WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s new defense secretary signaled to the military in a late Friday message that he may be there to carry out one of the president’s early campaign promises, an overseas drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This is the critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to supporting role,” acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said in a memo obtained by McClatchy. “We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end.”
Trump in a tweet Monday had announced Miller as the replacement for fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
In the memo to the Defense Department workforce, Miller described at length the respect he has for the institution and the sacrifices made by thousands of men and women who have deployed to the Middle East since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He said, “ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”
It was the first indication of what direction the Pentagon may take in Trump’s final weeks in office, the uncertainty of which has raised concerns among career defense officials and the incoming Biden administration about what the changes mean — whether he is rewarding loyalists or trying to force through policies the department has resisted over the last four years.
Top Biden transition officials said that postelection upheaval at the Defense Department, Trump’s firing of Esper and the resignations of top defense policy and intelligence chiefs that followed, amount to a final push to politicize the military.
The firings and resignations come amid Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his electoral defeat and authorize the federal government to begin preparing for a transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden. The defense officials and Biden’s team said that gap could increase security risks for the country.
“In the 9-11 Commission report, one of the things they talked about was the impact of the delay of the transition period on our national security,” Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Biden transition team, told reporters on a call Friday.
“Of course it’s of concern to see the upheaval. It should be of concern to anybody because there shouldn’t be a politicization of the military,” said Psaki, who previously served in the Obama administration.
The firing and quick replacement of Esper had worried longtime defense civilian staffers, who wondered if there are major policy changes — such as a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan or new counterterrorism action in the Middle East or the Sahel, or even a potential use of military forces on U.S. soil to contest the election results — on the horizon before the president departs.
“I don’t know what the end game is,” said one current defense official who worked with policy staff members at the Office of the Secretary of Defense during Trump’s time in office. “For me that’s probably the most difficult thing to try and figure out. The instability and uncertainty complicates things.”
“They aren’t letting us talk about transition,” another current defense official said.
A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the changes.
“It’s helpful to decapitate the senior civilian leadership at the Pentagon in preparation of some aggressive use of the military to bolster the president’s claims that he has won this election,” said one former defense official who has stayed close to the Pentagon’s current uniformed senior leadership. “That is probably the most worrisome, most extreme reason they could be making these decisions,” the official said.
“Then the other extreme — which is also possible, in fact some people think it’s the most likely, which is that this is just about score settling,” the official said.
“Once you got rid of Esper the decks were cleared to get rid of these other people that didn’t pass the loyalty test, and replace them with people that could use the experience over the next 70 days to pad their resume.”
In the last four years, the Pentagon has pushed back on decisions that senior military leaders hoped they could counsel the president to amend, such as the creation of the Space Force, withdrawal from Afghanistan and Syria and the use of military force to quell protests.
Each pushback has come at a cost.
Now-retired Air Force Gen. David Goldfein’s public resistance to creating a Space Force, over cost and bureaucracy concerns, is widely believed to be one of the reasons Trump did not select him to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis irked Trump by convincing him not to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2017, and ultimately resigned over Trump’s announcement that U.S. forces in Syria would depart in late 2018.
Esper fell out of favor with Trump when he pushed back on the use of active duty forces to counter nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
“I don’t see what the legal order would be for the military to get involved in something that had to do with the elections,” said retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, who has assisted new administrations with Senate confirmations since the late 1990s.
Withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan or Germany, where the U.S. military has thousands of troops based, is much more likely to be the reason for the recent changes, Punaro said.
“There are certain things the president can do without the Congress. One is to deploy troops, two he can bring troops home,” Punaro said. “Troop levels in various locations is the most logical thing he could change with most recent changes in personnel.”
Punaro, like the former defense official, also said it was more likely some of these last-minute replacements were about rewarding staff that have remained in Trump’s favor.
“It really depends on the billet or the person,” Punaro said. “Allowing people a chance to have a significant position, for example they are bringing in some people in the chief management officer’s office, a new deputy chief management officer.”
“There’s some other people coming in,” Punaro said. “These aren’t related to bring(ing) the troops home from Afghanistan or (to) settle scores. These are really positions that have been vacant where they are giving people opportunities to serve perhaps only 70 days.”
After Esper was replaced by Miller, the following changes were also made at the Defense Department:
James Anderson, acting under secretary of defense for policy, was replaced by Anthony Tata, who Trump previously sought for the position. Tata, at that time, was unable to get Senate confirmation due to inflammatory remarks he has made about Muslims and former President Barack Obama. Tata will serve as “performing the duties of” the under secretary role, which will result in some limits to his authority.
Retired Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Kernan, under secretary of defense for intelligence and security, was replaced by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, an early administration hire by former national security adviser retired Air Force Gen. Michael Flynn, before Flynn was replaced by retired Army Gen. H.R. McMaster.
Esper’s chief of staff, Jen Stewart, was replaced with Kash Patel, who previously worked for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., on the Senate Intelligence Committee and assisted the Republican efforts on the committee to question the credibility of FBI agents investigating Russian election interference.
Story by Tara Copp and Michael Wilner
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