Fox News regular before joining the administration this year, had been nominated by Trump for the top policy job. As one of the most senior officials in the Pentagon, the undersecretary of defense for policy is the principal adviser to the defense secretary on formulating the major national security and defense policy issues, from nuclear deterrence to missile defense to troop drawdowns worldwide.

But his nomination collapsed this summer after CNN unearthed tweets calling former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” and referring to Islam as “most oppressive violent religion I know of.”

Tata also derided House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on Twitter, and shared an article that promoted a conspiracy theory that Obama was a “Manchurian candidate.” Tata later said he regretted the now-deleted tweets.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) expressed shock that Tata would be in charge of policy.

“Trump’s Defense Department purge is deeply dangerous to our national security—first firing SecDef Esper by tweet & now promoting a known racist Islamophobe,” the Senate Armed Services Committee member tweeted.

Anderson, during his time as policy chief, pushed back on several Trump loyalists the White House tried to install at DoD, including Frank Wuco and Rich Higgins, said a defense official who requested anonymity in order to discuss sensitive personnel issues. The White House tried and failed to install Wuco, a controversial former talk radio host who once called Obama “a Kenyan,” as a deputy overseeing special operations, and Higgins, a former National Security Council staffer who pushed conspiracy theories on Twitter, as chief of staff for Tata.

Later on Tuesday, Jen Stewart, the chief of staff to newly installed acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, also resigned and was replaced by Kash Patel.

Patel, a Devin Nunes acolyte who played a key role as a Hill staffer in helping Republicans discredit the Russia probe, has had a number of roles in the Trump administration.

He joined the National Security Council’s International Organizations and Alliances directorate in February 2019 and was promoted to a senior counterterrorism role at the NSC in mid-summer. He was then installed as a top adviser in the Office of National Intelligence under former acting DNI Richard Grenell, and most recently served at the White House as a deputy assistant to Trump and as the top White House counterterrorism official.

Finally, Joseph Kernan, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, submitted his letter. The retired Navy vice admiral had served at the Pentagon since 2017 whose resignation had been “planned for months,” Miller said in a statement.

His temporary replacement, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, was a close ally of former national security adviser Michael Flynn who also caused waves when he worked on the National Security Council, especially with his views regarding the CIA.

POLITICO in 2017 reported that Trump stepped in to save Cohen-Watnick’s job after then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster tried to have him fired.

Cohen-Watnick and Flynn “saw eye to eye about the failings of the CIA human intelligence operations,” a Washington consultant told POLITICO at the time. “The CIA saw him as a threat, so they tried to unseat him and replace him with an agency loyalist,” the operative said.

All told, the moves are stoking concerns that those who would serve as guardrails against rash Trump decisions have left the building, even though Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley has said repeatedly that politics holds no place in the military. Milley, for his part, has been able to push back on Trump’s threats to deploy active troops to deal with unrest, and demands from the White House to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, all while keeping his job.

Still, Smith said the new moves match an overall pattern of Trump’s allies sowing “chaos and division” since the election was called for Joe Biden.

“This confirms what I have been saying for months: The President’s singular obsession with loyalty has severely undermined the competence of our government and made us less safe,” he said. “It is an insult to the American people to hamstring government, particularly during a period of presidential transition.”

Natasha Bertrand and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.


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