A retired brigadier general who called former President Barack Obama a terrorist. A former staffer to Republican Rep. Devin Nunes who wrote a memo accusing federal investigators of harboring anti-Trump bias. And a close ally of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn whom a former intelligence official described to me as “shady” and “inherently untrustworthy.”
Those are the three men replacing top civilian officials at the Pentagon this week, a swift set of personnel changes that has critics fearing the president’s plans for the military and has White House allies cheering that he’s finally routed the “deep state.”
After President Donald Trump fired Mark Esper as defense secretary on November 9, it seemed likely that further changes to the Pentagon’s senior civilian leadership would follow. After all, Trump had long empowered John McEntee, his 30-year-old former personal aide whom he tapped to run the Presidential Personnel Office in February, to identify any federal officials suspected of working against the White House’s agenda and replace them with administration loyalists.
The Defense Department was always a top target due to its many clashes with the president and other top White House officials like National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, administration sources told me, namely over troop withdrawals and the use of active-duty military to quell anti-racism and anti-police-brutality protests.
“My sense is that this firing has been in the works for months, but the election gave Trump the opportunity to act,” said Jim Golby, a retired Army officer now teaching at the University of Texas at Austin.
And act Trump did.
The first to fall was James Anderson, the acting director of policy planning, who submitted his resignation on Tuesday (it’s unclear if he was asked to do so). Anderson tangled with the White House often over the appointment of Trump loyalists to the Pentagon, which is why many suspect he was forced out of his position.
And that position was an important one. The policy planning director is widely viewed as the third-highest civilian post at the Defense Department. Whoever’s in the job must advise the secretary on top-level policy issues ranging from deterring China and Russia to determining the kinds of ships, planes, and weapons the military requires.
Which is why it’s troubling to learn Anthony Tata will assume the role. Trump had previously nominated him for the Senate-confirmed position, but his appointment fell through this summer after CNN revealed Tata had called Obama a “terrorist leader” and Islam the “most oppressive violent religion I know of” on Twitter. Both Republicans and Democrats subsequently backed away from confirming the retired Army one-star general, even after Tata apologized for his previous comments.
The White House instead placed Tata in a nonconfirmable role at the Pentagon that effectively made him Anderson’s No. 2. Now with Anderson gone, Tata has the job not even Republican Senators wanted him in.
The same day Anderson submitted his letter of resignation, so, too, did Esper’s chief of staff, Jen Stewart, paving the way for her replacement, Kash Patel. Stewart’s departure was always likely with Esper gone.
It’s also not surprising to see Patel placed at the highest rungs of the Pentagon, as he’s popped up almost everywhere in the Trump administration. As an aide to Rep. Nunes, Patel was the lead author on a 2018 memo released by House Republicans suggesting federal law enforcement spied on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Trump responded that the Patel-drafted report left him “totally vindicated.”
After that, Patel worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as a top adviser to then acting chief Richard Grenell before moving back to the White House to lead the National Security Council’s counterterrorism team. It was in that role that he traveled to Syria earlier this year, becoming the first top US official to meet with the Syrian government in a decade, to negotiate the release of two American hostages.
Now, Patel will be in charge of managing the defense secretary’s day-to-day business while advising him on key policy issues. It’s an important job, for sure, but it’s really more about administration and management than anything else. That’s why some experts say having Patel in his new role likely won’t change too much.
“It could be a sign of administration incompetence because chief of staff is not the place I would put someone if I were really trying to jam harmful things through the Pentagon,” the University of Texas’s Golby told me.
A third senior civilian official — Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security Joseph Kernan — also tendered his resignation on November 10. The retired Navy vice admiral and SEAL had served at the Defense Department since 2017; a Pentagon statement said his decision to step down was “planned for several months.”
In his place steps Ezra Cohen-Watnick, one of the most controversial figures of the Trump era.
In 2017, as the top National Security Council official for intelligence, Cohen-Watnick combed through old intelligence intercepts, seemingly in an attempt to back Trump’s baseless claim that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. He even leaked some of them to a friendly Republican in Congress: Nunes. After H.R. McMaster took over as national security adviser in February 2017, he tried to fire Cohen-Watnick but was blocked from doing so after Trump personally intervened (reportedly at Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner’s prompting).
People who know Cohen-Watnick say he’s a staunch Trump loyalist who remains steadfast in his belief of a “deep state” thwarting the president at every turn. “It’s disturbing that he’s been appointed his new position,” a former US intelligence official told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. “He shouldn’t be serving anywhere in government.”
“I’ve never encountered anyone as shady or inherently untrustworthy as Ezra,” the official added.
All three new appointees will join Christopher Miller, the newly named acting defense secretary, at the Pentagon. The former Special Forces officer most recently ran the National Counterterrorism Center until he took over for Esper on November 9. Experts say he’s aligned politically with Trump but isn’t a loyalist or pawn, perhaps calming some fears that he’ll cave to any demand from the president over the next two months.
When the resignations and appointments were announced, some worried that a sinister plot was afoot — that Trump loyalists were “burrowing” into the Defense Department so they couldn’t be removed when Biden takes office, or that there was some sort of coverup going on, or even that Trump was setting the stage for a coup.
But experts I spoke to doubt those explanations, and suspect what’s really going on is that Trump finally had an opening to clean house at the Pentagon with the election now over, and that he’s putting in people more amenable to his wishes in order to finally accomplish some of the policies the Esper-led Pentagon had pushed back on — such as withdrawing all remaining US troops from Afghanistan before Christmas.
Trump promised in October that those troops would be home by the holiday. But while the White House pushed hard on the Pentagon to fulfill that wish, Defense Department leaders resisted, saying instead any withdrawal needed to be “conditions-based” — in other words, when violence in Afghanistan wasn’t spiking.
That set off a months-long back and forth that ended with the White House angry at the Pentagon. A White House official told me O’Brien, the national security adviser, had a bad relationship with Esper and wanted him out, recommending to Trump that Miller take his place. Trump seems to have listened, and now the pathway is open for the troop withdrawal the president wants.
On Wednesday, Axios reported that Douglas Macgregor, a Fox News contributor and veteran who has long advocated for pulling US troops out of the Middle East, just joined the Pentagon as an adviser to Miller. That bolsters the claim that the moves are really about an expedited troop withdrawal more than anything else.
That explanation should assuage concerns that the real goal here is for these staffers to “burrow” themselves at the Pentagon, meaning a Biden administration couldn’t remove them from their posts. But such fears are unfounded, according to Loren DeJonge Schulman, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, DC.
She told me that all the new Pentagon civilian leaders are political appointees. Biden, then, can easily have them removed once he enters office in January. “Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the president,” Schulman said.
Put together, vigilance and skepticism of the moves are completely fair and warranted. But there’s no evidence that something nefarious is afoot, at least not yet.